So When Does the Picture Clear?

In 1997, Congress ordered most broadcasters to convert from analog to digital signals by 2006 and granted them about $70 billion worth of new television spectrum to do so. With digital TV, consumers would receive clearer pictures, better sound, more channels, and interactive programming. Yet despite specific government-set timetables to achieve that goal, the digital changeover has moved far less quickly than expected.

Who's to blame? That depends on whom you ask. Like squabbling children, Hollywood studios and other broadcasters say they won't provide content until manufacturers of high-definition televisions include foolproof mechanisms to prevent piracy of easily duplicated digital programs. TV makers argue that broadcasters refuse to work with them to solve the problem. And cable companies and local television providers say transmitting digital and interactive signals makes no sense financially until more programming is available. The upshot? Fewer than 1% of U.S. homes are watching high-definition content.

There's finally some movement to break the logjam. Replacing veiled threats of punitive action, in April Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell called on major networks, local affiliates, and cable operators to put their differences to rest voluntarily and move forward. Many agreed to Powell's wishes, paving the way for more digital content by this fall. Meantime, TV makers have agreed in principle to two major standards for delivering copy-proof content to their sets. While it's still unclear which standard will prevail, new sets incorporating one or both will come to market by early next year.

But don't run out and buy a new HDTV just yet. Industry officials say privately that the government will extend the 2006 deadline by at least four years. That means cheaper analog sets will continue to dominate for years.

By Cliff Edwards

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