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Digital TV: Higher quality ringing higher prices to Valley

February 02, 2001|By JASON ZARA, Staff Writer

High-definition television is making its way into more and more homes, but the cost to consumers and broadcasters is still unknown.

There has been a lot of talk about digital television and some details about its future are still unclear. But it is clear viewers will have access to more programming choices and a better picture.

Shirley Bonillas, area marketing manager for Adelphia in El Centro, said by the end of the year the cable TV company will offer more than 200 channels, as well as other features including music, through a digital converter box. In addition to 78 regular stations, there will be dozens of movie channels, sports channels and pay-per-view options.

"The consumer is not going to see much of an increase to what they pay now and we'll triple their channels," Bonillas said.


That "not much" of an increase may be key. While customers will not have to buy a digital television to receive the signal from Adelphia, they will be required to have a digital converter box. Adelphia General Manager Tom Dixon said the boxes are "much more expensive" than current cable boxes, but renting the box will be worked into the service package to keep costs down.

"We'll have the same services as the satellite guys at a competitive price and we'll have the local channels as part of the package," Mixon said.

Adelphia officials said they had no information at this time as to how much more people can expect to pay for cable service once digital converter boxes are available.

Digital, or high-definition television, provides a more crisp picture and clearer sound to the viewer. But while the picture is better, until broadcasters have switched entirely to digital signals, the difference may only be clear to true television aficionados.

"It's like the difference between a $200 and a $5,000 stereo system," said Keith Johnson, Adelphia plant manager.

Paul Heebink, general manager for KYMA Channel 11, explained the transition to digital television. Right now, he said, most broadcasts are sent and received via analog signals. The upgrade at Adelphia will be using digital lines to get an analog signal from point A to point B, strengthening the signal and improving its reception. Also, the digital network can handle more information.

"It gives you more options. When you have a digital transmission you can add more information to one station's single signal … or it will allow you to take your signal and divide it into multi-signals," he said.

While digital lines allow for more channels to come into the home, Heebink said, the information coming across is not yet, in most cases, being delivered digitally. As it stands right now, the Federal Communications Commission has mandated that all stations need to be digital by 2006, Heebink said. While some big market stations are already there, the transition is going to be much more difficult for smaller areas.

"To move into digital is a very, very expensive proposition. At present, it would put many smaller stations out of business," he said.

A major obstacle facing the industry, Heebink said, is agreeing on formatting among television manufacturers, broadcasters and delivery systems. Once formatting is agreed upon and consumers embrace the idea, then the transition will be possible, he said.

"It a nutshell, digital sounds great, looks great," Heebink said. "It will be expensive for both consumer and broadcaster to go totally digital. The cable companies when they go digital can offer consumers a lot of additional choices and certainly improved signal."

Jerry Baxter, lead sales associate at Sears in El Centro, said while high-definition television isn't of much benefit now, it will be great after 2005 or whenever the full transition to digital is made. Most stations viewed on a new high-definition television set will appear slightly clearer, with less lines in the picture. But if you are receiving a digital broadcast by satellite or viewing a DVD, the quality is vastly improved. He said in the Valley only about three stations are broadcast at high-definition even by satellite, adding that in areas such as Los Angeles there are already several hours of high-definition programming available each day.

Even the relatively small improvement in quality has already drawn quite a few customers, Baxter said. A 43-inch Sony analog television costs $1,599; a comparable Hitachi high-definition ready television costs $2,199. But that hasn't deterred customers.

"We are selling quite a few," Baxter said. "I'd say almost 2:1 on the digital to the analog."

He said the televisions being sold now are high-definition ready, meaning they will receive high-definition transmissions via satellite or a converter box. A true high-definition television currently costs about $5,000, he said, but that price will drop significantly by the time the industry transition to digital is complete.

Copy Editor Jason Zara may be reached at 337-3451.

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