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Consumer One

MARTY KREMAN, A SANTA MONICA RESIDENT, HAS NEVER BEEN SATISFIED WITH HIS TELEVISION reception. He'd gone from antenna to cable to DirecTV, and when his old TV needed expensive repairs, he decided to take the plunge for the next big thing: a 60-inch Mitsubishi DTV-ready set ($5,000) and DTV tuner ($3,000).

Ironically, Kreman now finds himself back to using a rooftop antenna for his highest-quality reception, as DTV requires. And most of what Kreman watches in DTV is the same picture that's on regular TV, only smaller.

Kreman chose a conventional-shape screen (with a width-to-height ratio of 4:3) for his new television, figuring that it was plenty large already, and that most programming in the near future would maintain the "squarish" 4:3 shape. Digital broadcasting, on the other hand, is designed around wide-screen pictures: 16:9 (or slightly wider than 5:3). So when you watch digital broadcasts on a 4:3 set, the set displays the picture in "letterbox" format, with black bars on the top and bottom of the picture.

Nevertheless, Kreman thought this still looked great with high-definition television, or HDTV. There isn't much original programming in HDTV yet, but KCBS-DT (digital) shows a loop of high-definition programming during the day, which contains scenes from the Nagano Olympics and Hollywood at night. Although the sound doesn't always sync with the picture -- a problem engineers are having considerable trouble solving -- it looks absolutely stunning, and you can see it for yourself. Just walk into Audio Video City, Ken Crane's, or any Good Guys store, find a DTV set, switch it to channel 60 (the digital version of channel 2), and if everything's working, you'll catch a demonstration of the projected future of television.

But at night on channel 60 and on the other digital channels (31, 36 and 53), what you'll see most of the time is an "up-converted" version of the regular analog programming on channels 2, 4, 5, and 7. Kreman greatly prefers this digital feed to the analog reception of the same channel. Analog-reception problems, like ghosts, static, interference and snow, are completely gone. But the pictures are also pasty and smeared, and distinctive outlines appear around objects.

And the picture is smaller, too. When regular, 4:3-shape TV is converted to wide-screen, most of the stations put the squarish picture in the middle, and fill the left and right sides of the screen with black bars. But when wide-screen broadcasts are viewed on a conventional-shaped set, you get black bars on the top and bottom. The combined result: black bars on all four sides of the picture. KTLA-DT solves the problem differently, filling the full width of the wide-screen by cutting off the top and bottom of its conventional picture. When this is viewed on a regular-shaped set, you get black bars on the top and bottom of your screen, covering over the parts of the picture that KTLA has chopped off.

The FCC hopes to turn off all analog broadcasting in 2006 as long as 85 percent of consumers buy converters -- at $1,600 to $3,000 each -- to watch digital broadcasts on regular sets. But whether you watch DTV on a $5,000 DTV-ready set, or your current clunker, regular TV converted to DTV and then back to regular TV results in a smaller picture. On a 36-inch set, the picture will be about 27 inches diagonally, or roughly two TV sizes smaller. Of course, some people will claim that by 2006, all TV programs will be shot in wide-screen. You have to wonder what they'll do with reruns.


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