January/February 2001

Digital Visions: A Freewheeling Look at Digital TV

High-definition television? I’ll show you high-definition television. Until recently, I thought the picture on my 1959 Philco Predicta was about as sharp an image as I’d ever seen on a cathode ray tube. Philco achieved really crisp blacks, the brilliant whites, the smoothest grays and highlights just sparkling enough to give you the idea that Spike Jones just might really be sweating in that little box. Color? Hell, who needed that? Philco put all their money into the Predicta’s Jetsonish exterior because they knew full well the public craved a set projecting the period’s moderne style more than they desired a greenish-pink image of Jack Parr’s face; those clowns at RCA and NBC were throwing good money after bad with all their ideas of “living color.” Besides, by the early ’60s you could buy a little wheel of transparent colored plastic that would give you blue skies and green grass when you taped it in front of the screen.

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Runco DTV-873
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ProScan PS 38000
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Sony KW-34HD1
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Runco Plasma PL-50c
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Fujitsu Plasmavision PDS-4222

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Who could ask for more?

Transitions of technology often begin with a storm of confusion. Witness the introduction of electric light bulbs, the battle between CBS and RCA over the color television standard, between LPs and 45s (another CBS/RCA squabble), between eight-tracks and cassettes, Beta and VHS; the list goes on. But perhaps the most controversial, most contentious transition yet is the current move to so-called high-definition television. The arcane terminology and competing forces have created a situation that, in spite of FCC mandates to complete the switch by 2006, promise to befuddle industry participants and consumers alike well beyond the federal deadline.

Two things are for certain: High definition is here to stay and, more importantly, the improvement in picture and sound quality of HDTV is nothing short of astonishing. “When people see HDTV, they want it,” testifies Sony spokesman David Migdal. “It is really impossible not to see the difference.”

This is a sentiment shared by most of the sources for this column, from broadcast engineers to high-end retailers. It is hard to dispute: I was mesmerized by the music and insight provided by a DVD version of Ralph J. Gleason’s Jazz Casual public television series. Clouds of smoke from Count Basie’s and Gleason’s cigarettes were all but cough-provoking when viewed on the Runco DTV-873, a $16,000 front-projection television capable of reproducing rich, deep color and nearly three-dimensional detail as I had never seen before.

Interestingly, I have yet to see an HDTV set that did not perform as well as the Runco. Without exception, digital sets offer an image that was unimaginable just a few years ago. All produced the blackest blacks, the whitest whites, brilliant reds and yellows, not to mention a spectrum of color that today’s average set just can’t reproduce. Add to that six-channel-surround sound and the potential for multicasting—broadcasting up to four different programs simultaneously on the same channel—and you have a winning formula for a truly satisfying home-entertainment experience. Those cramped shoebox-sized multiplex theaters now really do have a reason to worry about competition from television—or they will once all the kinks are worked out in establishing standards and conventions in this still young and ever-changing vortex. Even Sony’s Migdal admits, “It’s a complicated landscape to navigate right now. Even the definition of the term ‘high definition’ has changed.”

To wit: The new, all-encompassing term for this emerging new technology is digital television, or DTV. “Under that moniker exist three levels of quality,” explains Jeff Joseph, vice-president of the Consumer Electronics Association. “The base level is called Standard Definition and offers 480 lines of resolution. But even at this relatively low level, it is far better than the current NTSC signal most get at home today.” Multicasting will utilize this level when offering its simultaneous program services, typically during daytime hours. “The next step up is Expanded Definition,” Joseph continues, “and this offers a sharper image because it utilizes progressive scanning instead of interlaced scan lines. Think of the clean, nearly lineless image of a computer monitor.” Current analog interlaced scanning creates those unsightly lines across the otherwise smooth visage of Diana Krall. “The top level is High Definition, featuring 720 lines of progressive scanning or 1080 interlaced lines of resolution, plus the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio mandated by the FCC.” This widescreen ratio results in a screen image that is about one-third wider than present screens; it is sometimes referred to as “letterbox.”

So where lies the confusion? For the end-user there seem to be two issues. First, what is there to watch on this new-fangled tube? And secondly, what does all this jargon mean?

Content is truly a concern, at least for now. Many areas of the country are not yet served by the growing number of digital broadcast stations, though by now, according to FCC mandate, fully 50 percent of the population—that represented by the top 30 U.S. television markets—is supposed to be covered by digital simulcasts of network programming. That appears to be happening. But the bottom line is, even with big city affiliates of all major networks signing on with digital frequencies (their digital signal requires a new transmitter, tower work and a new channel assignment), only two networks have made any significant commitment to programming for DTV: CBS and PBS. CBS is currently offering pretty much their entire prime-time schedule in HD and promises NFL playoffs and the Superbowl in HD.

Other commercial networks seem to have a wait-and-see approach. NBC regularly broadcasts the Tonight Show in HD, as well as the occasional sporting event, while ABC let its Monday Night Football HD broadcast revert back to traditional analog NTSC.

PBS, on the other hand, has embraced the new standards wholeheartedly. “We have always been a leader in using technology to enhance our mission of public service and education,” explains Dara Goldberg at PBS. “We can see the promise and don’t want to be left behind. In 1998 we launched our digital service and now have 22 stations online, and intend to have all our affiliates transmitting a digital signal by 2003 at a total cost of $1.7 billion. This is an expensive venture and one of the reasons the transition will take so long.”

PBS’s HD-produced programming has run the gamut of the corporation’s usual fare, but it has also featured a wide variety of music, including programs featuring Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington and some excerpts from the Newport Jazz Festival.

Goldberg adds that PBS intends to take full advantage of all the options offered by digital television, not just the improved picture quality. “We already offer our stations two multicast services, PBS Kids—24 hours a day of children’s programming—and PBS-U, which is designed to offer college courses for college credit. PBS is always looking for ways to give our viewers just a bit more,” states Goldberg.

That there is not more programming offered is certainly traceable to a lack of commitment by the networks. According to Joseph of the CEA, “Not all broadcasters are stepping up to the plate. It might be because they can’t figure out how to make money off DTV. The fact is they guaranteed the government they would provide content if the government granted them more of the broadcast frequency spectrum and now they are not following through on that promise.”

Joseph predicts that a couple of events that should occur in the near future will help lift some of the barriers preventing DTV from spreading more quickly. He says that by next fall, DTV will be more widely accessible via cable and that a solution to the current copy-protection dilemma will be found. “None of the major studios wants to see digital copies of their blockbuster hits available for free on the Internet,” Joseph says, “so they are holding back their product until copy protection is in place.”

But don’t despair if you don’t live in one of the areas currently blessed with terrestrial, that is, broadcast, digital signals. There are many roads already open to DTV bliss. Some cable companies are already offering limited digital service. And digital has been a reality via satellite for some time, offering primarily films on HBO and Showtime and some cool stuff on the Discovery Channel.

And though HD-DVDs will not be a reality for another couple of years, the experience of viewing today’s DVDs on a high-quality digital display is nothing short of phenomenal. Because its transfer to digital was managed with kid gloves, A Bug’s Life is one of the mainstay demos of the DTV/DVD universe. The colors are more vivid, it seems, than even the theatrical release, and the dimensional effect is so startling you often get the impression the characters can wiggle, crawl or fly off the screen. Even a black-and-white John Coltrane Quartet segment from Gleason’s Jazz Casual looks outstanding: it puts drummer Elvin Jones, with back to the camera, dead center in the room, revealing every hair on his head, every nuance of his drum set. Not even my Predicta can do that!

So what kind of hardware is out there? Virtually every manufacturer you know, and many you don’t, have wonderful DTV products at widely varying price points. Prices for complete DTV solutions start around $2,500 and seem to have no upper limit. You’ll have to do some serious shopping to decide what works best for your budget and your room, but the time invested will be returned 10-fold from the enjoyment you will get from the improved picture quality—the you-are-thereness quotient.

DTVs come in three broad categories, two of which allow you to build a component system, analogous to the flexibility provided by individual audio components.

First are integrated HD sets that incorporate the digital receiver and the display, not unlike today’s traditional analog sets, except that these offer an unbeatable image. The ProScan PS 38000 displays HD at 1080I (1080 interlaced scan lines) and at 38 inches, offers the largest direct view (CRT-based image) screen on the market as well as built-in DirectTV satellite capability. Sony’s KW-34HD1 also features a 1080I scan rate, a 34-inch screen and packages Sony’s usual attention to detail and quality into a neat box. All true HD sets, including these, offer the 16:9 aspect ratio. When a salesman tells you a set is “HD ready” it means it will require the addition of an outboard tuner as described below.

Then come the components. A separate monitor allows you to tailor the display to your room and upgrade the outboard digital tuner, called the set-top box, as advances in that technology become available without replacing the screen as well. Monitors come in many flavors, from direct view CRTs, to various styles of projection screens to the more exotic ultrathin plasma panels that can be mistaken for artwork hanging on the wall! (Integrated sets offer most of these screen options as well.) Runco’s Plasma PL-50c is a captivating monitor with a low profile and unbelievable resolution, ideal for smaller rooms where size is an issue. The Fujitsu Plasmavision PDS-4222 offers similar features at a slightly lower cost. But if you’ve got the room, Mitsubishi, Vidikron, Ampro, Panasonic, Toshiba and Pioneer, among others, all manufacture a wide variety of options from very affordable direct view and rear projection screens to very expensive and very large, high-performance, widescreen, front-projection units. When teamed with the set-top box of your choice, now available from a respectable list of producers, you finally can get the picture, the really big picture.

For up to date information on DTVs, a glossary of the complex terminology and a list of currently available products, two Web sites are very helpful and reliable: www.pbs.org/digitaltv, and the Consumer Electronics Association’s site, www.DTVWeb.org.

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