This Reception Is Great, But...

Americans are hepped up about high-definition TV. Zenith Electronics Corp.'s stock jumped 25% in the week after Feb. 16, when its transmission scheme was recommended as the new standard for HDTV. On Feb. 23, U.S. newspapers blared news that Japan's rival standard was faltering. Pundits cite HDTV as evidence that U.S. technology is staging a comeback.

But Americans are far from achieving a rout in the HDTV wars. To be sure, the technology, when it arrives in about three years, will offer crystal-clear pictures and sound. And the U.S. is the only country nearing completion of a system that sends signals in digital code for error-free manipulation and transmission. Europeans, in a nod to the U.S. lead, dropped work on an analog HDTV system last year. On Feb. 22, a senior Japanese official said the government was considering abandoning its analog system. That rattled buyers, though he moderated his comments the next day.

TOUGH SELL. Setbacks abroad, though, don't add up to American dominance. The cable TV industry doesn't support the selection of Zenith's scheme, threatening a split in the standard. Besides, many of the profits from HDTV will go to foreign companies that build gear to the U.S. standard--among them, Sony, Philips, and Thomson, whose brands include GE and RCA. Japanese companies lead Americans in such critical parts as image-sensing chips for cameras and tubes for sets. Says Judson Rosebush, a New York producer of multimedia software who served on a Federal Communications Commission advisory panel on HDTV: "Americans should face up to the fact that the Japanese have them licked in many areas."

American HDTV, moreover, is likely to be a tough sell. The first sets will cost several thousand dollars. And if their screens aren't big, the improvement over today's better sets will scarcely be noticeable. Also, backers haven't spread the message about HDTV's advantages, such as the way it assembles digital data into packets. For instance, some packets could contain an auto ad, with others holding print data on the car, which a viewer could delve into with a click of the remote control.

The U.S. system of digital HDTV does have promise. But sales won't amount to much until the turn of the century, and even when they do, U.S.-based manufacturers aren't likely to be the big winners. Perhaps the corks should go back in the champagne bottles.

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