business

Poor Man's Hdtv?

In his modest laboratory in Sunnyvale, Calif., Yves Faroudja fiddles with switches and dials on a bank of television gear and peers at a TV monitor. The adjustments fail to patch in the program he wants. "I hate these digital controls," he mutters. It's an oddly old-fashioned remark for a Silicon Valley engineer who hopes to redefine the future of television. But then again, Faroudja is clearly a contrarian.

While the electronics industry is praising the wonders of high-definition television, Faroudja is betting that consumers and broadcasters alike will balk at the technology's high price tag. "I don't believe people are willing to pay a fortune for a TV set, no matter how good the picture is," he says. Indeed, full HDTV systems in Japan still run about $28,000, and consumers aren't showing much interest. Even in the late 1990s, the sets are expected to cost several thousand dollars each. And experts say it will cost broadcasters as much as $15 million to equip a typical TV station for HDTV. In addition, because HDTV will require more of the spectrum than today's broadcasts, the Federal Communications Commission will have to allocate more channels -- a process that will take years.

So, Faroudja has engineered a much cheaper alternative that could be available sooner. His technology boasts pictures that are superior to today's best broadcasts but not as sharp as full HDTV. Called SuperNTSC because it is compatible with the current broadcast standards that were set by the North American Television Standards Committee (NTSC) in 1941, Faroudja's system doubles the number of horizontal lines that constantly scan images onto the TV tube, making pictures sharper. SuperNTSC includes signal-processing tricks that eliminate technical problems such as smeared color and those rainbow patterns on Johnny Carson's plaid jackets. On the other hand, SuperNTSC doesn't have the movie-like wide screen or the CD-quality sound of HDTV.

Faroudja's company, Faroudja Laboratories, which makes signal-processing gear for TV stations, has less than $10 million in sales. But the French-born engineer has some powerful allies and investors. Nine U. S. companies, including Capital Cities/ABC Inc. and cable giant Tele-Communications Inc., have given Faroudja several million dollars for research and demonstrations. Early tests have gone well. In January, San Francisco CBS affiliate KPIX broadcast using SuperNTSC. And this summer, the Public Broadcasting System plans to produce three shows, including This Old House, in SuperNTSC for broadcast nationwide.

WAITING IT OUT. "We think it's a good solution until a true HDTV standard comes in," says Roy Moore, general manager of KPIX. Indeed, the investment to upgrade to SuperNTSC is about $300,000, only one-fiftieth that expected for HDTV. Even after HDTV arrives, small stations and cable operators may need a cheap way to improve broadcasts to avoid losing viewers to HDTV stations.

Now, Faroudja must persuade a lot more people that he has the right magic--most of all TV manufacturers. Their vote is crucial. Viewers watching SuperNTSC broadcasts on today's sets would only see slightly sharper pictures and better color. Getting the full benefit of SuperNTSC will require new receivers that may cost about $300 extra per set. Faroudja is talking with several TV makers about licensing his technology, which would be contained on custom chips or a circuit board in the set. But he faces a tough sell. Most manufacturers are already spending millions on HDTV research. French-owned Thomson, which makes RCA and GE brand TVs, for instance, has no interest in SuperNTSC, says U. S. Senior Vice-President D. Joseph Donahue. And Japanese TV makers have an interim scheme in Japan called Clear Vision. Says Weston E. Vivian, a University of Michigan scientist and HDTV consultant: "A few may go with Faroudja, but many more will wait for HDTV."

As a result, Faroudja is first targeting specialized markets such as high-end projection TVs. Sony Corp. and Canon Inc. already use SuperNTSC circuitry in camcorders. But he still hopes to break into the mainstream. "I want to have TV sets in the stores in 1992," he says.

Faroudja concedes that marketing isn't his specialty -- engineering has been, ever since his first glimpse of TV back in 1949, when he was growing up in Paris. "Electronics was magic to me," he recalls. He would still rather spend his time tinkering in the lab than selling. Says Joseph A. Flaherty, CBS Inc.'s senior vice-president for technology: "He's got an idea a minute, and he tears after them all." With that kind of energy, it may be too soon to tune out Faroudja just yet.

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