Digital doldrums

Slow sales dampen b'casters' HDTV dreams

WASHINGTON — Broadcasters had hoped that their new digital airwaves would provide them with an exciting product to offer in the ongoing competition with cable, but so far, consumers seem to be turning up their noses at their local TV stations’ latest efforts to stay on the playing field in the 21st century.

Since August of last year, only 110,000 digital television sets have been sold, according to the Consumer Electronics Assn., which predicts that a total of 120,000 digital TVs will be sold by Jan. 1. American consumers purchase an average of 25 million new televisions a year.

If broadcasters expected digital technology to put them quickly on the offensive, they have been sorely disappointed. In contrast to their potential audience of 110,000 digital TV set owners, cable has 5 million digital subscribers and satellite companies deliver digital to more than 10 million.

While the networks are slowing rolling out digital programming, many cable networks, including HBO and Discovery, are offering full high-definition TV schedules.

Standard quibbles

Part of the problem is that television set makers are still haggling over the definition of digital television. The Consumer Electronics Assn. wants to establish a label to clearly signal to consumers that a television set can display digital pictures. But set makers are quibbling over the standard — while also trying to bring ongoing talks with copyright holders, including the movie studios, to a close.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America is concerned that digital televisions, which provide crystal clear pictures and CD-quality sound, could provide a perfect copying device for copyright pirates. Although the parties involved have agreed on a technology to block unauthorized copying, disagreement continues over which programs should be copy protected and which consumers should be allowed to copy.

Kennard warning

Earlier this month Federal Communications Commission chairman Bill Kennard urged the parties to reach a final agreement on the issue, warning that he will step in if necessary. But in the mean time, the 110,000 people who have paid $3,000 or more for digital televisions have found out that they can not watch HDTV programming via cable on their new sets.

Despite the slow sales and persistent confusion in the marketplace, CEA prexy Gary Shapiro remains optimistic. He points out that DTV sales are increasing steadily. In the fourth quarter, 44,066 digital sets sold, a 67% increase over the previous quarter.

“DTV sales have taken off this quarter, pushing sales levels ahead of our projections,” said Shapiro. “There is no question that the future of television is digital.”

CEA estimates that digital sets will hit the 600,000 mark in 2000 and projects that the first 10 million sets will be sold by 2003.

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