The computer, broadcast, and consumer electronics industries have finally agreed on a standard for the next wave of television, opening the door for the transmission of digital TV and a new breed of machines that will bring computers and TV sets even closer together.
Spurred on by a Thanksgiving ultimatum handed down by the Federal Communications Commission, the parties decided to let the free market determine the size, shape, and resolution of the image transmitted through the air and how that image will be displayed on next-generation TVs and PCs.
Referred to as "video format," these details were the sticking point in the often-contentious negotiations, and in the end the three industries recommended that the FCC let the free market resolve the problem.
If the FCC approves the compromise, it means that hardware makers will design boxes based on what they believe consumers will prefer: devices that display moving images, text, still images and fonts like a computer monitor, a film screen, a plain old television, or a combination of all three.
"I personally believe you're going to see convergence and not dominance of either industry," said Mark Richer, executive director of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, an advisory board that last year proposed the standard that provided the basis for negotiations.
Richer also warned that if electronics manufacturers build sets that don't hew to the video formats chosen by the broadcasters, consumers could find themselves with machines that don't receive all possible signals or that squeeze movies into strange shapes.
But before that happens, industry reps will continue negotiating toward a de facto standard for video formatting. Some video format issues--such as progressive vs. interlaced scan, which describes how the lines on a screen are drawn--will be resolved by common sense.
"Broadcasters won't choose standards that are hostile to sending digital data," said Bob Stearns, senior vice president of technology and corporate development at Compaq Computer. "That's why broadcasters will move to progressive scan, which is not just good for images but graphics and fonts as well."
The stakes are staggering, as software makers and other digital content providers see a digitized TV pipeline as a godsend for one-way data delivery in which traditional TV programming would be just one of the many deliverables.
"This offers an enormous data capacity," said Joe Flaherty, senior vice president for technology at CBS. For example, a five-second still image such as a station identification panel takes such a small amount of bandwidth that broadcasters would still have most of the 19-mbps pipe to deliver news publications or software programs, Flaherty said.
Consumers will probably have a one- to two-year wait for digital TVs to show up in stores, although manufacturers could possibly introduce digital TV-ready boxes before broadcasters roll out their services.
And despite the happy talk of keeping government regulation at bay, the FCC still has a huge role in the proceedings. The commission must assign digital frequencies to broadcasters, as well as approve specifications for data streaming, compression, and other technical details.