The race to perfect a new, high-definition television system, all but ceded to the Japanese and Europeans, is wide open again. Guess who broke into the front ranks? Americans. The people conventional wisdom keeps consigning to the back bench in the technology wars to define economic competitiveness for the 21st century.
Japanese industrialists, confident of their consumer electronics dominance, rushed to develop high-definition television, or HDTV. Their version, now in early market tests, uses receivers costing as much as automobiles, but that's likely to change quickly -- as soon as TV producers begin taking advantage of HDTV's vastly improved picture quality. Sales would follow.
The Europeans, whose government-controlled systems permit ready adoption of any new standard, reacted both to the opportunity in Americans' apparent lack of interest and to the danger of letting the Japanese dictate standards with their own, proprietary HDTV. Both groups are closer to mass implementation than the American efforts.
Then the Federal Communications Commission stepped in. Invalidating today's color system would wipe out consumers' multi-billion-dollar investment in receivers. A system using new chunks of the radio spectrum was out, too, because other competing interests covet that spectrum. So the FCC in 1988 required any new system to fit into a conventional TV channel and be available for local broadcasting.
But the Europeans and Japanese developed HDTV that worked only through satellites. The Americans pursued an intriguing idea: what if HDTV's vastly sharper picture could be compressed and transmitted digitally?
Observers scoffed, but General Instrument Corp. announced in June that it could broadcast HDTV pictures in the ones and zeros of computer data. Then Zenith Corp., the sole large U.S. TV maker, said it could, too, and joined with giant AT&T to develop an all-new system that would transmit on unused TV channels, interference-free. A consortium of NBC, Dutch-based Phillips, French-based Thomson S.A. and the David Sarnoff Center is preparing its own digital bid. Suddenly it's a horse-race again.
The early promise of HDTV can only be fulfilled by workable, affordable systems that reach affordable, reliable receivers. Foreign firms are sure to copy the breakthroughs and to compete to sell finished these systems. But it is nice to see the field leveled through good, old Yankee competitiveness. Tune in for the next update.