HDTV Revolutionizes TV
While Nobody's Watching

By Kristen Danis

November 1, 1998

The biggest revolution in television in 45 years -- bigger than color, remote control, VCRs and even Elvis -- has landed in New York.

And hardly anyone has noticed.

The first national broadcast of a technology more than a decade in the making -- high-definition television -- took off at the same time as John Glenn roared into space Thursday. And it's back again tonight.

"The sound is so incredible. When those engines went 'brrrr'... you could almost feel it," said Steve Friedman, station manager of WCBS/Channel 2, which aired the launch in HDTV.

"It's not like adding color. This is like being there," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronic Manufacturers Association Arlington, Va.

Raves aside, most New Yorkers missed out on the experience - unless they were watching Channel 2, have a roof antenna and own an HDTV set.

But HDTV soon will be impossible to ignore.

Boosted by Congress, TV stations and manufacturers are rolling out the first shows and sets this month - with promises of much more to come.

With more than twice the resolution of regular - or "analog" - television, HDTV sets turn digital signals into pictures that are so crisp that watching shows is like looking through a window.

The sets are wider, and the digital signal allows interactive viewing and compact-disc-like sound.

"This truly revolutionizes the viewing experience, but it's not going to happen overnight," said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.

HDTV got an extra push from Congress, which gave all 1,560 television stations an extra bandwidth - and mandated that urban stations start transmitting digital signals by next May. The rest have until 2003.

More than 40 stations nationwide - including WCBS - beat the deadline. They've either started some limited HDTV broadcasts or plan to soon.

Tonight, HDTV makes its biggest splash yet when some ABC stations air the 1996 remake of "101 Dalmatians."

But the cute pooches will be their normal flat selves on New York screens - and in most of the country - because of several start-up snags.

No one can watch HDTV unless the local affiliate can send out the digital signal. Except for Channel 2, New York stations don't plan to be ready until at least May.

Another big catch: Viewers need high-tech TVs that cost a budget busting $4,200 to $85,000, are tough to find in New York and, at 3 feet deep, are a tight squeeze in the average Manhattan apartment.

"Until there are regular broadcasts in HDTV, none of the manufacturers are carrying a lot of inventory," said John LaRegina, senior buyer for P.C. Richard and Son, which has only one HDTV set in stock in New York - in its Astoria store.

"It's kind of like the cart-before-the-horse situation."

But HDTV sets aren't exactly catching on in New York yet.

Ted Rothstein, who installs sound and video systems for a clientele that includes Cindy Crawford and Matt Dillon, said even his high-end customers are holding off.

But within 10 years, anyone who wants to settle in for a night of "must-see TV" might not have a choice.

Analog signals are slated to be a thing of the past by 2006.

Although that deadline will probably be extended, that 27-inch wonder sitting in the living room soon will need at least a digital decoder box to work at all.

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