The Future of High Def TV Remains Blurry; FCC Mandate Says U.S. Stations Must Complete Conversion from Their Old Analog Signals to Digital Television by the End of 2006. but So Far, Neither Broadcasters or Consumers Are Ready to Embrace It

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark Basch, The Times-Union

If a TV station broadcasts high definition programming in the forest and there's no one there to watch it, does it still make a sound? Or a picture?

That's the dilemma facing the television industry these days. Everybody says that high definition television, or HDTV, is coming and that it will revolutionize the industry. But both consumers and television stations are reluctant to embrace it.

"It's the chicken and the egg problem," said Jeffrey Hart, an Indiana University professor and author of a new book called Technology, Television and Competition: The Politics of Digital TV. Consumers don't want to spend big bucks on HDTV equipment while there is still relatively little HDTV programming to watch. But broadcasters don't want to invest a lot of money in HDTV programming until more consumers have the equipment to watch it.

The Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group representing technology companies, estimates that only 9 percent of U.S. households have high definition sets. That means there aren't any profits right now for stations that commit to high definition broadcasts.

"Right now there's not a critical mass out there," said Ken Tonning, general manager of two Jacksonville stations owned by Gannett Co. Inc., WTLV TV-12 and WJXX TV-25.

Even if the stations could make money, it could be risky to invest in HDTV right now because final standards on the equipment and technology are not set in stone, said Susan Adams Loyd, general manager of two Jacksonville stations owned by Clear Channel Communications Inc., WAWS TV-30 and WTEV TV-47.

"Not one expert can tell us which direction this is going to go," Loyd said.

"We're all scratching our heads and standing by."

But even if they're unsure of the future, television stations have had to take steps to invest in the digital revolution. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the broadcasting industry, has mandated that U.S. stations must complete their conversion from their old analog signals to digital television, or DTV, by the end of 2006. And while many industry observers expect that deadline to be extended, the FCC continues to push ahead.

"Over the past three-and-a-half years, this commission, in partnership with each segment of the television industry, has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to leading the consumer adoption of DTV," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a statement last month.

FROM ANALOG TO DIGITAL

Digital television and high-definition television are not the same thing. All HDTV programming is digital, but all DTV is not necessarily high-definition.

Television programs have historically been broadcast by analog signals, but starting in the late 1990s, as mandated by the FCC, stations began converting their signals to digital. The digital signal offers higher-quality pictures and sound than analog.

Some digital programming is broadcast in HDTV, which provides higher resolution than standard digital and a widescreen format.

Broadcasters in most U.S. cities, including Jacksonville, are already broadcasting digital signals on different channels than their old analog signals. But until the conversion is completed in 2006 or later, they are also continuing to broadcast on their analog stations, so consumers who have not upgraded their equipment can still get their television programs.

If the deadline is not extended, local television stations will give up their analog stations at the end of 2006 and all local programming will be digital. Consumers who have not purchased digital-ready sets will have to purchase some kind of converter to receive the digital channels on their old sets. The good news is that digital cable and satellite receivers will do the conversion for them.

Jacksonville's local stations are simulcasting their programs on both their old, familiar analog stations and a digital station which has a different channel number than its analog twin. …