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Mitsubishi unveils digital TV plan

Sales aren't tied to digital TV broadcasts, which will only be available in limited areas with a small amount of high-definition programming.

    Mitsubishi Consumer Electronics America today elaborated on a strategy to deliver digital TVs to retail stores nationwide--but these sets are really aimed at improving standard broadcast images rather than showing high-quality HDTV programming, which will be scarce until the turn of the century.

    Mitsubishi HDTV set-top box
    Mitsubishi's stand-alone TV set-top for receiving HDTV signals

    Mitsubishi said it is initially shipping 50-inch sets with prices starting at $3,895--which does not include the price of a decoder box--to dealers in all U.S. markets. The company also plans to ship six other models at a later date. Most TV manufacturers are offering limited numbers of sets in markets where digital TV broadcasts are set to start on November 1.

    When paired with a set-top receiver to decode the digital signal, HDTVs will be capable of displaying pictures with roughly twice (or more in some cases) the picture clarity than current TVs. These sets will also display images in the widescreen format, also referred to as 16-by-9, but the receiver costs an additional $3,200 to $3,500, a Mitsubishi spokesperson estimates.

    Panasonic was the first to sell an rear-projection HDTV in the U.S. market when it launched its systems in August. Sony, too, has announced an HDTV, with the notable exception that it's based on mainstream picture tube technology rather than projection technology.

    Mitsubishi digital TV
    One of Mitsubishi's new digital TVs that are available nationwide.

    What makes the Mitsubishi strategy unusual is that its sales aren't tied to digital TV broadcasts, which will only be available in limited areas with a small amount of high-definition programming. Instead, consumers in markets without digital signals will see HDTV demonstrations in the stores, and will buy the sets without the receivers.

    "The Mitsubishi HDTV has a separate receiver. The customer will see demonstrations of the benefits of HDTV," using a tape played in the store, explains Robert Perry, director of marketing for Mitsubishi. "A salesperson will say 'You don't have to buy the receiver now. You can buy that later for HDTV," he added.

    In the absence of HD programming, the set will take a standard broadcast signal, and by an internal process called "upconversion" quadruple the amount of lines displayed for sharper images, Mitsubishi said. These features alone are already generating sales, retailers have said.

    In essence, Mitsubishi--as well as other companies who are offering HDTV set-top receivers that are separate from the TV--is attempting to insulate customers from some of the changes in systems that are bound to occur.

    While many consumers get their TV signals from a cable set-top box, first-generation HDTV sets don't have a standardized way to receive a pristine digital signal from those boxes. They can view an upconverted version of a standard broadcast, though. A standard interconnect is not expected to show up on HDTVs until later next year, industry officials say.

    "Once the cable standard is fleshed out, you may want a [recevier] with HDTV from cable. Pay-per-view broadcast and other services that HDTVs can directly receive will come about, and they'll need an upgrade to the box," said Perry. Newer receivers may also include tuners for viewing satellite programming.