BEFORE the end of the century, televisions may talk in 1s and 0s just like computers.
Televisions are going digital, and the resulting high-definition sets will feature pictures with sharper details, more vivid colors and better sound than today's analog models. Sets will look like miniature movie screens, rectangular instead of today's square boxes.
With the blessing of government regulators, a consortium of leading TV researchers and manufacturers has nearly completed developing a digital HDTV standard, ending a process that began more than five years ago.
The group believes HDTV sets and programming could appear as early as 1996.
"We're still shooting for the 1996 Olympics as the first commercial broadcasts," said Julius Szakolczay, advanced-technology vice president at Mitsubishi Electronics America and the TV maker's HDTV point man.
Skeptics, however, say the technology will take much longer to filter into U.S. living rooms. Disputes over hardware and transmission standards have already delayed HDTV delivery in the United States several years. Now the main obstacle appears to be money.
Consumers will have to spend an extra $1,000 to $2,000 for an HDTV set, industry experts said. Producers will need to redo their entire operations because HDTV picks up details current broadcasts leave out, said Carl Lehmann, an analyst with BIS Strategic Decisions, a high-tech market research firm.
"HDTV uncovers all kinds of flaws," he said, "which means makeup has to change, and lighting and set design. The cost associated with a production is totally different."
Money isn't the only potential stumbling block. Federal regulators gave broadcasters extra spectrum to transmit HDTV signals, which take up more space than today's TV signals. …