High-definition television is being inaugurated today with the launch of Sen. John Glenn into orbit again after 36 years, but few consumers will get a chance to see the new technology.
In fact, most viewers of Mr. Glenn's launch broadcast in HDTV will be perched inside electronics stores - similar to when television was introduced in the late 1940s.
Television stations in many major U.S. cities, including Washington, will start rolling out HDTV broadcasting over the next few weeks. The technology - the first major change in television broadcasting since the switch to color - is expected to reach most of the United States within three years.
Experts predict the major shift in the nation's television infrastructure will take years, since broadcasters, cable companies and consumers must buy new equipment.
"This is a radical transition in home entertainment technology," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association. "This is not going to happen overnight."
But retailers are finding that shoppers are willing to pay $5,000 and more for HDTV sets to watch a higher-quality picture from today's standard analog signal.
Allan Farwell plunked down $5,400 in August for one of the nation's first HDTV sets to put in his San Diego sports bar, although broadcasters there will not start airing HDTV programming for another 12 months.
"Right now, it's a great TV," said Mr. Farwell, general manager of the Hyatt Regency in La Jolla, Calif. "It will be a unique TV when we get high-definition reception."
HDTV sets are big-screen models - about 55 inches - and run about $1,000 more than analog sets of similar size. Dow Stereo/Video, which operates a chain throughout San Diego, has sold "dozens and dozens" of HDTV sets, said Tom Campbell, corporate director for Dow Stereo/Video.
"People are buying based on what they can see and enjoy today," said Mr. Campbell, whose store sold the first HDTV set in August. "If you were selling on the future, forget it."
Myer Emco, one of the first retailers in the Washington area to carry HDTV sets, already has sold 10 or 15 televisions, including a 50-inch Pioneer flat-screen one for $22,000. The company's stores in Rockville and Tysons Corner will show Mr. Glenn's space shuttle flight on HDTV.
Shoppers in the market for a big-screen television are taking a serious look at HDTV sets, said Gary Yacoubian, vice president at Myer Emco.
"It gets regular TV and you upgrade it later," he said. "You feel confident that it's something that's …