May 22, 2000

by Edward Jay Epstein

Converting to high-definition television (HDTV), whatever its benefits to American civilization, would be possibly the most costly modernization ever undertaken voluntarily. It would far exceed the cost of building the interstate highways. Even if Americans bought the cheapest equipment available today, they would need to spend more than $300 billion just to replace their analog TVs with ones capable of receiving HDTV. Television stations also would have to spend tens of billions of dollars for new equipment. To provide the carrot for this massive conversion, the federal government has already committed itself to giving away much of the remaining frequency spectrum to television stations. The public, as its incentive for converting, will get a more elongated picture -- using a 16:9 instead of 12:9 ratio of width to height -- that provides better resolution in newscasts, game shows, reality-based voyeurism, soap operas, wrestling matches and other entertainments. The public's gain has been difficult to fully assess because very few people have ever actually seen regular HDTV broadcasts.

Indeed, until very recently, HDTV was not broadcast in a form in which most Americans could get it without an antenna complex. Television stations had little incentive for broadcasting HDTV, since very few people had the ability to receive it. So they put it on relatively obscure UHF stations as a public relations gesture. Unfortunately, according to tests done by Sinclair Broadcasting, the largest broadcaster group, indoor antennas would not work without a direct line of sight to the transmitting antennas, nor if there was any interference. Further adding to its unavailability, the cable industry, which did not participate in the spectrum giveaway and thus had no incentive to show HDTV, declared that the home cable box was incompatible with it. Similarly, the satellite narrowcasters, DirectTV and EchoStar, although digitized, had little reason to launch the new satellites necessary to carry broader-band HDTV -- at least not until a significant portion of the public had the hardware to receive these signals. It was a chicken-and-egg situation: no sets, no reason to broadcast; no broadcasts, no reason to buy a set.

Like other concerned citizens, I wanted to evaluate this new technology. But I was discouraged when a high-ranking executive at Sony told me that she had considered having the company install a giant antenna on the roof of its skyscraper in New York to get HDTV broadcasts for its showroom, but had found that the cost of providing a reliable signal was "prohibitive." If Sony, which employs 100,000 engineers and technicians, could not get a reliable HDTV of its own, what chance had I of getting one in my New York apartment?

Then, just two weeks ago, I heard through the Internet grapevine that there might be a means of getting HDTV free. My proximate source was Bill Cushman, a Houston-based writer for the video magazine The Perfect Vision, who keeps close contact with the small but resourceful community of HDTV seekers. He passed on the rumor that Time Warner was secretly transmitting HDTV on unused channels of its cable system in New York, presumably to test it out. To get it, he suggested, I merely had to discard my cable box and hook the cable into a HDTV decoder.

I immediately called Time Warner in New York. The customer representative came on the line and courteously denied the rumor that there was free HDTV on its cable. There was now only one way to find out. I bought a RCA Digital Decoder ($630), which arrived by FedEx the next morning. I then unplugged the cable from the cable box and replugged it into the "Antenna A" slot on the HDTV decoder, which was connected to my Sony HDTV- ready projector. Less than 5 minutes later, I was watching HDTV on two channels, CBS and (free) HBO. It was in the 16:9 format with Dolby digital sound (CBS had five channels, HBO only two). To fine-tune these channels, one needs the service access code for the RCA decoder. Fortunately, like many other codes, it is available on the Internet.

Then, to find out what was available over the airwaves as opposed to cable, I mounted an eight-foot UHF ChannelMaster antenna on my roof, which I plugged into the "Antenna B" slot on the RCA decoder. After getting a number of tips from the Internet -- including the useful site at www.antennaweb.org1, which draws a street map from your address showing the precise path to all obtainable digital stations -- I got WNYW, the Fox digital station. According to Internet tipsters, I might also get WTNH, the ABC digital station in New Haven, Conn., and WNJT, the PBS digital station in Trenton, N. J., under the right weather conditions. But at present I can count on only three digital stations, and not everything they broadcast is converted to HDTV. Nevertheless, the material that is broadcast in HDTV -- especially the CBS programs for which Mitsubishi paid to convert and the 16:9 formatted movies on HBO -- provide an ample opportunity to assess this new technology.

There can be no doubt that HDTV renders a picture that is vastly superior to the one on conventional television. HDTV uses roughly 500,000 color pixels; conventional television uses the equivalent of about 50,000. Consider, for example, a picture of 100,00 people at a political demonstration. On HDTV, each person could be represented by five different color pixels, which could show them with multiple color outfits and banners. Conventional television would have to use one color pixel to represent every two persons, turning them into a blur. Suddenly, it becomes possible to see individually tinted hairs on a head or weeds on a baseball diamond. This cumulatively adds up to the illusion of depth, complexity and three-dimensionality. It is, in a word, fabulous.

The price for this new diversion and deception is relatively steep. Unfortunately, smaller HDTV receivers, which cost more than $2,000 (without the decoder), will not provide the full virtual-reality illusion (unless one sits only a few inches away at the risk of one's vision). So one needs a projection HDTV receiver costing between $4,000 and $8,000, as well as a decoder (another $600 to $1,000.) Then there is the cost of getting a signal. Unless one can tap into one's local cable for HDTV, as I did, one will have to invest in some sort of rooftop antenna farm or at least a satellite dish. Of course, there is the risk that HDTV will be abandoned once television stations get full title to their digital licenses. (Stations can pack four non-HDTV digital channels in the space required for one HDTV channel.) But why not see HDTV while the opportunity nobly provided by Time Warner still exists? If, of course, you can afford it.