November 26, 1996
Charlayne Hunter-Gault looks at developments on the Digital TV front.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It's taken years of squabbling to get to a sharper image, but last night, broadcasters, TV set makers, and the computer industry reached an agreement on something that will deliver it. The "it" is digital television. What was all the fuss about, and what does it mean for the average television viewer? Here to help explain all that is Chris McConnell, an assistant editor with Broadcasting and Cable Magazine. Chris McConnell, in the simplest, non-technical terms, what did those three industries agree to today?
CHRIS McCONNELL, Broadcasting and Cable Magazine: Well, basically they agreed to bury the hatchet on what they were disagreeing about with the digital television service. Broadcasters have been for the last 10 years, the set makers have been trying to develop what we call a standard for digital TV. That standard defines what broadcasters need to do to get a new digital TV signal into a television receiver, and basically computer companies have been for the last few months saying that we don't like what the set makers and broadcasters are doing, and they've had some objections with the standard that the broadcasters and set makers have come up with. So basically what they decided to do is just say we're not going to ask the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, to say anything at all about the areas where we disagree. They've basically decided to leave it to the free market to decide the issues that they disagreed about.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And that's the standard. Explain to me why the standard was such a sticking point. I mean, what in the end difference does it make?
CHRIS McCONNELL: It was a sticking point because each of these industries wants to do something with this new service. This new service, digital TV, is something that will provide clearer pictures, better sound. It used to be called high definition television back in the 80's. And each of these industries sees a potential to make money with it. Set makers can sell more sets. Computer companies think that they can get into this business by actually having a program that you can watch at your desktop. You can have something that you could be sitting at your desk working, and they think that there'll be a business in there for watching programming at the set top. So they all want a standard that will allow them to do their business in the digital--in what they call the digital age. And what they have come up with before, the computer companies said that there were barriers in what these set makers and broadcasters developed that would prohibit them from doing that. The two sides have been squabbling over that for years. They never really did resolve it, so in the end, they said, well, we'll just not include that as part of the standard, we'll leave it to the free market, and let things go as they are. And so they've sort of come up with an agreement to just have--have no answer on that issue.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. So the real issue now is this thing is about who controls TV, the future of--future TV.
CHRIS McCONNELL: I think so. Broadcasters--you know, broadcasters are going to get a second channel from the government to provide this service, so ultimately, they'll have the spectrum to provide a service, but they're going to be competing for the eyeballs of the viewer with anyone else who wants to provide a service and can have a receiver out there where you can watch this.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Like computers.
CHRIS McCONNELL: Yes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Computer company. All right. So what is in it for the consumers?
CHRIS McCONNELL: Well, in this agreement basically there's a quicker route to having a service. This dispute has been going on for years in Washington. The dispute with computer companies is relatively new but TV set makers and broadcasters have been trying to develop this new service, you know, since the mid 80's. So in this agreement today, they've basically decided to clear the way, to not oppose having the FCC adopt this, what we're calling this new standard. So what the consumer will see as a result if there are no further disputes over this, is they'll actually be able to go out and buy a digital TV in 1998 or, you know, perhaps--1998 or 1999, if things proceed on schedule, as they stand now.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what does it do better? What does it do that TV's now don't do?
CHRIS McCONNELL: It provides--the main thing that is most apparent to the consumers is it provides a clearer picture, sort of a difference--with digital TV, it's sort of analogous to the difference between a phonograph record and a CD player. Because it's a digital signal, you have a clearer, better picture, and you won't have snow if you're on the edge of--if you're far away from a television station, you'll get a perfect picture, the way you see it in a TV studio, or you won't get any picture at all. I mean, but most engineers predict that anyone who gets a signal from what we call today's TV station, an analog broadcaster, is a horrible engineering term, but you won't have ghosting, and you won't have a snowy picture. You'll have this perfect picture. If a broadcaster chooses to provide the service, you could actually have what they call a high definition picture, which is you have this wide screen that sort of closely approximates what you see in a movie theater, and you actually have--you'll be able to see a lot more detail that you can't see on today's television.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And if the computer people get in on this, you'll be able to do things on your TV that you now do on your computer? I mean, is that part of the offing?
CHRIS McCONNELL: That's what a lot of people say could happen, including our magazine has said that gradually these two--these two businesses will sort of lose their distinctive and start to look a lot more like each other. People talk about the television and the computer eventually merging into this device. You know, a lot of people think that in the future you may be watching your television set and actually, you know, doing some other, you know, maybe working on the Internet is, you know, one possibility. A couple of companies have actually sort of ventured into that, an early version of that. There's a product called Web TV. Other people think that you'll be sitting at your computer, watching TV, and then gradually the television and the computer will start to look like the same product.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Does this also give you more channels, more channels, choices?
CHRIS McCONNELL: It could.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Someday you might get 500.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It could. Basically what you're doing with this technology, because you're representing a TV picture as numbers, it allows a television station or a cable company to squeeze down the amount of space that it takes to represent this picture. So with digital TV in one channel, what you carry on today, one channel, like Channel 11 or Channel 5, you could actually broadcast several programs, if you wanted to, or you could broadcast one program that's a lot--has a lot more detail.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Are these going to be a lot more--these kinds of sets going to be a lot more expensive than the sets today?
CHRIS McCONNELL: Initially, they will be. Most people tend to predict that it will probably cost at least $1,000 more than today's conventional set to get--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you have to get a complete, new set.
CHRIS McCONNELL: Yes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You can't--
CHRIS McCONNELL: Well, some people say that if you want to go the cheapest possible route, you could get just a set top converter that would basically read the digital signal and then sort of turn it into something that your regular, old TV set would understand, but if it did that, you wouldn't get a high-definition picture.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And how soon will this be ready? I mean, does the FCC have to approve it?
CHRIS McCONNELL: Yes. What has to happen now is the FCC has to approve the standard and then give each broadcaster a new channel to deliver the service. So the soonest possibly you'd see this would be sometime in 1997 would be the soonest possible. It's probably more likely like ‘98 or ‘99.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, Chris McConnell, thank you.
CHRIS McCONNELL: Thank you.