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Digital Television
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Digital television (DTV) makes TV a veritable window on the world with images of breath taking clarity. And it's revolutionizing the home entertainment industry.

Still less than two years old, since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated the transition from analog television in November 1, 1998, DTV is in its infancy, much like early color TV in the1950's. Unlike the 25 years it took color TV sales to surpass the sales of black & white sets in 1978, the FCC has planned a speedy transition to DTV, spurred on with 100% implementation of digital broadcasting by the year 2006.

Digital TV transmission is an over-the-air broadcast system that begins at the television station and ends in the receiver set. In contrast to an analog recording, which stores electronic signals as a continuous stream of information, a digital recording takes an electronic sampling, i.e., separate packets of information, arranged in the exact sequence of the incoming signal. Squeezing the packets together using digital compression techniques enables broadcasters to transmit mammoth amounts of information over a single channel, originally occupied by one analog recording--for instance, simultaneous programs, digital data services, audio programming up to five channels of sound per program (similar to compact discs), interactive computer software programs, product information publications, and more.

Digital transmission also delivers two levels of resolution--a high resolution format known as high definition television (HDTV) and standard definition television (SDTV) comparable to high-end analog systems. Both formats provide better color rendition than analog TV. The HDTV label, currently undergoing standardization by the FCC, should display 720p or 1080i or both, which stand for lines of resolution and pixels, i.e., minute bursts of color that make up the picture. Resolution also rests with the broadcasters, who can choose to transmit either one HDTV channel or five SDTV channels over the bandwidth allocated by the FCC.

The FCC has opened up a new range of broadcasting frequencies, over which TV stations are required to broadcast two simultaneous channels--one analog and one digital. As of today, all major Dallas networks are transmitting both modes although digital transmission is limited primarily to prime time and special events leaving many hours blank or showing filler video. By April, 2005, all TV programming must carry both analog and digital transmission. Then in 2006, analog TV will begin shutting down--in theory. In reality, shut down will depend on the number of TV's picking up the digital signals.

Nobody need rush out and buy a DTV because analog-to-digital converter boxes targeted for less than $500 will be made available when the time comes, according to Andrew Turner, sales manager with Hillcrest High Fidelity. And because manufacturers continue producing analog TV's, shoppers may find great bargains with an analog TV purchased now and converter box bought later. Just remember that picture quality won't improve with converter-boxes.

Digital resolution can be achieved only with a DTV, currently a costly premium as high as $20,000 plus. Some price relief is coming in tube TV's (mid-screen TV's from 27 to 36 inches), which are just beginning to go digital, according to Tom Kissell, co-owner of Hillcrest High Fidelity. For instance, one of the latest DTV's at Hillcrest High Fidelity is a Loewe's 30" HDTV, wide screen (16 by 9 aspect ratio) at $4400.

All TV's are moving away from the 4 by 3 picture ratio to the "letter box" (16 by 9 ratio) to accommodate the movie screen, according to Turner. Movies transmitted over the 4 by 3 ratio screens are flanked by top and bottom borders or are cut off laterally. Still, many customers prefer the 4 by 3 ratio picture. And these people may find plenty of bargains, for instance, the Loewe 32" diagonal digital TV, now sale priced from $3900 to $2800 at Hillcrest High Fidelity. Even cheaper is the 32" Sony analog TV for $1500.

TV comes in four types--tube TV(direct-view), rear projection TV, front projection TV, and plasma TV. Projection and tube TV's are available with analog or digital receivers. But the sleek, flat (4 and 1/2 inch deep), plasma TV comes only in digital format and is toted as the way of the future.

It appears that the DTV has divested the television set of its audio system and has become the screen component in the home theater system. Consequently, DTV's can be updated and inter connected with other components. Even today, DTV's can receive analog programming with an analog-to-digital decoder-tuner, costing from $700 to $2500. And the capability of plugging DTV's into separate audio systems opens a whole new world of sound possibilities including the Dolby 5.1 channel surround sound, which is one of the most advanced sound systems with over 20 million systems sold in the US. To purchase audio equipment, expect to pay from $1,500 to more than $60,000, according to Turner. Add a video, AM/FM tuner, DVD player, computer, and voila--a home theater system, all stored inside a cabinet under the TV or elsewhere, such as in a closet. Don't forget the antenna on the roof or in the attic, currently a must for digital reception.

On February 23, 2000, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and National Cable Television Association (NCTA) reached a voluntary agreement to allow DTV and digital cable systems to work together. The agreement outlines technical specifications, by which consumers will receive digital programming and other services over cable. With roughly two-thirds of US households receiving television programming via cable access, this CEA/NCTA corroboration marks a significant step.

Strong factory to dealer sales of DTV in January 2000 totaling 21,008 units represents a 475 % increase over January 1999 and brings total sales of DTV, since introduction in August 1998, to 155,410, an improvement, but still a long way to go.

With prices expected to drop and quality improve, there is no need to rush into purchasing a DTV. Instead, read and plan, not only to avoid unnecessary expense, but to take advantage of new strategies in home entertainment decor, which will most likely develop with this digital revolution.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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