Waves of the Future

What if the revolution was canceled due to lack of popular interest?

That's got to be a question on the minds of those pushing "high-definition television" (HDTV) onto a public that can't seem to care less.

On Jan. 1, 2006, the federal government plans to have all of today's television broadcast signals (the one s used for half a century) turned off. In their place will be the new digital age that your old TV won't be able to receive.

The government is assuming people will be replacing their old TVs between now and then with the HDTV sets.

It's a billion dollar bet that doesn't look to good - right now.

Lexington residents aren't rushing out in droves to buy the new sets; Best Buy and Circuit City both estimate that, on average, they sell 3 digital sets per week.

The Consumer Electronics Association says that June was a record month: over 26,700 sets were sold nationwide. But that hardly makes a dent in the existing consumer base of perfectly good, non-digital TVs, which are found in over 102 million U.S. households.

Conservatively estimating that each household has two TV sets, that's over 200 million sets that will either need to be replaced, or have decoders attached to them, and no one knows how much those decoders will cost.

And if lack of consumer demand weren't enough, there's a problem on the supply side.

Rather than select one standard picture type, like the FCC did in the 1940s, the government will let the market decide.

Yet, the market hasn't picked any one standard

Right now there are a possible 18 standards out there, according to Charlie O'Daniel, a sales counselor at Circuit City on Nicholasville Road.

O'Daniel says, "Some models we sell are able to decode 17 of the 18 possible digital standards, others can only decode two. We explain that to customers, but some of them just buy the cheapest model, rather than the one which has a better chance of working when the digital changeover happens."

Already, there's no consensus among the major networks as to what standard they will use: CBS, NBC and PBS use one type for HDTV, while ABC and FOX use another.

But all that doesn't matter here in Lexington, Kentucky. We don't yet have any television stations that are sending out their signals in HDTV format. According to the FCC website (, the local stations in Lexington aren't required to be broadcasting in digital format until May of 2002.

So, buying a digital television right now would seem a bit silly, if it weren't for the way the manufacturers have decided to entice customers into buying in early.

If you buy a "digital television" right now, it's not really "digital," it's "digital ready." The sets work with regular TV signals for now, and can be upgraded with a decoder to allow reception of digital signals later, when Lexington stations actually put out a digital signal.

Of course, that upgrade doesn't come cheap; Best Buy sells the decoders for $600 to $1500. Add that on to the cost of the sets, which locally can run from $1900 to $6000, and you've got yourself a pretty expensive piece of equipment.

But the $25,000 question is: what's the big difference?

In fact, a lot of people probably don't even know much about this technology that the government claims people want.

Some may have heard the boasts that the new technology has superior picture quality.

How are local stations gearing up for the change? Stay tuned for next week's column.