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Chicago Missing Debut Of HDTV

Monday, October 26, 1998

Chicago is one of a handful of major cities whose viewers will miss this week's debut of television's technological future.

Starting with Thursday's Discovery space shuttle launch and continuing with movies and foot ball games in November, stations in cities as big as Boston and as small as Madison, Wis., will send out signals with the lifelike images and compact disc-quality sound of high-definition digital television.

In Chicago, though, the video revolution will not be televised—at least not for several more months:

Why? Because channels here are struggling with one issue: where to put the antenna.

Stations have spent months studying construction of a new antenna tower to carry their digital signals. They say their current antenna sites, atop the Sears Tower and the Hancock Center, lack enough space for the new equipment required for HDTV.

"Unless you're atop a tower, on the tallest building in the city, you will have to accept lesser [evenness of coverage] of the signal," said Larry Ocker, senior engineering vice president at WTTW-Channel ~1. "But to get on the air, you just have to do it."

And some will. Local stations are making interim deals for space at their current sites, allowing them to meet the FCC deadline of May, 1999, when all commercial stations in the top 10 markets --Chicago included --must be transmitting a digital signal.

"We will be allowed to modify our antenna at the John Hancock building," WBBM-Cbannel 2 spokeswoman Camille Johnston said. "We will meet our deadline."

Barring technical delays, WLS-Channel 7 also will be HDTV-ready by May, station manager Emily Barr said. WMAQ-Channel 5 had set Nov. l as a goal for digital transmissions but won't make it. Station officials could not be reached to comment.

Channel 1, which has a later deadline, expects to emit digital signals from the Sears Tower next summer.

The shuttle launch Thursday-which will also be broadcast the old-fashioned way-will be seen in HDTV by about 300 people invited to a private showing at Chicago's Museum of Broadcast C6mmunicafions.

Few HDTV-compatible televisions are in homes. With programming virtually nonexistent buying an HDTV set would be like buying a lamp when you have no electricity.

Tbe real buzz about HDTV began in 1996, when the FCC established transmission standards for digital broadcasts. Those who saw demonstrations of the format spoke of resolution so high it was almost distracting.

"It looked uncanny," said Scott Swire, a sales manager at Abt Electronics in Morton Grove, which hosted a recent Panasonic demonstration featuring a handmade, $120,000 HD VCR. "With an HDTV tape of a football game, the picture gave a feeling of roundness of the players shoulders. There was even visible depth perception." Swire said that Abt has been selling Panasonic sets to customers in cities that will have HDTV this week, including Dallas and Madison.

One consumer roadblock is the high initial cost. HDTV prices range from Panasonic's $5,500 for a 54-inch set (requiring a decoder box priced at $2,000) to tens of thousands of dollars for some of the cuffing-edge flat display models.

But prices should fall, putting high-definition sets well within the reach of consumers by 2006, when the FCC has mandated that stations must turn off their conventional analog signals. The rule states that 85 percent of house holds must be digital-capable before a station discontinues analog broadcasts.

© Copyright 1998 Sun-Times News Group

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