Rarely have such impassioned and eager arguments been
bandied about in that Mecca of sincerity called Las Vegas.
At last week's National Association of Broadcasters
annual convention, it seemed that everyone was trying extra hard to convince anyone
who'd listen that he had the best solution for speeding up the digital-television
TV-set manufacturers convincingly demonstrated their
big-screen, 1080-interlaced-format high-definition TV sets, promising that the HDTV
receivers will be available for consumer purchase as soon as broadcasters start
transmitting digital TV.
Microsoft, in an uncharacteristically quiet mode (compared
with last year), showcased the "gang of four" digital-TV-display formats:
480-progressive scan, 720p, 1080p and 1080i. The side-by-side-by-side demonstration was
intended to convince broadcasters that High-Definition Zero (HD0, including 480p) is the
appropriate starting point, and that HDTV can wait. Others from the computer contingent,
such as Intel and Compaq, similarly sought to convince broadcasters to start with
Fox Broadcasting and its outspoken affiliates, such as
Sinclair Broadcasting, vociferously argued that the 480p and maybe the 720p formats offer
a better approach to digital TV. Those allies sought to convince other broadcasters to
start the digital-TV process by eschewing HDTV, for now.
Meanwhile, A.H. Belo, LIN and a handful of HDTV devotees
were proselytizing to convince their peers that 1080i is the only proper and true approach
to HDTV. CBS led that brigade.
Of course, how convincing does it look when the networks
and station groups are committing only a handful each of their owned-and-operated stations
to the anointed digital-TV format during the coming year? When reality -- and cost
justification -- confront conviction, we know what wins! Fox will launch three HDTV
stations this year, and CBS the same number.
Panasonic, Sony, Harris and other major vendors were
predictably in high-selling mode in Las Vegas, seeking to convince TV stations to buy
their digital production and transmission equipment. Affiliates were waiting for their
networks to convince them about long-term digital-TV plans -- despite the pre-convention
commitments by CBS and NBC to 1080i and by ABC and Fox to 720p.
Advertisers were lurking around, waiting to be convinced of
why they should be expected to pay premium fees to reach digital-TV audiences --
especially since the numbers will be minuscule for years to come.
Producers were trying to sort out the explanations about
loss of signal quality as programs are downconverted from any interlaced format
(especially 1080i) into any progressive format. That one takes an especially heaping dose
Meanwhile, the minions of multicasting were trying to
convince TV licensees about alternative uses of the digital bandwidth for data
transmission and specialized video.
Indeed, there were even a few obstinate naysayers who
remained convinced that digital TV can be postponed or staved off completely.
Conviction was absolutely seething through the NAB venues.
But with such convincing arguments all about, why was there
so much confusion?
Despite the mutual assurances that equipment, programming
and transmission capacity will all be in place, there was an overarching sense of
For example, the faux-living-room venues set up by Zenith,
Sharp, Panasonic and others to demonstrate HDTV viewing were accompanied by huge charts
showing the forecast of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association: 30 percent of
U.S. homes will buy HDTV receivers by the year 2006. That sales curve starts with a mere
few hundred-thousand early adopter purchases during the next couple of years -- barely
enough to convince broadcasters and advertisers to commit their millions of dollars to
digital-TV transmission as soon as they return home from Las Vegas.
And then there's that $200-per-inch price tag for HDTV
receivers: A 50-inch-diagonal screen costs about $10,000. Although prices will drop
dramatically (according to the convincing arguments from set-makers), there's still
an immense gap between those prices and the $14 per inch that you pay today for a
good-quality 35-inch NTSC set.
Digital TV changes the rules for broadcasting, and all
segments of the business will need a long treatment of convincing arguments to rearrange
their ways of doing business. As hardware vendors, networks and the entire digital-TV
infrastructure polished up their most compelling material, it was clear that the biggest
convincing task still lies ahead.
Ultimately, the only presentations that matter will be the
ones that convince viewers to watch digital TV in any format.
I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen is convinced that after a
week of watching digital TV in every format, it's hard to go back to NTSC.