HDTV Standoff Clouds Broadcasting Picture

Article excerpt

With the introduction of digital television only about a year away, leaders of the three major television networks are caught in a standoff with television manufacturers.

The network executives say they cannot move forward with plans for the new service until television manufacturers commit themselves to producing enough affordable sets to receive the programming.

"We all need to work together on this, or there's going to be a train wreck," said Preston Padden, the president of ABC.

And at NBC, the president, Robert Wright, complained, "Manufacturers have not locked in well-communicated marketing plans; I don't know what they are doing at Sony, Thomson, Panasonic."

But equipment manufacturers are voicing their own complaints. They say they are hamstrung because the networks have been too slow to declare their own intentions.

"We are very focused on the digital transition; it's the only way we are going to survive," said James Meyer, executive vice president of Thomson Consumer Electronics, the United States' largest television manufacturer. "But if the broadcasters don't choose to offer products that take advantage of this, then that's another thing."

As Jack Bergen, a senior executive at CBS, ruefully observed: "The networks are waiting to see what the TV makers are going to do, and the TV makers are waiting to see what the networks are going to do."

The broadcasters and manufacturers have much at stake, as does the viewing public.

Using digital technology, the networks hope to "reinvent themselves," as Padden has put it, and stop the steady decline in viewership that is afflicting the networks.

Consumer electronics companies, meanwhile, have seen lackluster profits recently and consider high-definition television sets to be the most important new product in decades.

But the manufacturers say they want assurance that the networks will actually broadcast high-definition programming -- rather than use digital compression to squeeze more channels of conventional programming into their space on the airwaves.

Under government order, network-affiliated stations in the 10 largest cities must begin digital broadcasts next fall, and the other stations are to follow over the next few years. But stations are free to offer a single digital, high-definition signal on their new, digital channels -- or several lower-definition programs in the same space.

At ABC, a unit of Walt Disney Co., Padden gave a speech two weeks ago suggesting that ABC would forgo high-definition broadcasts and offer several channels of pay-TV shows instead. In an interview this week he said "a prime reason we decided to step out and say this publicly" was to reduce the uncertainty among manufacturers.

But Padden's speech appears instead to have caused further confusion. ABC has still made no formal decisions, Padden asserted again this week, leaving manufacturers unsure of the network's real intentions. But if ABC is even considering abandoning HDTV, television manufacturers now say they worry that the other networks might eventually choose the same course.

Joseph Flaherty, a senior vice president at CBS, said he believed the two industries should convene a formal meeting.

"If everybody waits for the other guy in this chicken-and-egg thing, then I wouldn't be surprised to see broadcasters just digitize their current signals and send them out," he said. "And that won't help the manufacturers sell even one receiver. …