Brace yourself for a hard decision on when you’ll convert to the new technology
By Jim Kershner
Here comes digital television (DTV) to completely blast your TV watching habits to smithereens.
I glimpsed the future on Wednesday in Coeur d’Alene, and it was contained inside a 66-foot tractor-trailer. The DTV Express, as it is called, is filled with digital broadcasting equipment and a “living room” with several high-definition digital TVs.
The DTV Express is touring the country to educate (or soften up) consumers and broadcasters about the coming change.
After watching this dog-and-pony show, sponsored by PBS and the Harris Corp., an electronics manufacturer, I am more convinced than ever that DTV is inexorable and inevitable, not unlike the replacement of the LP by the CD. In five years, you’ll be agonizing over whether to get a new high-definition digital TV, and in 10 years, most of you will have surrendered. I’m not positive that I’m happy about it, but I think it will happen.
In fact, the change is mandated by the Federal Communications Commission. Stations in the top 10 TV markets will switch to digital broadcasting next year, stations in markets 11-30 will switch the year after that, and the rest of the markets (including Spokane) will have to be switched over by 2002.
No, this does not mean you have to run out and buy a pricey high-definition digital TV. Stations will continue to broadcast their present analog signals alongside the digital signals for at least another eight or nine years. Also, consumers can buy a converter box that will allow standard TVs to pick up the digital signals.
But, as with the CD, people eventually will opt for the clearly superior picture and sound of digital TVs. That is, they will if they don’t have to take out a bank loan to do so.
The new TVs will be very expensive when they first come on the market this fall (probably in the thousands), but like CD players, they should drop in price in succeeding years. Emphasis on “should.”
Even when stations go all-digital, they probably won’t broadcast in high-definition all day. High-definition will probably be in prime time. The rest of the time, stations will broadcast in standard-resolution digital, which takes up less transmission “space.”
It takes up so much less space that one station can provide four separate channels of standard resolution at once. You can tune into KREM, for instance, and select which one of the four KREM programming streams you want. Or, you could be watching a baseball game and choose any of four different camera angles to view it from.
Digital TV also has the capability of providing simultaneous data broadcasts. For instance, if you’re watching an auto ad, you could punch up an information sheet about the car. Also, digital TV can be viewed through your computer with the addition of a tuner card. The line between the computer and the TV will be blurred. In fact, manufacturers are already beginning to refer to TV sets as “TV appliances” because they can be used for both computers and TV.
Meanwhile, the most immediate economic issue is not with consumers but with the stations themselves. Every station in America will have to purchase digital broadcasting equipment. The bare minimum investment will be $2 million. The average will be something closer to $4 million or $5 million.
This is a burden on any station, but especially on small-market stations and public TV stations. “We’ll have to have viewer support, corporate support, donor support, every kind of support,” said Claude Kistler, general manager of KSPS-7. “We’ve already had our first DTV fund-raising meeting.”
Welcome to the new millennium.
Sunday, June 14, 1998