Consumers taking their time to make digital switch

Tuesday, April 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LAS VEGAS (AP) _ Broadcasters and television set makers are still trying to figure out how they can lure customers to the new digital TV technology.

Station executives, gathered here for the annual National Association of Broadcasters meeting, say digital sets _ which can cost from $2,500 to $7,000 _ are just too pricey. They want the government to require that all newly manufactured TV sets be capable of receiving a digital signal to help drive down costs and attract buyers.

No, says the consumer electronics industry; such a requirement would just drive up prices for consumers. And they assert that it's not needed anyway since sales of the new TVs are good _ more than 648,000 digital TV integrated sets and monitors were sold to retailers in 2000.

What's needed, they say, are more programs in the new crystal-clear, high-definition format. Otherwise, people won't buy the sets, manufacturers say.

More TV sets or more programs?

``We have a chicken-and-egg problem where everybody is playing chicken,'' said Blair Levin, a regulatory analyst at Legg Mason in Washington. ``I think we have a stalemate right now.''

Taking a break from the fingerpointing, the broadcasters association and consumer electronics group announced a joint promotional campaign to inform consumers about digital TV products and programming on the market.

Digital programming takes up far less room on the airwaves than current analog shows. So a broadcaster could use the digital channel it gets from the government to beam shows in the high-definition format, broadcast multiple programs at once or even send data to consumers' computers.

So far, CBS and PBS are among the networks that have taken the lead in providing new, high-definition shows to their audiences.

``The networks have to get behind this,'' said Paul Karpowicz, a vice president at LIN Television Corporation. Offering even a few high-profile events in the new format will help bring on new viewers, he said.

Still, it seems increasingly unlikely that analog TVs _ the kind most viewers have today _ will become obsolete by 2006, the government's goal for the changeover. Broadcasters must return their analog channels to the government by 2006 or when digital TV reaches 85 percent of the market, whichever comes later.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell has shown a reluctance to regulate on these issues, saying consumers will decide whether digital TV ultimately succeeds or not.

But, he said last week, the FCC will continue to bring parties together to resolve snags slowing the transition.

Some hurdles include whether the consumer electronics industry and movie studios can work out concerns about protecting digital content from illegal distribution and whether cable customers who buy digital TV sets will be able to see their local broadcast channels.

Digital TV systems are typically sold in combinations. Consumers can buy a stand-alone high-definition monitor for several thousand dollars but would then need a separate set-top box, costing about $1000, to receive a digital signal. Some companies sell full TV sets _ where the digital tuner is built in _ as well.

Some businesses also are looking for new, cheaper ways to introduce consumers to digital TV.

AccessDTV, based in Raleigh, N.C., sells a kit for $480 that lets consumers watch digital TV on a computer screen by inserting a special card into their PC and attaching an antenna to their computer. Once that's in place, viewers can watch digital or analog broadcasts and even link the computer to a cable connection.

The system requires computer models that have certain specifications, but ``it's a relatively low technical bar,'' said Doug Leech, chief operating officer for the company. The product also enables consumers to work on their computer while watching digital TV _ a useful feature as ``people are spending more and more time on their PCs,'' he said.