HDTV Feeling the Pains of Slow Growth


Nine months after the first high-definition television
broadcasters went on air last fall, the industry is still waiting for widespread consumer
demand to kick in, with penetration of the pricey digital sets at just over 27,000
nationwide through the end of June.

In a move that could further stall its consumer rollout,
officials at Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group said last week that they plan to
circulate a petition asking the government to revisit the standards that it set for
digital-television transmission.

In recent weeks, Sinclair has called for a change in the
digital-broadcast-modulation standard from 8VSB (vestigial sideband) to a system called
CODFM, which is used in Europe.

Sinclair held side-by-side comparisons of the technologies
designed to show that digital-television reception using simple indoor antennas "is
virtually nonexistent" with 8VSB, but not with CODFM, according to vice president of
new technology Nat Ostroff.

The National Association of Broadcasters countered that
8VSB "is a fine transmission system as long as TV-set manufacturers deliver a good
product," spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

Wharton added that the NAB would like to see the Federal
Communications Commission impose standards on digital-television manufacturers in the same
way that broadcasters have to meet certain standards.

"Every television manufacturer has made enormous
investments in digital television," Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association
director of technology policy Michael Petricone said. "They have every incentive to
make this work."

Petricone added that manufacturers are already at work on
chip sets for second- and third-generation digital televisions that will perform better in
multipath environments.

Multipath from multiple TV signals can lead to ghosting in
analog television, but it often causes a digital-broadcast signal to disappear completely.

"The underlying issue that Sinclair has brought up is
important," said Nicholas Paraskevopoulos, director of research and development for
Terk Technologies, an off-air-antenna maker.

Petricone and Paraskevopoulos expressed frustration that
Sinclair had not produced any data from its tests that could be reviewed by other industry

At a Media Institute seminar last Wednesday, a panel of
four broadcasters unanimously opposed the idea of revisiting the
digital-broadcast-transmission standard, according to those who attended the event.

Home Box Office senior vice president of technology
operations Bob Zitter said the controversy over 8VSB versus CODFM doesn't impact cable or
satellite "one iota" because the cable and satellite industries each already use
modulation standards that differ from the digital-broadcast standards.

Zitter does not expect the issue to slow down the rollout
of HDTV unless the top broadcast networks decide to do become involved.

Meanwhile, DirecTV Inc. began airing a consumer feed of
HBO's HDTV channel Aug. 1, but the first DirecTV-compatible HDTV sets had not yet shipped
to retailers.

Thomson Consumer Electronics was planning last week to ship
its first such model, the "ProScan PS6100" ($7,999), as soon as it procured the
new, larger antennas needed to access DirecTV's HDTV signals.

DirecTV broadcasts HDTV from a satellite at the 110 degrees
west longitude orbital spectrum, and not from 101 degrees west, where its primary
direct-broadcast satellite service is located. Subscribers would need elliptical
18-inch-by-22-inch dishes to watch signals from both orbital locations.

Hitachi Ltd. plans to ship its first DirecTV-compatible
HDTV, the "UltraVision 61HDX98B" ($7,999), at the end of this month.

EchoStar Communications Corp. plans to introduce its first
HDTV programming this fall -- most likely HBO and pay-per-view movies -- although the
company has not yet signed HDTV-programming contracts.

Initially, EchoStar will offer an HDTV modulator compatible
with its Dish Network model "5000" system and digital televisions. The company
has not yet announced from which satellite it will broadcast its first HDTV consumer
feeds, or whether current subscribers would need new dishes.

No television manufacturers are expected to ship HDTV sets
integrated with Dish Network receivers this year.

A small number of cable systems across the country have
begun transmitting HBO and select local broadcast programming in HDTV.