Questioning Technology: Re-Inventing HDTV

Throughout a meandering history that now approaches two decades, highdefinition television has been defined and re-defined depending onthe politics of the day. Now, in 1995, the new, improved HDTV appearsto be more about "flexible use" of precious broadcast spectrum thanpicture quality and sound.Television broadcasters have long felt HDTV is a financial loser.Rather than air a single channel of wide screen, high resolutionimages, station owners want to use digital technology to createadditional TV channels and new information services that will fitthrough the same size slice of the airwaves they now use for aconventional channel.With only months to go before the "Grand Alliance" of electronicscompanies gets an HDTV standard from the Federal CommunicationsCommission (FCC), this overpriced behemoth of a technology has gonethrough a transformation once again. With the "new, improved" HDTV,the broadcasters can create a sort of "do it yourself" service thatallows them to sell a wide range of new services while showing HDpictures at the same time. It's like having your cake and eating ittoo.If, however, this born-again version of HDTV appears to be an olivebranch to skittish broadcasters, the Grand Alliance has coupled theirlatest pitch with a warning to the station owners: either join us orbe left behind in the information revolution."Broadcasters can either take the lead in delivering HDTV programmingor abandon the lead to cable, the telcos, DBS and wireless," saidZenith chairman Jerry Pearlman at the recent National Association ofBroadcasters meeting in Las Vegas. "The (television receiver)manufacturers will deliver this product."The new target date is the fall television season of 1997 when two ormore U.S. television networks will begin prime time high definitionbroadcasting, Pearlman said. A new generation of HDTV sets will thenbe on the market. Those sets, he said, will cost a premium of about$1,500 over comparable NTSC models.The Zenith chairman said "there's been a very noticeable shift in theattitudes of broadcasters over the last couple of months" because ofa "clear understanding" that their allotted HDTV spectrum may be atrisk in the new Republican-controlled Congress. The Grand Alliance thinks they have struck gold by giving everybodywhat they want. The broadcasters get a variety of new multi-channeland data services, what they term "flexible use," while the FCC can cling to the original mandate of HDTV. Ifall goes as planned, today's NTSC broadcast television would bephased out over 15 years."Flexible use has become a buzzword," said Glenn A. Reitmeier,director of the HD Imaging and Computing Laboratory at the DavidSarnoff Research Center. "Some mistakenly believe broadcasters have achoice between HDTV and flexible use. Nothing could be further fromthe truth. I believe HDTV will give broadcasters the greatestpossible flexibility."Reitmeier presented broadcasters with details of the Grand Alliance'snew packetized data transport system that allows the transmission ofvirtually any combination of video, audio and data over the TVairwaves. He demonstrated a broadband 20-megabit-per-second datapipeline into the home and showed how many new services could beprovided concurrently with the transmission of the full HDTV program,while others could be provided in place of the HDTV program atdifferent times of the day.For example, a local PBS station could broadcast HDTV programs duringevening prime time hours (along with ancillary data services likeweather forecasts or stock quotes that would be apparent only topeople who wanted to use them). Then, during school hours the stationcould deliver five simultaneous educational programs to local schoolsand homes. To hammer the point home, the Alliance used kiosk presentations toshow how their system could simultaneously deliver data with HDimages and how interactive advertising could be downloaded into a newbreed of smart TV receiver."At a time when rival delivery media are aggressively positioningthemselves for digital programming and interactive services, thissystem enables broadcasters to transmit virtually any combination ofvideo, audio and data services such as stock quotes, sports scoresand statistics, electronic program guides and interactiveadvertising," said James Carnes, president of the Sarnoff Center."Those and other data services should translate into new revenuestreams for the broadcast industry."The carrot and stick approach alternated through presentations at thebroadcasters meeting. Dick Wiley, chairman of the FCC's AdvisoryCommittee for Advanced Television Service, spoke of the excuses manyare using to avoid implementation of broadcast HDTV. "As the digitalfinish line beckons, a number of discordant and discouraging soundsare emanating from industry and government," Wiley noted."If we had this kind of vision in the 1950s, I doubt this countrywould even have color television," Wiley said. "The broadcasters needto realize the Grand Alliance is their ticket to the digital age."

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