PC format gains in digital TV

Amid a protracted debate, part of the broadcast industry appears to be leaning toward digital TV standards favored by Compaq and Microsoft.

3 min read
Amid a protracted and often acrimonious debate, part of the broadcast industry appears to be leaning toward standards favored by Compaq Computer, Microsoft, and Intel for the deployment of digital television technology in computers and TV sets.

ABC Television announced support for a digital television broadcast format called "progressive scanning," which is favored by the PC industry giants, in a move that could give computer companies a fighting chance at driving the much-anticipated convergence of PCs and consumer electronics.

Fox Broadcasting has also announced support for the format, and NBC is talking about the possibility of selected broadcasts.

The decisions mean that broadcasters such as ABC could begin using the PC standard to send a combination of video, audio, and data for interactive services like shopping to PCs and other computer-like information appliances. The computer standard offers higher-quality images than traditional television technology.

"Computer people have to be rejoicing. They have pleaded, twisted arms, lobbied--they've done everything except buy out the networks to stop them from doing interlaced transmission," the technology now used in television, said Dale Cripps, publisher of HDTV Newsletter, an industry trade journal.

The issue will be a central topic as the National Association of Broadcasters opens its annual convention this weekend in Las Vegas. At last year's gathering, Microsoft, Compaq, and Intel said they would be making millions of PCs capable of receiving digital signals but that, unless broadcasters used the PC industry's format, they would lose millions of viewers.

Microsoft (MSFT), Compaq (CPQ), and to a lesser extent Intel have been pushing progressive scanning, the standard used for computer monitors.

But in an interesting turn of events, Microsoft and Intel (INTC) are now stating that the convergence boxes will not necessarily be PCs but advanced TV set-top devices. In December of last year, Intel held a major technology briefing spelling out its set-top computer strategy based around low-cost derivatives of the Pentium II processor and related chip technology.

Microsoft has also been aiming its Windows CE operating system at TV set-top boxes as the technology platform for the convergence of television and computing.

"We believe there should be a range of receivers. The set-top box is the biggest market," said Steve Guggenheimer, group product manager for Digital TV at Microsoft.

Despite this boost for PC standards, most television industry executives appear to be leaning toward broadcasting digital programming in the long-standing interlaced format. Broadcasters have been reluctant to go with progressive scan technology because it would require a larger investment in editing, camera, and other back-room equipment.

"The whole thing boils down to a competition for the living room. What is going to be the primary entertainment device? Is it a TV with an Internet connection, or will it be a PC with TV content? TVs use interlaced, and PCs use progressive scan. If you win that format battle, then your monitor wins," said Sean Kaldor, an analyst with International Data Corporation.

Recently Intel has adopted more of a middle-of-the-road strategy, advocating technology that makes it irrelevant what the broadcast standard is. "Our position remains that the PC has the power to support whichever formats [broadcasters] choose...We're continuing to support technology that can handle whatever formats the broadcasters ultimately use," said Tom Waldrup, a spokeperson for Intel.