Digital format making debut on 40 stations Few have equipment to view crystal-clear television broadcasts

Sets could cost $5,000

Baltimore channels must transmit by November 1999


November 01, 1998|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

More than 40 television broadcasters might feel a bit like a mighty oak crashing down in an empty forest today.

The broadcasters, mostly in the nation's 10 largest markets, will start transmitting programs in digital formats today. The change marks the introduction of stunningly clear pictures and the beginning of multi-industry battles for billions of consumer dollars.

But almost no one will notice.

Crystal-clear digital broadcasts, starting with ABC's broadcast tonight of the 1996 remake of "101 Dalmatians," require high-definition television sets, costing $5,000 or more, that few people own. Virtually all the movie's viewers will watch on sets that receive analog broadcasts.

"It's ironic we're seeing digital television greeted with such a yawn," said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda research company specializing in interactive media.

With or without notice, the transfer from analog to digital broadcasting could mean the biggest changes for television since the introduction of color. Fortunes are at stake for broadcasters, cable companies and consumer electronics manufacturers in the transition.

"There's a lot of ways that viewers -- especially high-value viewers -- are using media," Arlen said. "So there's a lot more competition for where those eyeballs go."

Baltimore will start making the change in one year, along with other second-tier markets.

Where it will all go is an open question.

Electronics manufacturers want to sell high-definition television sets, the premium version of digital television. The sets start at about $5,500. Broadcasters, reluctant to invest in unproven high-definition television programming, might slice their new digital airwaves into multiple channels of lesser quality. Cable companies, which have spent billions on their digital plans, don't want to give up space on their dials to relay the broadcasters' digital programming.

"There are lots of legal, economic and technological thorny spots," said Cynthia Brumfield, a senior analyst with Paul Kagan Associates, a media consulting firm.

Congress authorized the shift to digital programming in 1996 after heavy lobbying by broadcasters and television makers. To promote the conversion, the Federal Communications Commission granted each broadcaster an additional six-megahertz channel so that stations could introduce digital transmission while continuing analog broadcasts.

Federal law requires stations in the top 10 markets to begin high-definition broadcasts by May, those in the next 11 to 30 markets -- including Baltimore -- by November 1999 and the rest by 2003.

Stations are supposed to surrender the analog channels by 2006, a deadline that could be pushed back if fewer than 85 percent of television households are capable of getting digital programming.

The digital spectrum allows the transmission of a single HDTV channel with very sharp images and compact disc-quality sound. Alternatively, compression of digital signals allows broadcasters to fit about five less powerful channels into the same bandwidth. That is known as multicasting.

Regardless of what happens, viewers will ultimately need digital receivers or converter boxes to watch television. Without converters, most of today's sets will be virtually worthless.

To mark the introduction of digital television, CBS plans an HDTV broadcast this month of a National Football League game between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets. NBC plans HDTV broadcasts next year of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and the movie "Men in Black."

Plans in Baltimore

Baltimore stations are preparing for their conversion next year by building new antennas. Rick Seaby, director of broadcast operations for WJZ and the head of a joint engineering group for Channels 2, 11 and 13, said the three stations are modifying a tower they share on TV Hill.

"Just the transmitter conversion for WJZ is probably $3 million," Seaby said. "Plus, there are modifications that have to be made to the tower, which probably cost between $500,000 and $750,000."

"That's just phase one," he said. "All that's going to allow us to do is pass through the networks' high-definition TV signals."

Broadcasting local television programs, such as news shows, in high definition would be far more costly. "You have to retool the entire plant," Seaby said, replacing cameras, tape machines and editing equipment. "You're looking at $11 million."

Baltimore stations are looking at a range of options. WBFF-Fox 45, which is run by Sinclair Broadcast Group in Baltimore, is not planning local HDTV broadcasting. WBAL Channel 11 and WMAR Channel 2 plan to pursue local HDTV. WMAR will keep an eye on how a fellow Scripps Howard station in Detroit fares with local HDTV plans. "That's the direction we're leaning in," said Steve Gigliotti, WMAR's general manager.

Television manufacturers argue that such broadcasts would be worth the effort.

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