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Battle lines drawn on digital TV

Computer and film executives are preparing for battle with the FCC over digital TV.

Computer and film executives are preparing for battle against a digital broadcasting standard that moved one step closer to reality with a preliminary decision by the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC on Thursday approved a proposal to allot one digital channel to every television station. The move was part of a larger and longer process to create a new standard for digital TVs, one that includes digital licenses for television stations, as well as new technical standards.

"This is really about the migration of the television from an analog to a digital technology," said Bruce Franca, deputy chief of the commission's Office of Engineering and Technology. When finally implemented, perhaps as early as 1997, the so-called HDTV system will require a new type of television, a shift that Franca compared to the move from black-and-white sets to color TV.

But computer and film industry leaders aren't happy about a proposal for the standard submitted to the FCC by a group of TV manufacturers known as the Grand Alliance. A coalition of computer executives and filmmakers that includes Microsoft's Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese have formed Americans for Better Digital TV to challenge the standards proposal, according to a Newsbytes report.

Dolby competitor Digital Theater Systems recently complained in a filing to the FCC that the audio coding incorporated in the alliance's proposed standard has already been surpassed by DTS technology and should be revised to an open platform.

The Southern California company's request for revisions to the standard, now under consideration by the commission, today received the support of the Computer Industry Coalition on Advanced Television Service (CICATS), which is composed of Compaq, Apple, Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics, and Tandem Computer.

The computer industry, for its part, is expecting TV and PC technology eventually to converge and wants to discourage the government from setting any standards at all, fearing that government-approved guidelines will lock the industry into technology that won't work easily with computer data. The coalition claims the alliance's HDTV standards are not necessarily compatible with computer data.

"The computer guys don't like it. It's been optimized for video, and the computer guys want it optimized for computers," said Saul Shapiro, assistant bureau chief for the FCC's Mass Media Bureau. Specifically, the proposal calls for interleaved scanning of images, which first transmits all the odd lines on the TV screen and then the even lines. Americans for Better Digital TV wants progressive scanning, which transmits each line from top to bottom, which works slower but results in a clearer image.

Film executives are worried that the proposed standard won't preserve the look and feel of wide-screen films that promise to be a large part of the content offered on the new digital channels.

The FCC proposal, which still must undergo a 90-day public comment period before final ratification, will allow the television industry to shift to digital channels with improved sound and picture quality, according to Franca. Broadcasters will also have a much wider range of options, including the transmission of several programs simultaneously on one channel as well as other digital information services.

"It's still broadcasting, so it's transmission from a single point to multiple households," Franca said. "But people could hook up with other networks to make it two-way. The digital transmission has the capability to hook into or even create other data networks," like wireless messaging and Internet access.

Distribution of licenses free of charge will most likely start next year unless Congress steps in and orders an auction of the new channels.

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