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DTV commitment surprises

Despite hurdles, some 41 stations from a wide range of U.S. markets are set to begin broadcasts in November, more than previously expected.

Broadcasters gathered in Washington today to proclaim their commitment to the rollout of digital television, saying that 41 stations from a wide range of U.S. markets are set to begin broadcasts in November.

Some 24 stations had been expected to voluntarily begin broadcasting digital TV to the few high-cost, next-generation TV sets capable of receiving the signals by November 1. According to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), nearly double that number will begin broadcasts, including stations in smaller markets such as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Raleigh, North Carolina.

Affiliates of the four networks in the ten largest markets are required to begin their digital broadcasts by May 1, 1999, and in the top 30 markets by November 1999, according to government regulations. All other commercial stations must begin digital broadcasting no later than May 1, 2002.

With digital technology, broadcasters can offer a high-definition digital TV signal with significantly greater picture clarity than current analog TVs allow.

"The message is as clear as an HDTV picture itself: Broadcasters are delivering on their digital pledge and, in fact, exceeding it," said NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts in a statement.

The news signals broadcaster's growing interest in playing a part in the convergence of digital technologies with television, but how this interest will translate into a viable business for all concerned parties is still a matter for great debate.

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, but that number pales in comparison to the over 1 billion analog TVs in the world today.

With so few viewers in the offing, broadcasters may have a hard time justifying broadcast of high-definition digital television.

The NAB estimates that broadcasters will have invested approximately $16 billion in equipment upgrades when the transition is complete, although the government gave them the part of the wireless spectrum to do digital broadcasts for free.

Another major roadblock: there currently isn't enough content developed in high-definition digital format to attract viewers, although that is changing, albeit very slowly. CBS recently announced it would begin HDTV broadcasts of NFL football games this season.

NAB officials admit their are hurdles to the success of digital TV. "Proud and excited as we are about delivering on digital, we know with compact discs or even with color TV, consumers are not going to transition to digital overnight," said NAB Executive Vice President for Television Chuck Sherman in a prepared statement. "Many pieces still have to fall in place," he added.

Among the challenges Sherman cited: finding sites for new towers that can transmit digital signals, the availability of affordable digital TV sets (most are now priced in the $6,000 to $10,000, sometimes with an extra $1,500 digital decoder box needed), and convincing cable operators to carry high-definition signals.

Some industry observers think broadcasters had better hope these issues get resolved soon.

"Analog broadcasting is a dead medium," declared former FCC chairman Reed Hundt at the Wall Street Journal Technology Summit in New York yesterday, noting that all types of analog devices are moving toward using digital technology. Broadcasters who don't have a solid plan in place may risk extinction, he said.