The progress of technology is driven by one very simple concept: Improve the experience. In much the same way that eight-track tapes gave way to cassettes, which gave way to compact discs, conventional television sets are yielding to a new breed of receivers showing pictures that are up to four times sharper than what you are used to, while providing true surround sound.
The difference in image quality is striking. HDTV is designed to simulate the big-screen experience of a movie theater, including both the rectangular dimension of the picture and sound that zips around the room. The picture size, or aspect ratio, is represented as the picture’s width compared to its height. A standard set displays a squarish, 4:3 aspect ratio, but HDTV images are transmitted (and viewable) in a 16:9 aspect ratio—the same as letterbox. That means that while you are watching football in HDTV, you may see the entire field, not just a slice of it, or you may see all the horses in the Kentucky Derby, not just the leaders.
Additionally, HDTV signals have a resolution of 1,080 horizontal lines; standard TV sets display only 525 lines of resolution. If you look closely at the picture on a standard set, you see small horizontal lines running through the display. These lines don’t exist on an HDTV image, so the added pixels create a picture that is much richer, more colorful, and more detailed than anything possible with standard analog transmissions. Think of it this way: A regular TV image is to an HDTV image as a newspaper photograph is to a magazine photograph.
HDTV enhances audio by providing six audio feeds (rather than the typical two of standard sets) that not only deliver CD-quality sound, but also allow you to create true 5.1 surround sound. Although you may have your television connected to a set of speakers, the TV is able to output only a left and a right channel regardless of the number of speakers playing them.
HDTV is often confused with digital television, but the distinction is an important one. Digital television simply indicates that the information is transmitted as data bits, rather than as analog signals. HDTV is one type of digital transmission. Just like DVD is better than VHS, digital is better than analog. But HDTV presents a truer picture in terms of sharpness and color than even standard digital transmissions.
Unfortunately, there is not enough programming in HDTV right now to make investment in the equipment worthwhile, unless you really want to see Everybody Loves Raymond in the best quality possible. More than 225 stations in the United States provide some digital programming, but what is available in your area depends largely on your cable system or satellite provider. Urban areas and regions served by the bigger cable outfits generally have more HDTV programs to choose from, though more stations are coming online each month. You can check what is available in your area at the National Association of Broadcasters’ web site (www.nab.org).
The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that all local network affiliates have digital capability by May, a deadline most experts say will be met. The FCC wants all programming offered digitally within four years so that it can make the broadcast spectrum available to local police, fire, and emergency services.
Still, the digital transition has a few lingering obstacles to overcome. Perhaps most significant is the cable operators’ sluggish acceptance of digital signals from local network affiliates. Although they are required by the FCC to carry local broadcasts, cable operators—who provide programming to almost 70 percent of U.S. viewers—do not have to carry the digital version.
Faced with bandwidth problems of their own, many have chosen to con-tinue sending the analog signal while delaying a commitment to a simultaneous digital signal. The issue is quantity versus quality: Cable operators say they would have to drop some current channels to accommodate dual signals from each local affiliate.
Meanwhile, the network affiliates balk at the cost of specialized equipment needed to broadcast in HDTV. Although it is possible to simply “upconvert” a standard-definition signal to a digital signal and meet the FCC mandate, to achieve true HD quality each station has to broadcast in high-def, and that entails buying a new transmitter, antenna, cameras, and control room equipment, and maybe even building a new studio. That is why much of the existing HDTV programming consists of prime-time sitcoms, many of which are taped using equipment that can provide HDTV audio and video. CBS offers most of its prime-time programming in HDTV and last fall added Saturday college football.
WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C., was the first local station in the United States to provide a true HDTV signal and has been broadcasting local news in HDTV since January 2001—even though the news shows coming from its network, CBS, are not. Craig Turner, the station’s chief engineer, is a proponent of HDTV’s potential but says there are significant barriers. “It’s cost, it’s equipment, it’s programming availability, it’s everything,” Turner says, noting that Survivor, CBS’ most popular show, is not available in HD yet. “It’s frustrating, but we also understand the cost involved.”
Turner says HDTV acceptance is a catch-22: Until more programming is available in HDTV, viewers will not feel compelled to buy into it, and without viewers, networks and their affiliates are not compelled to offer much HDTV programming.
However, stations must begin returning analog bandwidth in 2006, which is when digital is slated to become the new standard. Whether that will happen is debatable, and the FCC admits that the deadline is fluid. By that point, cable operators will be expected to provide local digital signals even though the FCC likely won’t ask broadcasters to stop their analog signals until a vast majority of U.S. households have converted.
But there is no guarantee that will ever happen. In fact, manufacturers are still making analog televisions. That perhaps is the biggest indicator that there is not enough programming available yet to invest in the equipment.