Despite its dazzling picture quality, high-definition television faces a slow road to mass acceptance, according TV company executives and a new study.
Broadcasters in the top ten U.S. television markets will start transmitting HDTV signals next month, but only a small percentage of viewers will have access to the high-quality content and the number is expected to grow slowly over the next five years, according to research from Stanford Resources.
HDTV encompasses a variety of formats, but generally refers to television with much higher resolution than conventional TV sets. Broadcasters transmit HDTV signals over airwaves, requiring a separate antenna or decoder box.
HDTV sets are usually in wide-screen format, but not all wide-screen sets are high definition.
High-definition television sets cost around $10,000 and are not widely available in the United States, according to David Mentley of Stanford Resources. Additionally, HDTV sets sometimes require a separate decoder box, which can cost up to $6,000. At these prices, only home theater enthusiasts are likely to become early adopters, a small percentage of the overall television market.
"It's a little much to expect large numbers of households to start spending ten times more on TV, just because the picture is better," said Mentley, noting that digital TV (DTV), which has existed in the form of digital satellite broadcasts for several years, has not yet taken off in popularity.
An NBC executive speaking at a forum yesterday in Palo Alto, California, also sees roadblocks to HDTV. Though some network entertainment shows will be broadcast via HDTV in the spring of next year, news and sports will be a challenge.
"We can do prime-time entertainment. This is pretty easy to do. But news [and] sports [are more difficult]," said Peg Murphy, an executive at NBC Interactive.
"Every newsman out there has to get a new high-def [HDTV] camera," she said, pointing out that this means deploying hundreds of new cameras out in the field.
NBC said its first HDTV broadcast this fall will be the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
An executive from Thomson Consumer Electronics, which sells RCA-brand TVs and set-top boxes, added that it was difficult to get consumers to buy these expensive sets despite the picture quality.
"People are impressed when they see [HDTV] but then they walk out with an analog [standard TV] set," said Lou Lenzi of Thompson.
Sony Trinitron Wega HDTV
Stanford Resources projects that 260,000 HDTV units will ship in 1998, representing about 1.5 percent of the 125 million television sets shipping in 1998, with the majority of units going to Japan, Europe, and the United States. HDTV shipments are expected to grow by about 40 percent per year, to 2.2 million in 2004.
Also, there isn't a significant amount of content developed in high-definition format yet.
"The whole chain needs to be converted. You need to shoot with a high-definition camera, or the film needs to be converted to high-definition format with a scanner, and then transmitted," analyst Mentley said, alluding to the hassles involved as broadcasters switch to high-definition broadcasting.
Still, some encouraging signs exist. CBS today announced that it will begin broadcasting National Football League games this season in the HDTV format. "Sports [programming] will be one of the drivers" of adoption of HDTV, Mentley said.
"It's not even like the infrastructure [for wide consumer adoption] is there yet, only the rules for the infrastructure," he concluded. "This is the transition period, when the prices are very high and there is a lot of uncertainty."
NBC is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of News.com.