This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: The Day Analog TV Dies
Of the brave souls who bought any of the 13 176 digital television sets shipped in 1998, let it be said that never have so many paid so much for so few hours of programming. Sets went on sale as early as August, yet some buyers live in markets where there is no digital TV (DTV) to watch at all—and will not be for some time. That includes San Diego, Calif., where retailer Tom Campbell told IEEE Spectrum that his aggressive Dow Stereo chain in 1998 delivered nearly 100 sets to customers unlikely to receive terrestrial fs until late this year. Conspicuous consumption? Perhaps. Faith in the promise of progress? Certainly. But though digital programming is still offered in only a minority of locations, consumers have good reason to buy the US $7000-plus sets as a down payment on the future. For one thing, manufacturers have configured the digital models for the early market, and for another, they have included desirable features that can be exploited in the meantime.
In their initial marketing, TV makers have given consumers flexible ways to acquire DTV that promise instant gratification while assuaging fear of obsolescence. Some of the mostly large widescreen rear-projection DTVs are known as integrated sets because they have the DTV decoder built in. But the greater selection of models marries an optional outboard module, or set-top box, for receiving the digital broadcasts, to a widescreen monitor. Bothe types of sets can process any of the 18 standard- and hi-definition TB (SDTV and HDTV) signal formats approved by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), although it is likely only four will be transmitted. The sets also receive and display the current National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) format.
The HDTV-ready monitors can display the 1080 interlaced lines, referred to as the 1080i format, of what is now the highest-resolution format sanctioned by the ATSC. Besides 1080i, there is the HDTV-level 720p, with 720 progressively scanned lines, and two standard-definition 480-line formats, namely 480i interlaced and 480p progressive.
The modular monitor-plus-set-top box approach is elegant enough to induce some customers in areas where digital TV is not yet broadcast to buy a new, DTV-ready display now, but to defer the purchase of the set-top box until digital broadcasts arrive—by which time the box is likely to be less expensive [see "What's on and how? "]. Issues such as cable delivery and conditional access for possible pay-DTV might be settled by then, too.
In the meantime, buyers of either type of DTB-ready set will be able to view ”enhanced” images from the beginning. Virtually every manufacturer boasts some signal-processing package designed to improve analog broadcasts and cable signals. The same package also enhances signals from home video sources, such as analog video-cassette recorders (VCRs) and laser-disk players, plus existing digital devices like satellite TB and the digital versatile disk (DVD) players.
Yet another aspect of the modular DTV arrangement might appeal to recent buyers of a high-quality analog TB who happen to reside where DTV is broadcast. Buying just the outboard decoder and adding and antenna [see ”Ghost story: antennas for DTV ”] would enable those households to receive terrestrial DTV. Granted, on-screen resolution will be limited to the capability of the existing display, but digital reception will eliminate ghosts and other distortion artifacts found in analog broadcasts.
Viewers of widescreen 16:9 DTV on an analog set will, of course, have to do so on a canvas of 4:3 proportions, but that might be acceptable if the set is a projection model. As most such TVs have a sizable display, the letterboxed 16:9 DTV program will still appear large when screened. This holds for another modular option TV makers offer—4:3-proportioned DTV-ready rear-projection sets, which can display the 1080i resolution of HDTV, but cost less than widescreen sets. For the record, programming sent over the DCTV channel will maintain a 4:3 ratio, if that’s how it was recorded. On widescreen sets, the centered image will be framed by dark pillars on either side, yet most DTVs offer some option for stretching the image gradually, either uniformly, or at the extremes, in order to fill the screen.
Although integrated DTVs seem a less flexible option for viewers in non-DTV markets, some models offer alternative means for receiving digital signals. These are the sets from Hitachi, Thomson (ProScan and RCA brands), and Toshiba, which feature built-in tuners for receiving DirecTV satellite transmissions. The satellite programmer was scheduled to begin carrying high-definition telecasts 6 March. DirecTV enables DTV makers to market throughout almost all the United States because its signal can be received by all contiguous 48 states. This marketing has implications for DTV pricing as well. Price tags will surely drop in any case, but might do so faster with the volume efficiencies that derive from manufacturing for a national mass market.