Skip to main content

Too Little? Too Late?

On January 11, four months after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Peter Arnett reported from Afghanistan. That should come as no big surprise. Arnettâs name became practically a household word after his reports from Baghdad during the Gulf War. What was unique this time was that his report was in HDTV.

Also on January 11, the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas closed. It was chock full of HDTV equipment. Zenith even demonstrated an HDTV DVD player they said theyâd sell in 2003. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) announced the sale of close to 1.5 million ãDTV productsä to U.S. dealers in 2001, most of them HDTV. All of that is great news for HDTV. And all of that is sad news for terrestrial television broadcasting. Arnettâs HDTV report was for Broadcast News Networks. It could be seen in HDTV, however, only on HDNet, an all-HDTV channel carried on DIRECTVâs satellite service.

CES was chock full of HDTV equipment, all right, but there were reportedly only two new set-top broadcast DTV receivers. Supplies of older set-top broadcast DTV receivers are running low, and manufacturers arenât making more pending new models. As the vast majority of those DTV receivers include satellite-reception capability, and that capability may necessarily be changed by the proposed DIRECTV/EchoStar merger, receiver manufacturers are reluctant to jump the gun.

The new HDTV sets being displayed at CES would more likely be used for cable and satellite HDTV feeds than for broadcasts. For now, theyâd also be used to display standard definition DVDs. When HDTV DVDs (or other playback media) become available, HDTV sets will likely be used for those, too.

As of the beginning of this year, satellite services providing any local broadcast channels in a market were required to provide them all÷all of the analog channels, that is. EchoStarâs DISH network also carries East- and West-coast CBS HDTV programming, but not the local broadcasts that transmit that programming.

There are more than 102 million U.S. TV households, and itâs possible that more than one percent of them are now equipped with HDTV displays. Itâs not possible, unfortunately, for even one percent to receive terrestrial DTV broadcasts. The cumulative number of devices sold since 1997 with that reception capability remains a small fraction of one percent. XM Satellite Radio, launched late last year, claimed 30,000 subscribers paying $9.95 monthly within 60 days; it took years for broadcast DTV to reach that level, even without the subscription fee.

Perhaps some parallels may be found in the introduction of color TV. In March 1954, Westinghouse sold the first NTSC color TV set. It had a 12-inch screen and cost $1,295 at a time when you could buy a new Ford for $1,695. Nevertheless, Fortune magazine predicted one in three homes (18 million) would have color TV by 1959.

It was wrong. In 1962, The New York Times lamented that the million color-TV sets sold to that point ãonly slightly penetrate the market.ä There were 1.4 million color sets in use as of January 1, 1964. One year later there were 2.8 million. A year after that it was 5.5 million, and the following year there were roughly 11 million. The number of color sets in use was doubling annually.

Today, color camcorders are being offered for under $100, and itâs probably impossible to find a new black-and-white-only video recorder.

Someday, HDTV will no doubt be similarly ubiquitous. But will HDTV terrestrial broadcasting also be ubiquitous? Arnettâs HDTV newscast was carried by satellite. So is CBS primetime HDTV programming. HBO, alone, carries more HDTV programming than all broadcast networks combined, but HBO is not carried by terrestrial broadcasting.

When color TV was introduced in 1954, the moving-image media were exclusively broadcast television and movies. Today, there are also cable, satellite, the Internet, DVDs, videotapes, and digital cinema, and HDTV is either already being delivered or has been demonstrated on each of them. Meanwhile the cost of the DTV transition is causing some stations to shut their local news operations.

HDTV, si! Broadcast? Weâll see.