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TV's Future Bright and Clear

HDTV on its way

By Jim Bray

Get ready for the biggest change in TV since the introduction of colour.

Digital High Definition Television is coming, and it's a quantum leap in the viewing experience.

Digital HDTV is already being broadcast in the United States; limited broadcasts began in late 1998 and have now spread to smaller markets like Spokane, Washington. NBC's Tonight Show has made the HDTV jump as well.

Digital HDTV is said to offer five times the detail and ten times the colour information of today's NTSC (dubbed by someone "Never Twice the Same Colour") system. I dunno about that, but I've seen the future and it is definitely bright and sharp; it looks more like film than TV.

The NTSC standard uses 60 "fields" of 262.5 scan lines per second "interlaced" into 30, 525 line frames per second. Although there are actually 18 digital TV standards in the US, the broadcast networks appear to be lining up behind a handful of formats including 1080i (which means 1080 scan lines, interlaced); and 720p (720 "progressively scanned" lines with no interlacing - like today's computer monitors).In demos I've seen, the 720p actually looked sharper than the 1080i despite having fewer scan lines.

With 18 formats on tap, you might think we're about to have another VHS/beta format war on our hands, but chances are that won't happen. At this point in time, many - if not most - major manufacturers' HDTV sets can supposedly switch between the formats automatically, though whether they all do the job as well as each other remains to be seen.

HDTV, which also features CD quality digital surround audio, is ideal for movies (most of which are filmed in a widescreen format these days) and live sports events. Everything looks better in high definition, though one might argue that being able to count all of Alex Trebex's pores isn't a real breakthrough.

Still, HDTV is coming, and within the next decade or so it's going to replace today's TV - which means you're going to have to replace your TV as well. It'll be a leisurely transition, however, and along the way there'll be lots of tools to make it easier. These include "digital ready" TV's you can get now and upgrade later via a set-top box and even "dumbers-down" boxes that'll convert HDTV back into NTSC signals for those who haven't shelled out for a new set by the time NTSC becomes a blast from the past.

HDTV sets are pricey right now - you can figure on paying a premium of at least $1000-1500 for HDTV capability - but as with all things electronic this price will drop. HDTV sets will also get better as manufacturers get a few generations of them under their belts, though it's hard to imagine how the picture's going to get any better than it already is.

In Canada, the conversion to HDTV lags behind the States - which should surprise no one. Industry Canada commissioned a task force to look at the subject and the report was sent to Heritage Minister Sheila Copps in October of 1997. Among the recommendations was one to hold up the introduction of HDTV for 12 - 18 months behind the US, "far enough behind to benefit from the (US) momentum but not so far as to be swamped by it." Other recommendations included giving each Canuck TV broadcaster a digital licence, with the stipulation that the service be up and running by the end of 2004.

Fortunately, the task force also recommended that Canada adopt the same DTV broadcast standards as the Americans. This breath of common sense assures eventual compatibility between the two countries' systems as well as a healthy supply of the nifty new TV sets.

While HDTV broadcasting is important, a local (Calgary) TV station employee told me they're more concerned with the cable company going HDTV than they are with getting their own HDTV transmitter - because most of their viewers use cable or satellite. So for HDTV to be important to most Canadians, these media have to convert as well.

I couldn't pry any information from the local cable company about its plans, nor was the federal government any help (surprise, surprise!), but the abovementioned TV station employee said the cable companies haven't even agreed on a standard yet and expressed frustration with that fact. On the other hand, Bell ExpressVu says it's planning to offer some HDTV programming in late fall '99, though you'll need a new receiver to appreciate it.

However you slice it, HDTV is coming (and don't forget the grey market for US products and programming!) and it's only a matter of time before Canada is dragged into the future.

HDTV sets are already proliferating South of the border. At January 1999's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, every major manufacturer showed units ranging in size and price from $2800US 32 inch screens to 64 inch (and larger) projection units priced up to $70,000US. And weren't they lovely!So get ready for your eyes to be dazzled.

Now if there was only a way to improve the quality of the programs they'll be broadcasting in HDTV!


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