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DTV - Ready for Primetime?  Print E-mail
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Written by Kim Wilson   
Sunday, 01 August 1999

Introduction
For years there's been talk about Digital Television (DTV), though it's only been in the last year that manufactures have delivered products to their dealers and networks have started minimal broadcasting of HDTV content. Leading the way, CBS has aired three football games, an episode of Chicago Hope and just recently an episode of 48 Hours. The Los Angeles affiliate, KCBS, provides reruns of existing HDTV programming and high-quality sights of the city on a separate digital channel. On April 26th, NBC made TV history when "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" became the first show to broadcast nightly in HD.

DTV encompasses both the High Definition (HDTV) and standard definition (SDTV) formats. HDTV formats are displayed in the 16:9 aspect ratio with a potential vertical resolution of 1080p (progressive), though 1080i (interlaced) is the maximum scan rate for current TV sets. The HDTV signal is delivered at 19.3 Mbps (bits per second) in a 6MHz channel. Delivered at the lower 480p resolution, SDTV is displayed in either 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratios. Broadcasters have an affection for this later format because it allows them to multicast, the practice of sending multiple SDTV signals on a single 6MHz channel. Home-based DTV receivers are designed to accept all 18 formats, allowing consumers to receive what ever signal the network is sending. Canada, S. Korea, Taiwan and Argentina have also adopted this DTV standard.

The DTV Transition
Getting from an analog-based infrastructure to a totally digital one requires cooperation from the broadcast, cable and consumer electronics industries. While previous digital technologies were confined to consumer acceptance via a proliferation of new products and software, the DTV transition affects every level of the broadcast chain.

Currently, the only way to receive a HDTV signal is over-the-air with the use of an antenna, though it's estimated that two-thirds of Americans use cable to receive TV. With popular cable channels like HBO and Discovery planning to produce and deliver HDTV programming, several cable companies have started test trials and are making plans for conversion. Some digital satellite systems have already committed to providing both HDTV and SDTV.

To date, 17 cable operators in the U.S. and Canada have committed to deploy Scientific-Atlanta's digital set-top box because it enables owners of first- generation HDTV sets to secure high-definition programming via cable. By the end of the year, some next generation HDTV's and set-top boxes will incorporate the IEEE 1394 'FireWire' standard for direct compatibility with cable.

Over-the-air broadcasts are currently available in 22 major markets but all commercial stations must begin broadcasting no later than May 2002. CEMA (Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association) expects 150,000 DTV sets to be purchased by the end of 1999, primarily representing early adopters and technology enthusiasts. In 2000, manufacturers anticipate selling 600,000 sets. Realistically, it's going to require a lot more consumer education, and every cable company coming to the table for such expectations to be realized. The year 2006 is when the DTV transition is scheduled to be in place and CEMA estimates the sale of 10.8 million units, representing a penetration of 30%.

Like DVD, Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is the standard for HDTV, however, broadcasters who've traditionally treated audio as the bastard stepchild, find themselves unprepared for discrete 5.1 audio transmissions. The production and distribution infrastructure of the broadcast community is presently ensconced in the mono and stereo world with millions of dollars tied up in equipment that is insufficient for producing and delivering multi-channel broadcasts. In an effort to facilitate multi-channel audio with existing equipment, Dolby Labs developed Dolby E. This encode/decode process enables broadcasters to distribute up to eight channels of audio via AES/EBU pairs, two audio tracks from a digital video tape, a digital audio tape or video server. Dolby E carries the Dolby Digital metadata for final delivery to a home theater's Dolby Digital decoder.

Who's Doing What in DTV
Perhaps, the most ambitious supporter of HDTV is Unity Motion, a company out of Utah, that operates a HDTV broadcast service with a total of 3 HD channels. For consumers they market a High Definition Distribution System, consisting of a widescreen monitor and HDTV Receiver. They deliver a broad range of movies and sports 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It's important to note that they re-run a great deal of material due to the shortage of HD content. Many audio/video retailers use Unity Motion's signal for in-store demonstrations and they were responsible for providing HDTV broadcasts to exhibitors booths throughout this year's CES. The addition of more channels is scheduled for 1999 and 2000. The company has secured significant capital for the acquisition of first-run programming and operates its own production facilities for the creation of original programming in HD.

Toshiba is shipping three large screen (71 inch to 65 inch) HDTV-ready color TVs equipped with both DTV (1080i) and DVD (480p) inputs. All units feature a DTV interface terminal (33.75 KH scanning rate), enabling the maximum picture resolution for all 18 DTV broadcast formats. These units interface with both a DTV set-top box and a Progressive Scan DVD video player simultaneously. Pioneer's first HDTV is the 64" Pro-700HD. The exclusive Automatic Format Converter upconverts conventional NTSC signals to 480p, and all DTV signals are displayed at 1080i. Sony is shipping the 65-inch projection HDTV, KWP-65HD1, and the 34" direct view KW-34HD1. Both feature Digital Reality Creation (DRC), which doubles scan line pixels to create an image with four times the density of other TVs.

As with any new consumer technology, early DTV products are going to be pricey. Sets incorporating high-definition receivers will exceed $7,000. HDTV ready units will start as low as $2799, but will require a separate set-top converter to actually receive the digital signal. Once there is a variety of programming, demand will increase and equipment prices should start falling.

Conclusion
With all the major networks ramping up for the new age of digital TV and retailers slowly adding DTV-ready products to the shelf, it would appear that DTV is no longer vaporware but a real technology with a future. Still, it's not quite ready for primetime with sporadic broadcasts, limited access and costly home-based equipment.

It's safe to say that analog broadcasts will continue for at least eight years, possibly longer. With set-top boxes that receive and downconvert digital signals, older analog sets can be used long after the termination of analog signals. Of course, you won't be enjoying the sharp and brilliant images of HDTV but you will be able to watch TV as you do now. Federal legislation will insure continuation of analog signals in markets where DTV penetration is less than 85% percent. Like any purchase, buy as much of the most current technology as you can afford to ensure the longest life. Rest assured that all DTVs are backward compatible with today's VCR and DVD players.

For complete monthly updates on the advancement of DTV bookmark this comprehensive website www.digitaltelevision.com. It contains articles from industry experts like Joe Kane and key developers in the field plus an up-to-date list of station(s) broadcasting HDTV programming.





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