FCC action clears way for digital television Panel endorses video format

new TVs likely to hit market by 1998

December 27, 1996|By BLOOMBERG BUSINESS NEWS

WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators announced their official endorsement yesterday of a technology standard for digital TV broadcasts, clearing the way for the next generation of TV sets to begin as early as 1998.

The Federal Communications Commission said the standard, approved late Tuesday but not announced until yesterday, "will serve the public interest and bring benefits to American consumers."

Television broadcasters and computer industry representatives, finessing a fight over which type of video format to use, agreed to the standard late last month after weeks of tough negotiations.

The HDTV Grand Alliance, representing television equipment manufacturers, called FCC endorsement of the standard "a great victory, not only for our consortium but, more important, for America's 100 million TV households."

The National Association of Broadcasters also applauded the FCC's action, urging the agency to move quickly to assign stations secondary channels for HDTV -- high-definition television broadcasts.

"Before stations can begin their conversion process [to HDTV], they need a clear and unambiguous green light from the FCC," NAB President and Chief Executive Officer Eddie Fritts said, adding that upgrading to HDTV will cost each station several million dollars.

Formal approval of the standards means that digital TV sets -- with crisp, precision images and expected big-ticket prices $1,000 to $1,500 higher than today's sets -- should be available to consumers by 1998, broadcasters and TV-makers say.

General Instruments Corp. vice president Robert M. Fast predicted Canada, Mexico and countries in South America and Asia will follow the FCC's lead and adopt the U.S. standard, "and that should be good for American exports and jobs."

Zenith Electronics Corp. plans to introduce digital TVs in 1998, said Peter S. Willmott, the company's president. "FCC adoption of the standard gives us the certainty we need to complete our HDTV product plans," he said.

With the standards firmly in place, television stations in the bigger media markets will begin investing in HDTV transmitters, and manufacturers can move forward with plans to produce equipment in large quantities, said Bob Weirather, television products director for Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Florida, which makes television transmitting equipment.

"The large markets and groups that have the most influence in the industry will now move and begin to exercise their options to buy transmitter equipment," he said. "We're ready to begin volume manufacturing as soon as our customers need the equipment."

Harris Corp. has contracts to supply transmitters to Walt Disney Company's Capital Cities/ABC, Tribune Broadcasting, Cox Broadcasting and a number of public broadcasting stations.

Weirather said his company surveyed the managers of 480 television stations and found that roughly half expect to spend between $1 million and $4 million within five years to equip their stations with HDTV transmitters. He added that his company expects to capture 20 percent of the $60 billion stations will spend on HDTV technology over the next 10 years.

While the standard sets rules for how signals should be delivered, it doesn't dictate what kind of video format should be used -- the interlace mechanism, favored by broadcasters who VTC use it today, or progressive scan, preferred by the computer industry, which uses it in PCs.

Both sides say that omission leaves broadcasters and computer companies free to transmit interlace or progressive signals -- and the consumer free to choose which type to buy.

Current TV sets can accept both kinds of signals. Personal computers are designed to accept progressive transmissions only, though they can be retrofitted to accept both. Broadcasters and TV-makers say that the progressive format is likely to dominate all receivers in the future. For now, though, the broadcasters' system will require them to make fewer technical changes.

For months, computer companies such as Intel and Microsoft Corp. were at odds with broadcasters such as Disney's ABC, Westinghouse's CBS, and equipment makers including Philips and Thomson CSF's consumer electronics division over a technology standard the broadcasters and TV-makers had developed for the new broadcasts.

Intel and other computer and high-tech companies argued that the broadcasters' so-called Grand Alliance standard -- which was developed over the last nine years and had been proposed by the FCC -- left them out, and would slow the convergence of TVs and PCs. Broadcasters, until late last month, showed little willingness to budge, arguing that their standard was flexible enough to suit the computer industry's needs.

One group was left out of the agreement, however. Movie makers fought the Grand Alliance plan, arguing that it mandated a picture size incompatible with motion pictures. The Director's Guild and the American Society of Cinematographers have said they'll try to fight the standard in Congress next year.

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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