High-def high hopes

Questions abound at NAB as format goes forward

LAS VEGAS — As NAB ’98 winds down to a close today and exhibitors pack up their wares, the question still looms: What’s going on with HDTV?

Though the annual expo trumpeted this year’s convention as the digital dawn, there are still doubts, frustrations and concerns from manufacturers, station managers and consumers.

“Everybody is waiting for everybody else before deciding what to do,” said Jerry Surprise, product and merchandising manager for Panasonic. His company, along with Sharp and Zenith, pointed a spotlight this week on digital television at the first HDTV Receiver Preview, hosted by the National Assn. of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Assn.

The small confab allowed curious industryites to see digital broadcasts and ask questions regarding the new technologies.

Surprise’s comments are similar to those that have echoed throughout the convention halls this week (the NAB confab ran April 4-9). Visitors have uniformly praised the picture quality and rapid advancement of high-definition TV, but they still want to know what it all means.

While the federal government has created a time frame within which consumers must purchase a new TV set — 2006 is the proposed date — Surprise can’t believe that decision will actually stick. “There’s no way that a mandate will work,” he says, “because there will still be small-market stations that just don’t have the finances to make the conversion to digital. This expo garners interest from the people in the broadcasting business, so they are all excited. But the consumers who do not understand the technology do not want to be told they have to purchase new televisions.”

Frank DeMartin, director of Sharp’s MultiMedia Development Center, agrees. “The digital revolution has gotten a lot of press and there’s a lot of buzz, but the shoppers who go to the local appliance store really don’t know what to think yet, and we are cautiously aware of that.”

DeMartin’s remarks come on the heels of a week in which the Big Four networks announced their digital TV plans: CBS and NBC will use interlaced programming and Fox and ABC will use progressive formats. While few details regarding the programming to be broadcast digitally were released — the fall ’98 schedule will be peppered with digitally broadcast programming, and “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” will begin digital broadcasts in 1999 — there’s little doubt that the revolution has begun.

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