Tele-Communications Inc., with a decision to embraceMicrosoft Corp.'s 'HD0' approach to high-definition television, has taken astand on what promises to be a divisive issue within cable ranks.
Speaking to reporters on Jan. 10, TCI CEO John Malone saidhis company would transmit high-end signals in the 480 progressive and 720progressive/24-frame formats advocated by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, even though manyinterests pursuing digital TV view these formats as below the threshold of true HDTV.
Malone said the advanced set-top boxes to be equipped withthe Windows CE operating system would be able to translate high-definition feeds in theHD0 format to analog for display on standard sets, thereby 'solving ... thecompatibility issue between HD standards and standard TV sets.'
The ability to perform this conversion is'particularly important to those people trying to develop high-definition programmingwhich has a different content time schedule or features than their over-the-airsignals,' Malone said. 'This could turn out to be a very positive aspect for thebroadcasting industry as they try to make economic sense out of their entry intohigh-definition.'
TCI, by downconverting higher resolution signals, such as1080 interlace, to 480P, will greatly enhance the number of broadcast and satellite HDTVsignals it can deliver over its networks. Depending on the level of modulation used, thedifference could be as much as 4:1.
The HD0 scheme also accommodates the 720P/24-frame format,which takes advantage of the lower frame rate of film to deliver movies at picture qualitylevels that are comparable to the high-end HDTV video formats. This format consumes morebandwidth than 480P but not nearly as much as full HDTV.
But an unresolved question in the minds of many cableoperators is whether an HD0 480P signal displayed on HDTV sets will meet the qualityexpectations of viewers.
'Many cable people are still trying to figure thisout,' said Richard Prodan, chief technical officer at Cable Television Laboratories.
'Some people are saying the mass market for HDTVisn't for the receivers that display the highest level format, so they shouldn'tcarry signals with more quality than these [lower cost] receivers show,' Prodan said.'I think that's potentially a little bit dangerous because you'represupposing what the high-end guy will accept in the early phases when the average guyisn't driving the market.'
In fact, Prodan noted, a 480P display over a 16-by-9 aspectratio offers fewer pixels per line than it does over a 4-by-3 screen, which means a viewerwill see a drop in quality when changing channels from a broadcast digital picturedelivered in wide-screen format to one using the standard aspect ratio. Such variationsfrom broadcaster to broadcaster could be commonplace, owing to the lack of consensus onapproaches to digital within that industry.
'If the customer who has bought an HDTV set sees thehigh-def picture is lower resolution than the SDTV [standard definition], how is he goingto react?' Prodan asked.
After a visit to the consumer electronics show earlier thismonth, Prodan said it was clear that the consumer electronics manufacturers are not readyto 'bet the ranch' on any one format.
'The smart guys are saying that with no consensus inthe marketplace to go on, they'd better be ready to deliver product in differentprice ranges at different levels of quality,' he said.
Cable clearly doesn't want to consume more bandwidththan necessary to meet consumer expectations for high-definition performance, noted AlexBest, chief technical officer at Cox Communications Inc. But cable doesn't want todisappoint the customer either, he said.
'It's not clear that, if I could sit you in frontof a digital receiver and show you anywhere from 480 interlace all the way to 720progressive or 1080 interlace that you could tell me when you consider the picture to begood enough to be HDTV,' Best said. 'There are many people who say the digitalformats at the low end are good enough, but we don't know that for a certainty.'
'No one knows how this is going to unfold, butit's incumbent on the broadcasters and cable operators to reduce consumer confusionover what is HDTV and what is SDTV,' said John Taylor, vice president for corporatecommunications at Zenith Electronics Corp.
'STDV on a small screen may not look that differentthan true HDTV, but it's the extremely large screens where the benefits of HDTV willbe obvious,' Taylor said.
The Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association hasdrawn a line where 480P does not qualify as HDTV. Zenith, by initially delivering setsthat receive signals in multiple formats but display them at the highest level of 1080I,is betting that the early market force will be high-end users looking for maximum quality.
Microsoft officials took issue with assertions that 480Pundershoots market expectations for high quality.
Gates, declaring a large-screen display of 480P video thatcame on during his speech at the Consumer Electronics Show 'sure looks good,'said TCI's ability to deliver 480P through its set-top boxes 'is a majormilestone for TV.'
'Everyone is going to form their own opinions, butwe've found in testing viewer responses that the overwhelming difference is betweenanalog and digital,' said Mike Conte, group manager for digital TV at Microsoft.'If you ask them, they'll tell you they see some difference between 480 and1080, but they'll tell you that either one is a remarkable improvement over whatthey're used to seeing.'
Such reactions suggest the consumer response for digitalsets priced slightly higher than today's premium TV sets could be very strong,creating a market big enough to drive the transition to digital programming, Conte argued.
'480P may represent the real sweet spot in the marketfor some time to come,' he added.
But does cable want to bet that's the way it will gowhen so much, including the parameters of HDTV, must-carry and potential transmissiondeals with broadcasters, remains to be decided? Many cable interests are hoping that theirability to accommodate multiple format requirements will lead to business arrangementswith broadcasters that will obviate the need for stringent must-carry rules in the digitaldomain, Prodan noted.
'We don't want to become yet another faction inthese religious wars,' Prodan said.