- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

Viewers can cast their eyes on high-definition television, or HDTV, and see the technicolor difference for themselves.
HDTV's startling images, so clear one can see the rivulets of sweat on their favorite athlete's brow, might make some vain television stars groan over the unforgiving visuals.
Couch potatoes, though, are eagerly lapping up the vibrant broadcasts.
HDTV, available since the early 1990s, appears ready to cross over to mainstream television viewers. Set prices are dropping, more broadcast stations are transmitting programs in HDTV quality, and the technology itself has stabilized to the point where today's set won't be made obsolete by tomorrow's model.
Stuart Calcote, president of HD Pictures, a Hollywood, Calif., company that produces and distributes HDTV-quality documentaries, says HDTV's progress echoes strides made by other home audio and video technologies.
"That's the way the digital market goes. Everything gets better and cheaper," Mr. Calcote says.
The obvious difference between conventional sets and HDTV models lies in their aspect ratios, or screen proportions. The traditional set's screen features a 4-by-3 aspect ratio, yielding a fairly square-shaped canvas. HDTV screens, in comparison, more closely resemble a movie-house screen at 16-by-9.
"It's almost as wide as a 35-millimeter film," Mr. Calcote says of the ratio, set by NHK, the Japan Broadcasting System, which created HDTV.
The visual differences nearly match the ratio disparity.
HDTV "is so far superior, you can't compare it," Mr. Calcote says.
Indeed, watching an HDTV set come ablaze can be disorienting. The puffy clouds are almost too real, the mountaintops too detailed, compared to traditional televised images.
Conventional television often appears razor-sharp from several feet away. Get closer, though, and the images suffer; their electric origins shine through.
Not even when you draw closer does HDTV programming buckle.

HDTV boasts five times the amount of visual information as a standard television set and four times the resolution of the best DVD image. Combine that with CD-quality surround sound, and the improvements speak for themselves.
The difference is digital.
HDTV falls under a new, general category for broadcasting programs referred to as digital television. In the past, strictly analog electromagnetic waves carried programs into our homes.
Digital broadcasts allow for more information, densely packed, to be delivered to homes nationwide.
With analog signals, stations can broadcast only one type of format. Digital systems allow a station to broadcast both digital and HDTV streams to viewers at the same time over the same channel. That way, non-HDTV televisions can see the digital images, while HDTV sets can pick up the superior signal.

Mr. Calcote says the new digital televisions break down into three categories. HDTV, the highest quality, features 1,080 lines of resolution on a 16-by-9 aspect ratio screen. The second tier, called HD720, offers 720 lines of resolution on a 16-by-9 aspect ratio screen. The third category is Standard, or SDTV, which has 480 lines on either a 16-by-9 or 4-by-3 aspect ratio screen.
Traditional televisions feature scanning patterns of 525 lines.
The new technology won't make existing televisions obsolete. At least not immediately.
Owners of standard televisions can still watch shows broadcast in HDTV, much as owners of black-and-white televisions can watch color programs on their antiquated sets. They just won't get the same arresting colors and sounds.
Once all television stations switch over to digital broadcasts, those with old, analog television sets will have to buy set-top boxes to convert them into digital-capable sets.
That transition is supposed to occur by 2006, according to guidelines set by the FCC, but those contacted doubted that all networks and local affiliates would meet that deadline.
Consumers who buy converter boxes now to transform their sets into digital models enjoy slightly improved images and sound. They also can tweak their sets to see HDTV programming in letter-box format, in which the top and bottom of the screen are blacked out to approximate HDTV's 16-by-9 ratio.
Mike Olenyn, a car-audio-video supervisor at Myer-Emco's Falls Church store, says HDTV sets range from 32 inches diagonally up to 180 inches. The latter are projection sets.
Prices for the next-generation televisions begin at about $2,000 for a 32-inch model but can rise quickly based on screen size. Some sets are HDTV-capable but not ready to display HDTV broadcasts. Shoppers must buy a separate receiver to make the system work, and Mr. Olenyn says that runs between $600 and $1,000.

HDTV sets come in varieties just like traditional sets conventional picture tube, plasma or flat panel, and rear-projection models.
The latter suffer a bit from image fadeout, much like non-HDTV models, when not viewed from directly in front of the sets. The dropoff, however, is less severe than with earlier models, and even when viewed from an angle, the picture mostly holds true.
Gary Yacoubian, vice president of Myer-Emco, a local audio-video specialty chain, says 95 percent of all big-screen television sales now are HDTV sets.
"In Japan, they've had HDTV for more than 10 years," Mr. Yacoubian says. "In the U.S., it's been available for about five years."
Major television manufacturers are reducing production of their available analog sets in favor of their digital peers. Mitsubishi no longer makes analog tube sets, and Panasonic is switching to all-digital for its projection television line.
Consumers may clamor for the HDTV sets, but the industry still isn't ready to meet their demands. HDTV must overcome a gaggle of hurdles before it becomes part of the television viewing experience.
HDTV requires broadcast companies to buy new cameras, editing equipment and tape machines capable of handling the new technology. Cable companies, in turn, have to replace much of their equipment and offer customers digital-ready set-top boxes to give subscribers digital cable.
Even if all the stations provided HDTV tomorrow, viewers would have a limited menu from which to channel-surf.
"The general lack of programming has been holding HDTV back," Mr. Yacoubian says.
That is changing, slowly.
The bulk of CBS' prime-time lineup is broadcast in HDTV, and select other shows, such as NBC's "The Tonight Show" are run in the new format.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban runs HDNet, an all-HDTV channel on the satellite network DirecTV, which broadcasts major and minor sporting events.
Mark Richer, president of the Consumer Electronics Association's Advanced Television Systems Committee, says several local stations broadcast in digital format, with WETA-TV simultaneously providing digital as well as 24-hour HDTV compatible programming.
Portions of the upcoming Oly-mpics will be broadcast in HDTV, says Mr. Richer, whose CEA group provides information about the consumer electronics industry.
He says digital television is to analog television as DVD is to VHS tapes.
Mr. Richer, who wouldn't describe himself as a television junkie, finds himself drawn to HDTV programming. He recalls being transfixed by a recent news report from Afghanistan broadcast in HDTV.
"A lot of the stories are more compelling in HDTV," Mr. Richer says.

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