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Byline: David Bloom Daily News Staff Writer

This revolution is being televised, but not too many people will see it, at least not yet.

High-definition television, or HDTV - the glitziest part of a broader transformation called digital television - officially kicks off today in Los Angeles and nine other major U.S. cities. Whether you know it or not, it will revolutionize your viewing habits.

``It's like you were up in the stands watching (the parade) instead of at home wondering if that's a red or orange color on that float,'' said Kathy Delk of North Hollywood as she watched a broadcast of HDTV shots taken at this year's Rose Parade on the sole high-definition television in Glendale's Circuit City store this week.

In its most glorious iteration, the 1080i format, HDTV will bring extraordinarily sharp pictures to homes across the country, far better than even the best television screens showing in the long-used NTSC analog format.

The first thing you'll notice on a high-definition screen is its shape. At a ratio of 16 by 9, it's much wider and flatter than the 4-by-3 ratio of the television you know - and much closer to what you'd see in a movie theater.

Then the picture comes on, and the jaw drops. Where a standard NTSC screen is made up of a collection of about 250,000 tiny colored dots called pixels, the highest-resolution HDTV format will show around 2 million pixels.

On a regular television screen, you don't want to get too close, because the image will break down, literally pixellate, into virtually indecipherable dots and lines. On an HDTV screen, by contrast, the picture looks good at 6 inches or at 40 feet.

For instance, on that Rose Bowl footage that Delk was watching, you can pick out faces in the crowd of bystanders even though the camera was mounted several stories up in a building across the street. That's a New Year's resolution.

HDTV also provides far better sound - the high-quality, three-dimensional audio you'd expect in a theater - and the ability to broadcast much other information - including computer software, stock quotes, sports statistics and even additional television channels - in the unused frequencies surrounding the main channel.

Mixed signals

Now for the bad news.

For the foreseeable future, you'll need to give up body parts (i.e. an arm and a leg) to afford an HDTV-capable television. That's assuming you can find one, because few models will be available anywhere any time soon, and most of those of wall-sized proportions. On top of that, there won't be much to watch.

The Good Guys store in Glendale has two televisions available that can accept an HDTV signal, said manager Dan Kenny. The cheap one costs about $4,000, the other $5,500, which is also what that Panasonic 56-inch screen will cost across the street at Circuit City.

Both models are massive televisions, virtually armoire sized, with lots of additional features, including the ability to take analog TV signals and make them look four times better.

That line-quadrupling circuit is important, too, because without an additional $1,500 converter box, neither TV can pick up an HDTV signal, Kenny said.

But if you have real money, go to Dave's Video the Laser Place in Studio City and pick up a 50-inch Pioneer gas-plasma television.

Yes, it'll cost you $22,000, but home theater manager Pete Camacho said the screen is only 4 inches thick, weighs only 95 pounds and can be mounted on the wall like a picture. You can make like Bill Gates, who reportedly has a number of sets with ever-changing art images adorning the walls of his home, assuming you have a spare billion or two like he does.

Where's the hardware?

Of course, even if you do have that money burning a hole in your bank account, finding digital TV sets to buy will prove difficult for at least the next few weeks. Valley-area electronics dealers have virtually no televisions for sale that can display an HDTV signal.

Camacho's store only has the gas-plasma screen, though he should have as many as 10 models of widely varying sizes by Thanksgiving, he said.

Kenny expects to have half a dozen models available within three weeks, though his competitor across the street, Circuit City general manager Marty Schaeffer, still doesn't know when his store will get its HDTV screens.

Once you get your new technological marvel home, there's an additional question: what to watch. For now, the answer is not much.

There will be a few football and baseball games, ``The Wonderful World of Disney'' and ``The Tonight Show,'' other movies and educational programming in HDTV in the next several months.

Creative people in Hollywood are still struggling to figure out how to take advantage of it all. So far, little is ready for prime time.

``I'm not so certain that the powers that be are going to really allow anything to be done that anyone's going to want,'' said West Hollywood screenwriter Douglas Varchol, who is creating interactive programming for a Dutch channel.

Varchol's project includes extra computer-accessible information about the invention of powered flight by the Wright Brothers - likening them to Jungian proto-hackers - as part of an episode in a hugely successful European television program about key points in history.

``The interesting thing comes when you start doing it for a series,'' Varchol said. ``You start weaving a texture out there that's going to be unbelievably complex.''

The American Film Institute and computer-chip maker Intel sponsored a summerlong workshop that paired television production people with computer-minded mentors to create ``enhanced television'' shows, and get them on the air.

``People are excited about the possibilities,'' said Maija Beeton, AFI's Advanced Technology Program director. ``But I don't think people understand what it is yet. It's an art form that's being created.''

Pricey proposition

Even the most ambitious networks aren't putting on much right now. That's because the new technology requires them to spend millions of dollars on equipment, with no ability to charge advertisers more and with an audience that numbers in the dozens. That's a crash-and-burn business model rivaled only by the Internet.

And if you're tucked behind one of the Southland's many hills, where broadcast signals are lost in perpetual ``shadows,'' forget about getting a digital cable TV signal.

Cable companies are squabbling with networks and the Federal Communications Commission about whether they should be forced to carry both the analog and digital signals of broadcasters on their already crowded dials.

That heavily politicized process still hasn't been worked out, and its final resolution could cause problems for first-generation HDTV sets, Schaeffer acknowledged. In the meantime, it's broadcast or direct satellite for digital.

And the biggest bombshell of all: In 2006, broadcasters are supposed to turn off their analog transmitters, give up the extra frequencies they were given by the Federal Communications Commission and go all digital.

That means you get to give up your old television, too, and go all digital. That truly is revolutionary.


Drawing, Photo


Jon Gerung/Daily News

Photo: If you want to watch HDTV broadcasts, Pete Camacho of Dave's Video the Laser Place in Studio City will sell you this 50-inch Pioneer gas-plasma television set that's only 4 inches thick, weighs 95 pounds and mounts on the wall for $22,000.

Myung J. Chun/Daily News
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 1, 1998

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