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A New Technology Hovers Over the U.S.

Res Publica

January 1991

by Richard Westfall

The world in which we live has been brought much closer together by the electronic revolution. As a result of semiconductory devices and digital equipment, communication systems can instantly disseminate ideas around the world. This certainly is one of man’s greatest accomplishments. With the ‘smaller world’ and intertwined economies, American businesses are challenged to compete with foreign producers as well as domestic competitors. It has been widely discussed that Japan has nearly taken away the market for U.S. electronics products. In a photo opportunity at the U.S. Capitol, congressmen were seen striking a Japanese made radio with a sledgehammer. These outspoken legislators, as well as many other Americans, would like to win back the market gained by Japan. This opportunity may be provided by an advanced technology named High Definition Television (HDTV). This enhanced version of one of America’s most treasured appliances, commonly referred to as the "boob tube", is struggling to make its way through the U.S. Congress, onto the market and into American homes. Although this technology is good, the difficulties in the current strategy for its adoption are serious enough that this course must not be pursued.

In the beginning of television broadcasting, the National Television Systems Committee (NTSC) designed synchronizing standards that were to take advantage of the 60Hz AC power line frequency. Upon the conversion to color television, the old transmission system had to be maintained for compatibility. At the present moment, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) demands this preservation of standards for the conversion to HDTV. They wish to keep the "free access" of programming which is transmitted via "public owned" airwaves. Seems only right to maintain traditional broadcasting, but this presents problems for the new technology.

HDTV provides picture resolution (detail and sharpness) nearly equal to that of 35mm film, sound quality comparable to digital compact discs, and a movie-like 16:9 aspect ratio. As is evident from the picture, a HDTV screen will be wider and will have more information sent to it. So instead of merely showing a larger version of the same image, as a large screen TV does, HDTV would show the viewer more of the picture. Anyone who has seen an old movie in a theatre and on television knows what appears on the far edges of the movie screen; HDTV would show this portion of the screen. But in order to broadcast this massive amount of audio and video information by way of the "public-owned" airwaves, a much greater segment of radio frequency spectrum is needed than is presently used. Using the current portion would be like trying to fit an eighteen-wheel semi into a garage built for a Yugo. This means that some stations will need to forfeit their licenses, or other public services, such as mobil telephones, will have to suffer. The problem with making the new system technologically compatible with the old means of broadcasting is that doing so compromises the quality of the new system and limits further technological advances. This would impair the whole purpose of HDTV, which is to provide the most superior audio and video through digital transmission. These impractical solutions have alternatives, however. Direct Broadcast Satellites (DBS) and fiber optics offer two options for transmission. The real discussion here is about economics. Everybody and his brother seeks to profit from this technology as much as possible. The electronics industry is lobbying in Washington for its own personal gain. They want to be supported by amended antitrust laws, consortiums, and financed by the taxpayers. If these businesses can’t stand alone like other American enterprises, they should leave the field to better competition.

The American Electronics Association estimates that HDTV could mean $20 billion to U.S. manufactures and related industries by the year 2007. I don’t believe consumers are ready to pay for the new technology, especially when they find out the cost of the new sets will start at $2000 each, even when mass produced! Broadcast stations would have to make an even greater investment. It is estimated that the average market TV station would spend approximately $17 million to upgrade to the new format. It was expensive and difficult enough to adopt stereo television. Eventually the consumer would be soaked because of inflation caused by higher advertising rates. Obviously a lot is at stake here! The American people don’t have as much to gain as the businesses seeking to provide them with the goods. Is it fair to the consumer to first have to pay for the research, then pay the high cost for sets, and then pay through inflation? No way! It’ll take informed citizens and many letters to legislators for appropriate consumer protection.

The American people would best be served if HDTV were left to Direct Broadcast Satellites, fiber optics and HDVCR’s. This would solve the problem of compromising the parts of the radio frequency spectrum used by other services or the picture quality of the new receivers. The people who could afford to pay for this new system would get the best possible product for their money and the new competition in the marketplace would benefit society. Given the rapid advancements in electronic engineering, a system superior to HDTV, such as 3-D TV with surround sound, is likely to be developed in the future. So why complicate matters in our present system of broadcasting for the benefit of the "moneyhogs?"

Richard D. Westfall is a sophomore from Apple Creek, Ohio, majoring in Broadcast Technology and minoring in Public affairs.

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