Switch to high-definition television comes with a big price tag attached

The Outlook

March 16, 1997|By Greg Schneider

GET THOSE wallets open, because high-definition television (HDTV) is on the way. And sooner than you might think.

With its promise of super-clear pictures, CD-quality audio and computer-like capabilities, HDTV will deliver the precision of digital technology. The catch: It comes with a huge price tag for both consumers and broadcasters.

The broadcast industry has been preparing to convert to digital HDTV on about a 15-year time line. Soon all stations will be required to stage two broadcasts -- one for traditional, or analog, TV and another for HDTV. Then, in a few years, the analog spectrum will shut down and everything will go digital.

That means consumers will have to buy new TV sets -- at a currently estimated cost of about $2,000 each -- or possibly some kind of converter.

But the Clinton administration and the Federal Communications

Commission have recently voiced a desire to speed the process -- completing the conversion in eight years rather than 15. One possible reason: to hurry and collect billions of dollars in fees for the new broadcast spectrum to help balance the federal budget.

If HDTV is really hurtling toward us with increasing speed, what's in store for consumers?

Marcellus Alexander

General manager, WJZ-TV Channel 13

As a station, our plans have been carefully timed to tie into the FCC's timetables. Those tables, however, continue to change. At some point, there will be a mandated end to the production of television sets as we know them today.

It could put a financial burden on the stations, the network and consumers based on how quickly they decide to speed up the time line.

The total conversion of a typical television station could cost anywhere from $5 million to $6 million. If there is a long time line, then there are steps that can be put into place that don't require the cash layout all at once. That is a significant amount of money for a lot of markets that are not Top 25 or 30 sized markets.

We estimate that about 20 percent of the television stations across the country will go dark because they can't afford to make the conversion. And this is expected to be a mandated conversion, so you can't choose to continue to be the 8-track player. You have to convert to CD, to use that analogy.

Peter Krasilovsky

Senior analyst, Arlen Communications Inc., a telecommunications consulting firm, Bethesda

HDTV has evolved from being a service that simply provided superior resolution of pictures to incorporating a whole host of digital features. It basically is the technical platform now for broadcasters to make television the next ATM machine, computer and entertainment vehicle all combined, and so that's really been a significant sea change from when it was first conceived as an analog service.

The initial timetable was largely created to accommodate competition from the Japanese, who were pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into analog HDTV technology, which has proven to be a failure. Now we'll see consumers being sold digital television sets that will enable a wider range of services, and they will most likely be asked to pay premium fees for them.

There's always a fear that technology gets leapfrogged by developments. Given the high cost projected for these sets, one wonders whether the government should be encouraging people go out and spend a few thousand on something that might be made obsolete a few years down the road. I kind of wonder whether the right role for government should be to kind of sit back and let the market take its course. How long does it take for great innovation to get spread out among the population in a meaningful way? Is the government sort of front-loading this very deliberate process? I think it may be in danger of doing so.

John Hightower

Catonsville store manager, Bryn Mawr Stereo

Conversion to HDTV has been talked about for years. The reality of it has always been an issue. Congress passed several years ago the right to do it, but nobody ever had the technology, I guess, to make it happen.

Customers will have to purchase just about everything new -- a new TV -- to get the signal.

For a standard TV to receive it you would have to buy some sort of decoder or extra tuner to hook it into the television. But it would look like the "letter box" format you see on some movies you rent. Most consumers feel like they're seeing less of the image in that format, even though they're really seeing more. But the image looks smaller. A 50-inch projection TV would be a wiser purchase now than a smaller set if this is going to happen in the next couple of years, so at least the picture would look bigger. But I personally don't think it's going to happen any time soon, just because of the cost, the expense.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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