The promise of crystal-clear images and sound hasn't helped the technology catch on with broadcasters and consumers


Stay tuned: The switch to digital television may be a rocky one.

One year alter the first U.S. television stations were required to begin beaming a digital signal, the future of the medium looks fuzzy. Digital sets remain pricey, programming is scarce, and surveys show consumers are baffled by digital television's avalanche of techie terminology.

Meanwhile, the industries that have the biggest financial stake in digital television - broadcasters, cable companies and electronics manufacturers - aren't helping matters.

At the annual National Association of Broadcasters meeting last month in Las Vegas, many stakeholders were still niggling over fundamentals - everything from the wording on labels for cable-ready digital sets to whether the technology now being used to broadcast digital programming should be scrapped for something new.

Even the definition of the term "high definition," used to refer to the highest-quality digital television signal, differs among manufacturers.

"Things are a little messy right now," concedes Dave Arland, spokesman for Thomson Multimedia, which makes digital televisions under the RCA brand.

That's too bad, because the one thing nearly everyone agrees on is that the promise of digital television is enormous.

High-definition televisions can deliver dazzling, widescreen images six times more crisp than today's analog sets, with CD-quality audio. Plus, because digital signals can carry data as well as pictures, some start-ups are experimenting with ways to bring couch potatoes interactive digital services, such as Internet access.

Although prices for digital sets have dropped in recent months, most still cause sticker shock: the cheapest "HDTV-ready" set sells for more than $2,500. And that doesn't include the set-top box needed to unscramble the digital signal, which tacks on another $700.

As a result, only 143,000 digital sets were sold last year in the United States, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. That's compared with more than 20 million analog sets.

Television stations are doing a bit better in adopting the technology - some have even gone digital ahead of the government's timetable. So far, 120 of the nation's 1,600 television stations have digital channels, including four stations in Baltimore: WBAL, WMAR, WJZ and WBFF.

But media analyst Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications Inc. says the national numbers can be misleading. "Some stations are just sending out test patterns, but not any shows," he says.

In any case, the best guess is that only a few hundred of the 900,000 TV viewers in the Baltimore area are watching digital broadcasts. "Right now it's very much like the early days of color television," says Brian Hudson, owner of Gramophone LTD, a home theater store in Timonium.

By 2002, the Federal Communications Commission will require all of the country's television stations to broadcastdigitally. By 2006, the FCC plans to take the 60-year-old analog TV signal off the air for good.

"This transition to digital TV is inevitable," FCC Chairman William E. Kennard told bickering broadcasters at last month's meeting. "Analog is over."

That's the plan, at least. But few in the broadcast industry believe the FCC will go through with the plan if digital television doesn't reach the majority of American homes by the deadline, and risk angering Americans by turning their perfectly good sets into remote-controlled coffee tables.

"There isn't a piece of technology out there that hasn't taken 15 years or more to go mainstream," says Hank Volpe, engineering director at WBAL-TV. "The 2006 deadline is going to come and go and you'll still have analog."

The transition to digital hasn't been easy for anyone - especially broadcasters. WBAL, which in December became the first local station to broadcast digital signals, has spent more than $3 million to upgrade its antenna and install an elaborate water-cooled digital transmitter. And Volpe says the station will spend another $8 million to outfit studios with digital cameras, monitors and other broadcast equipment.

"In reality, it's like starting up a new television station," says Bill Fine, WBAL-TV's president and general manager.

For now, broadcasters are unsure how they'll make back this investment. Someday they're hoping to charge a premium for advertisers who buy time on their high-definition channels. Except for a few pioneers such as Procter & Gamble, which have produced a few spots for Crisco, most advertisers are ignoring the medium.

For that reason, most local stations are holding off on locally produced high-definition broadcasts, although there are exceptions.

CBS affiliate WRAL in Raleigh, N.C., for example, has produced two dazzling high-definition documentaries on the dramatic move of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. Seattle's KOMO, meanwhile, is beaming its nightly 5 o'clock news program in high definition.

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