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Digital TV struggles for clear direction

Some broadcasters are considering changing the transmission format of digital signals, affecting consumers and retailers.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000

WASHINGTON -- At Sound Advice in St. Petersburg, sales of high-definition television sets are brisk.

Even at astral prices -- $2,700, going all the way up to $9,000 for a 73-inch behemoth -- the store's staff estimates moving between six and eight of the top-of-the-line boxes each week, about 20 percent of their big-screen sales. With a digital picture four times crisper than regular television and a wide screen similar to those found in movie theaters, disappointed customers are a rarity.

"Oh, absolutely, they are really happy," said Dean Wilson, operations manager at the St. Petersburg store, one of a handful in the area that sell HDTV products. "They are ready for the future."

With theater-quality pictures and CD-quality sound, HDTV represents the high end among the new generation of digital TVs. All of the DTV products offer performance superior to older sets that only receive analog signals.

But there may be static on the digital horizon for retailers and consumers. Lawmakers and broadcasters squared off on Capital Hill this week about the future of digital television. The result could be lost revenues, delays in DTV service and irritated consumers.

"You never know when the government is going to change its mind," Wilson said. "If they were to change the format, that would crush us."

In recent months, some broadcasters have begun contemplating exactly that -- changing the transmission format of digital signals. The problem, they say, is in the reception.

Testifying before a House subcommittee on telecommunications, trade and consumer protection, they cited tests showing lackluster or non-existent pictures -- dubbed "the blue screen of death" -- on digital television sets, especially in urban areas. To solve the problem, they pushed legislators to allow them to switch to a different system that is currently used by European DTV broadcasters.

The reception problems, said Mark Hyman, vice president of corporate relations for the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, would severely hamper a successful transition by the general public to digital television. At the same time, critics charge reconfiguring a new signal could stall DTV for two years.

Dubbed as the future in 1987 when Congress doled out billions of dollars' worth of free airwaves to entice networks to make the switch, the actual DTV rollout has been slower than expected. In the Tampa Bay area, affiliates for Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC began broadcasting a digital signal last year, with PBS and UPN expected to make the transition by 2003.

Now comes new worries about new and old technology.

Retailers are caught in a particularly unenviable quandary between squabbling broadcasters, congressional members and DTV set manufacturers. Sales of DTV products, while hardly an overwhelming percentage of total revenues now, are only likely to pick up as the public becomes more aware of the technology.

But retailers say that DTV will lose its credibility with consumers if the system is changed. "Next time they come into Sound Advice, it wouldn't be sound advice" to buy an existing set, Wilson said.

Brushing aside the supposed flaws, Tom Campbell, corporate director of Ken Crane's Home Entertainment Centers, a West Coast retail chain, said changing digital signals this year would be a major setback in consumer acceptance of digital television and could provoke a "potential major backlash" from early adopters who have purchased sets.

"We have to be careful not to disenfranchise the consumer. We must stay the course," he said.

Further complaints by broadcasters likely will lead to hesitation among DTV set manufacturers reluctant to offer a product for a service that barely exists, said Doug Lung, a columnist for TV Technology magazine and creator of a Web site about DTV issues. Any slowdown in DTV sales, he said, could induce similar aversion by broadcasters to produce digital programming.

Sony already has cut back on DTV set production, and Panasonic has scaled down its HDTV advertising budget.

"It becomes a chicken and egg problem," Lung said.

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