BY FCC DECREE, ALL CURRENT TELEVISION BROADcasting could cease in seven years.

Imagine: By 2006, every television, from the 13-inch set in the kitchen to the big-screen in the living room, and every single piece of broadcast equipment, from the giant TV network infrastructure to the struggling community-college setup, may have to be replaced.

The television picture's shape will change from the current “square-ish” 4:3 aspect ratio, to a “widescreen” (16:9, or 5.3:3). All “analog” television broadcasting, including the familiar channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 and 28, will go off the air. Starting this year, these channels will begin to be replaced with an all-new digital television system, DTV, which promises to provide crystal-clear pictures and multichannel sound to every American.

Los Angeles viewers can already buy a variety of sets, and receive five digital channels — more than are currently broadcast anywhere else in the country. But the big fuzzy picture of this technocrat-mandated brave new world has yet to be brought into focus. Because not only is DTV technology fantastically expensive — sets alone cost from $6,000 to $23,000 — but myriad technical, economic and aesthetic problems have yet to be solved. Yet if by 2006, 85 percent of households and businesses in a given region have invested in digital reception equipment, federal law requires that all broadcasters turn off their analog transmitters in that region and return their analog spectrum to the government for auction.

If you've recently purchased a Digital Satellite System (DSS), Digital Video Disc (DVD), Digital Video camcorder (DV), or if your cable system is adding digital channels, you may think you're already on the cutting edge of the digital-television revolution. But since all of these products are based on digitizing the signals of the current television system, they're still compatible with existing TV sets. DTV, on the other hand, is not; none of these devices can display their digital pictures on a DTV set without conversion.

This new DTV standard was developed specifically to allow broadcast — that is, over-the-air — transmission of digital television, ignoring the fact that most Americans (more than 65 percent) get their television through cable TV, and that there are both technical and financial hurdles to making the new system work with cable. The wide-screen format, while great for movies, will not fit the 250 million current TVs (even with a converter, the picture will appear with black bars on the sides, or top and bottom, or both). In the DTV age, that $97 working color TV on your desk will be obsolete (except for watching analog-format movies on your equally obsolete VCR).

OUR CURRENT TELEVISION SYSTEM, NOW CALLED the National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) format, was originally developed almost 70 years ago. In subsequent years, two enhancements have been made to its 525-line, 30-frame-per-second standard: the addition of color in 1953, and stereo sound in 1984. In both cases, these changes were designed to be completely backward compatible; that is, older black-and-white sets continue to receive color transmissions, and older monaural sets automatically receive the “sum” — the combined left and right signals — of the stereo audio. All other improvements to television quality, such as more accurate color and sharper pictures, have resulted from improvements in broadcast and receiving equipment, without any changes to the NTSC standard.

DTV started out as High Definition Television (HDTV), which has been experimented with in closed-circuit applications, such as medical documentation, and in special effects for feature films and music videos, since the 1970s. In these closed applications, there was no need to make HDTV compatible with the NTSC system, but the challenge of developing a compatible HDTV system — a hybrid analog-digital HDTV system — lingered for many years.

In that time, however, digital technology advanced to the point that an all-digital system started to seem feasible. The digital TV channel could be used in ways other than transmission of a single high-definition signal; for example, one digital channel could be used to transmit four standard-definition signals plus unrelated data, such as the Internet, stock reports or paging. For this reason, the name of the new system was changed from “HDTV” to “ATV” (Advanced Television), and later, “DTV” (Digital Television), recognizing the marketing power of the word digital, and the fact that high-definition, the original point of the new standard, was no longer a requirement.

Analog HDTV was abandoned in 1990 when the FCC agreed to allow DTV to be developed instead. But it exists as consumer technology in Japan: The Japanese national broadcaster, NHK, with technical support from Sony in Japan, began broadcasting an analog high-definition system to Japanese households in the late 1980s. Several factors, including the small coverage area necessary to blanket the Japanese islands with a satellite signal, and the centralization of authority in one broadcaster, made such a system technically and politically feasible.

In the U.S., politicians rejected the idea of transmitting HDTV via wide-area satellite, insisting that locally based broadcast must be the basis for HDTV. In other words, the system's design did not prioritize cable, satellite, disc or tape — which means that each local broadcaster must invest, at minimum, millions of dollars to convert its infrastructure. (By contrast, if one network were to simply offer high-definition movies via cable and satellite, it could serve the entire country with just one central transmitter.) But the broadcast industry — which, despite the cost, wanted to protect broadcasting as a viable form of television — enjoys powerful support in Washington. In refusing to be left behind by the cable and satellite industries in terms of innovations, it left everyone else behind instead. Maybe even the consumer.


Next week: The technical problems with DTV. In two weeks: Living with DTV — “early adapters” in Los Angeles share their experiences with DTV.

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