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High-Definition TV Information

March 28, 2003

Lin Burney is the proud owner of a 50-inch, high-definition plasma TV. Most of the time, though, when he surfs TV stations he sees the same low-definition picture the rest of us do -- just bigger.

That's because most local TV affiliates either can't or won't pass along the high-definition programs -- with their brilliantly detailed pictures and CD-quality sound -- being offered by their networks. Burney, who lives in eastern Leavenworth County, has called the stations and pilloried them with e-mails, to no avail.

The problem will move front and center next month when CBS is scheduled to air the NCAA Final Four and the Masters golf tournament in hi-def. But CBS affiliate KCTV will carry only the standard-definition feed.

"It's just a shame," Burney said.

It's been six years since the federal government launched the digital TV "revolution" that was supposed to improve picture quality and make for a richer viewing experience in every American home. Sales of digital TV receivers and displays jumped 73 percent last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. About 3 million are in use, or less than 3 percent of U.S. households.

Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that most buyers of digital are buying them to watch DVDs on the big screen. Many also invested in a hi-def satellite system or rented special cable boxes to watch hi-def versions of HBO and Showtime. But watching "ER" in high definition? Not a top priority for many.

Last weekend Rick Smith of Overland Park was at BrandsMart looking at 53-inch widescreens. There's a hole cut in his basement wall to fit a TV that size. Smith said he wants a state-of-the-art set, but he admitted that he's been watching a 42-inch digital TV upstairs for two years, without hi-def, and hasn't seemed to mind.

That, say digital video enthusiasts, is a shame.

"High-definition TV is like the SUV of the airwaves -- once people see it, they've gotta have it," said Jeffrey O'Neil of Oak Grove in Jackson County.

Still, until more consumers are sold on hi-def's superiority, most broadcasters seem unwilling to invest in the equipment needed to transmit it. In Kansas City, commercial TV stations were required to have a digital signal airing on a separate channel by May of last year. But they don't have to carry a thing in hi-def, and most aren't. Several local stations also have their digital transmitters on low power to save on electricity costs.

"It's difficult to throw money at something that's going to happen," said Jim Moore, chief engineer of Fox affiliate WDAF.

Not everyone is being so stingy. Noncommercial KCPT has been telecasting in digital, including hi-def, since 1998. KMBC carried this year's Super Bowl in hi-def on its digital channel, which has been blasting out at full power since signing on last year. And later this month, ESPN will begin simulcasting in hi-def as the first step in an ambitious yearlong plan to convert its entire operation to the new format.

Televised sports may offer the most striking demonstration of the way hi-def, with its crystal-clear picture, could transform the way we look at TV. Hi-def fans report being mesmerized watching the most mundane details of a telecast -- like the expressions of coaches and referees, which appear fuzzy on regular TV.

At a practice run for ESPN's new hi-def service, even grizzled technicians gasped on a replay when a hoop-mounted camera showed the basketball bouncing high above the rim -- the word SPALDING was clearly seen on the ball.

Broadcasters agree that hi-def is the future. But just getting this far has meant building new towers and buying and installing digital transmitters and digital-ready equipment for the control room. Until more people are watching, they are reluctant to spend any more than that.

Fox is a good example. The network (which has the same corporate owner as WDAF) is sending out a compromise digital format. It isn't hi-def, but it does display certain programs, like "24" and the World Series, in widescreen. Since nearly all digital TV displays now sold are rectangular, the widescreen format fits those screens nicely. And experts agree that even a standard definition picture looks better when viewed digitally.

That is, if you can pick up the signal. The main tower, which Fox leases to other broadcasters, is loaded down with antennas. So WDAF-DT (the "DT" stands for digital television) is transmitting at low power from atop the station's shorter backup tower on Signal Hill.

Digital TV owners complain they can't get WDAF-DT. Moore said the signal is supposed to cover the entire area; indeed, it's been picked up as far away as Topeka.

But at least Fox is broadcasting in digital. Scripps Howard, the parent company of stations KSHB and KMCI, is just now starting construction on its new tower that will hold those digital antennas. They'll be on the air in June, or more than a year after the federal deadline passed.

And then there's KCTV. The station made a big deal about going to digital, even leading its newscasts with a report showing management flipping the switch on KCTV-DT. Since then, however, the CBS affiliate has made itself the least popular digital broadcaster in the area.

CBS promotes hi-def TV more aggressively than any other network. Every night it sends affiliates hi-def versions of all its prime-time shows, including "CSI" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." And every night KCTV-DT "downconverts" the network's signal to standard definition before sending it over the air.

By contrast, viewers of WIBW-DT in Topeka have been enjoying all the CBS programming in beautiful hi-def. Needless to say, this really cheeses hi-def owners in Kansas City.

"KCTV has chosen to take the cheap and easy way out," said Ed Manning of Lee's Summit. "I don't understand why a major market like Kansas City is so far behind the HDTV frontier."

A spokesman for KCTV's owner, Meredith Corp., said there were "no current plans" to change that policy, adding, "At this time we don't see the demand necessary to meet this (added) investment."

Over on cable, the hi-def future also seems so close and yet so far. ESPN plans to air the Women's Final Four, Sunday night baseball games and other events in hi-def when its ESPN-HD service launches March 30. So far, though, it has been unable to sign agreements with major cable operators, including Time Warner Cable.

Bryan Burns, who heads up the venture for ESPN, said cable operators should offer a "digital tier" and charge customers to receive hi-def channels, instead of giving them away as they do now. A Time Warner spokesman said talks are under way with ESPN, Discovery and Bravo about carrying their hi-def channels.

Comcast Cable will begin testing its hi-def service in the Kansas City area next week with customers who earlier put their names on a waiting list.