TCS Daily

Are You High? Def

By Edward B. Driscoll - December 3, 2002 12:00 AM

For many years, High Definition TV (HDTV) appeared to be a problem in search of a solution. Consumers were never consulted on whether or not they wanted HDTV, and the gestation period seemed endless. And yet, surprisingly, the near term prospects for HDTV are quite strong. Sales of HDTV sets - particularly reasonably affordable widescreen rear-projection sets - have been surprisingly good. And slowly but surely, shows broadcast in HDTV are rolling out.

But HDTV's prospects weren't always this optimistic. And its seemingly endless gestation period didn't help matters.

"Or It's Not Going To Get Done Right"

In the U.S., HDTV began entering the public's eye in the mid to late 1980s. This was the period when the nation was in awe of Japan. Remember when Hollywood cranked out films like Gung Ho, Black Rain, and Rising Sun? When the Japanese stock market was going through the roof? It was against this backdrop that the FCC made HDTV sound like a national emergency.

As Jeff Taylor, the author of Reason Express, Reason magazine's weekly email newsletter on technology and politics describes it, "This was the period when the Japanese were building great cars. They were building all of the consumer electronics. We used to lead the world in those areas. What are we going to do for technology? They're going to do digital television, so we should do something about that. So that's what got a lot of people in the FCC being very concerned about HDTV. So you have that whole backdrop of, 'the government has to get involved or this is not going to get done right.'"

Unfortunately, the combination of government hearings, competition between the phone companies, the cable companies and the networks, and the general ramp-up time that a new technology always faces, especially one designed to replace a very entrenched existing technology, meant a very, very long gestation period.

During which time, in the mid-1990s, the Internet gave a tremendous boost to the phone and computer industries. So it was now doubly important to the television industry to get HDTV off the ground.

Of course, the one element yet to be mentioned is consumer interest - and feedback. As Taylor describes it, "At no part in this process, was anyone saying, 'what about the average consumer out there who might want to look at this high definition television?' I think that has been the missing link all along in that no one has tried to figure out if there is a market demand for this and how would you go about filling it if there was. So what we have is all of these different interests motivated by different things, trying to come up with a system that the general public may or may not want."

It took the better part of the 1990s, just to get to the point where transmitting towers started to go up, and HDTV-compatible gear began to be sold. By early 1998, HDTV antennas were starting to appear on skyscrapers, mountains and other locations with sufficient height across the US.

Of course, most people today get their television from cable or satellite. Only very aggressive early adopters were willing to go "back to the future" and attach HDTV antennas to their chimneys; there are only 200,000 homes in the U.S. with HDTV receivers capable of picking up over-the-air high-def signals. (That's about as many people who regularly watch Phil Donahue on MSNBC, and not - as MSNBC announced recently - for much longer.)

Which means that, ironically, the biggest boost in the sales of HDTV sets hasn't come from network programming. A variety of problems (a few of which we'll discuss in a moment) have conspired to keep that a minimum. Instead, the sales of high def TV sets were, spurred by the demands of high-end progressive scan DVD players, which can take advantage of their high quality pictures and 16X9 wide screen ratios. As a result, the prices of rear projection HDTV sets are now comparable to where the prices of rear projection analog sets were just a few years ago.

The Powell Plan

With HDTV clearly not going away, where does it go from here? Currently, pressure and regulation from the federal government are putting the onus on television networks and consumer electronics manufacturers to create HDTV hardware and software. Adi Kishore, a media and entertainment strategies analyst with The Yankee Group, a Boston-based technology consulting and research firm, says that the plan for DTV offered by FCC Chairman Michael Powell earlier this year hopes to create "regulatory requirements for every member of this value chain. Certainly the broadcasters are required to comply with certain regulations: cable operators are required to provide carriage to certain broadcast stations in each market, and programmers-networks like NBC, CBS and ABC-are required to produce a certain amount of primetime programming in what they call 'enhanced programming', whether it's high definition, or has interactive contact, or something that's more than analog TV."

Another regulation imposed by the FCC requires that consumer electronics manufacturers have digital tuners in a progressively greater majority of TVs each year, until all TV sets larger than 13 inches are equipped in 2007. In October, the Consumer Electronics Association took the FCC to court on that requirement.

Kishore says that while the original impetus behind the government's push was American prestige and competition with Japan, the government's push for digital TV is increasingly becoming blatantly financial. He says that Congress is keen to auction the frequency spectrum that analog TV broadcasts on to wireless cell phone operators. "Or to anybody, really-they just want to sell that spectrum. So going back a couple of years, when Congress mandated the digital transition, what they did, was to give each broadcaster an extra slice of spectrum equivalent to what they had."

Each broadcast station is licensed six megahertz in order to broadcast their signal. Congress gave broadcasters nearly an additional six megahertz for their digital or HD signal. "The idea was", Kishore says, "that they would eventually take back the original analog slice, and then you'd have a pure digital broadcast, and then they would auction off the additional spectrum.

"So it was sort of: we'll rent you digital spectrum, so that you can broadcast both analog and digital, and once we hit 85 percent penetration, we will take back the analog spectrum that you have right now. And in fact, money from that is factored into the Bush budget."

"At Some Point, The Pipe Does Fill Out"

Kishore says that between a fifth and a quarter of American homes will have HDTV by 2007. Back in the late 1990s, the FCC set 2006 as an arbitrary date when all television signals will be transmitted in digital (not necessarily high definition, incidentally), but no one sees that date as being realistically met.

Because the amount of programming being carried by cable and satellite in high def is small, bandwidth has not been much of a concern. But it will be, as high def programming increases. Digital satellite and cable systems compress NTSC television signals to transmit so many of them through a single pipe or dish. But HDTV signals require much more bandwidth, and thus can't be compressed as much as standard definition TV. Kishore says that right now, the average digital cable system, which can carry around 250 analog and digital channels, has enough capacity to handle only four or five channels in high definition.

And while there are new technologies in the works to expand the amount of channels that can be carried by a cable system, the amount of bandwidth that can come from a single piece of RG-6 television cable is finite. And many cable companies are already trying to shove 250 digital TV channels, video on demand, telephony services, cable modems, and interactive TV out to their viewers. "At some point, the pipe does fill out," Kishore warns.

So for the foreseeable future, expect some HD broadcasting and, eventually, the rollout of HD-DVDs and increasingly affordable HD-enabled recorders (although the jury appears to be out on whether they'll be tape or hard disk based). Just doesn't expect a cable or satellite system full of HDTV channels anytime soon, no matter how much the FCC wants it to happen.



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