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Delays Blur Local Debut Of HDTV

By Eleanor Yang

Wednesday, August 19, 1998

Viewers watch a scene from the movie 'Mars Attack' during a demonstration of high-definition TV at ABT in Morton Grove

The much-touted revolution in television sets-high-definition TV-will be trickling into stores here as early as next month, but digital broadcasting setbacks mean Chicago will be one of the last major markets to see the clearer images and hear the compact disc-quality sound.

In fact, Industry experts say problems with digital broadcasting technology, plus weak initial demand for the sets-estimated to cost between $5,000 and $12,000-mean the Federal Communications Commission's timetable for the changeover from analog (the current technology) to digital is unlikely to be met here.

HDTV is touted for its sharper, clearer video; digital signals clean up the interference-ghosting, blurring-that conventional analog signals can display. The quality of the digital picture also gets bumped up from the conventional TV's 525 lines per screen to 1080 lines for high definition, and the picture format is wider. That produces an image about the same as movie theater quality.

Only subscribers to digital satellite programming services, an estimated 248,000 people in Illinois, see anything close to the quality of high definition TV. The FCC has mandated that at least one major network in the country's 10 largest markets must be broadcasting digital signals by November 1.

Joe Corona of Tandem Marketing explains features of HDTV to Brad Boehm and his son, Danny during a product demonstration at ABT Television & Appliances in Morton Grove.

The first step in a national rollout of the new technology. But Chicago's designated station. WMAQ Channel 5, owned and operated by NBC, has already filed for two extensions, citing problems finding a tower high enough to carry their new digital signal.

'We certainly intend to make every effort to meet our May 1 deadline," said Tom Powers, chief engineer at WMAQ. Indeed, all four major networks in Chicago and they will do their best to meet the May 1, 1999 deadline for network affiliates in the top 10 markets to be broadcasting digital signals.

"It's difficult to predict at this time when any broadcaster will get in on Chicago. due to complex negotiations" for antenna space, said Marc Drazin. director of engineering at WGN-TV and head of the Chicago Digital Broadcasting Committee.

In the other nine markets-New York, Los Angeles. Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Detroit and Atlanta-things are further along. Network affiliates have already been granted permits for their new digital channels. and they are expected to begin broadcasting as early as Nov. 1. Not coincidentally, their goal is to put digital programs on the air in time for the holiday shopping season when viewers might be enticed to spring for a new TV.

Many experts and scholars scoff at the possibility the industry will meet the FCC's deadlines for phasing in the changeover from analog to digital broadcasting especially the last milestone, set at the en' of 2006. That's the date the transition should be complete, meaning standard televisions, the one found in most homes, will be defunct and only digital signal will be broadcast. Viewers will have to buy new television sets or they'll have to spring for set-to converter boxes that will let a old TV set receive the digital signal but won't produce the digital picture quality.

"The 2006 deadline is meaningless and unrealistic," said Craig LaMay, an assistant professor specializing in media at Northwestern University. "It's not as if consumers are out there saying 'we need clearer, sharper picture. The date was set for budgetary reasons.

Congress has stipulated at least 85 percent of Americans must have access to digital broadcasting before analog signals will be discontinued.

"Few technologies penetrate the market that quickly," LaMay said. "It could be 25 to 30 years hence."

Indeed, he pointed out, the color television set took well over 10 years to become standard in every living room.

What's more, broadcasters have no major financial incentive to hurry along the digital route. The networks estimate it wall cost them millions to convert their studio technology to accommodate digital, and there is no immediately available way to absorb those kinds of costs-or pass them along.

"Don't bet the ranch that [they'll meet the deadlines]," said Bishop Cheen, an analyst for First Union Capital Markets in Charlotte, N.C. "It's complicated because broadcasters will have to run on dual mode, broadcasting both analog and digital, and the learning curve will be so steep. There's no history."

To top all of this off, consumers, familiar with the high cost and rapid obsolescence of first-generation electronic products, have been hesitant to reach deep into their pockets to be first to own a new HDTV set.

At a recent high-definition TV demonstration at ABT in Morton Grove, despite occasional gaping jaws at the dramatically better picture quality, the price tag appeared to dampen the desire.

"It's got to come down in price," said Luigi Mazzei, a 26-year-old technical engineer of Westchester. "Unless you've got the income, I don't see what we need that kind of resolution for yet."

Added John Cook, a 59-year-old air conditioning salesman from Elmwood Park, "All I know is, I don't want to be the first person on my block to buy it."

Still many retailers said they're Optimistic about the product's ultimate success. "We've always said it's going to be a marathon, not a sprint," said Gary Klein, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Association.

© 1998, Chicago Tribune