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Television consultant comments on the pros and cons of high definition television

JOHN HIGHFIELD: The Federal Communications Minister, Senator Richard Alston, is currently visiting the United States. One of the main purposes of his visit is to examine high definition television-HDTV as the acronym is known. Within a month or two, the Minister is expected to announce the Government's choice for a new era of digital radio and television in this country. Competing technical systems from Europe and the United States are vying to become the new standard of home entertainment and information-a multi-billion dollar industry, eventually.

In television, particularly, the difference will be profound. Already pay TV operators in this country have raised objections to the five existing free-to-air channels-that is, ABC, SBS and the commercial channels-being given the conversion right, because it means not only cinema quality on home TV sets for movies and so on, but also the ability to split one channel into five or six sub-channels, thus offering viewers a multichannel choice. You could, for instance, watch the golf, and have several different holes on different channels at the same time. In theory, at least, this means 25 or 30 new services from the ABC and the other existing TV networks.

But there's a price, a substantial one. Consumers might have to pay between $3,000 and $10,000 for the new digital receivers when they first come out on the market in a year or so. It's a point I raise with one of the key people developing the new technology-Robert Graves, an American consultant who helped to pioneer the early work on HDTV with the American ATNT company.

ROBERT GRAVES: First of all, I think those prices may be a little bit high. Some of the prices that are being quoted, now, are understandable because there are no high definition or digital television sets to sell, and manufacturers in the United States are reluctant to quote a very low price for something that is around the corner because it will kill the market for their existing sets.

I think when we see the sets introduced in the fall of this year in the United States, you'll see prices that could go as low as $2,500. But what consumers will get-these prices I'm giving refer to a high definition television set which is a quantum improvement in the technical quality of over-the-air television. It will provide twice the vertical and twice the horizontal resolution. It will be a wider screen, more like the shape of a movie theatre screen and, all in all, it provides five times as much picture information along with six channels of digital CD quality surround sound.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: The other advantage, of course, is that if you don't want to watch high definition television movies or other shows, the channels, as I understand it, can be split so that the one free-to-air channel can actually carry five different signals.

ROBERT GRAVES: The digital television standard that's been adopted in the United States, the Advance Television Systems Committee Digital Television Standard, is incredibly flexible. You can use it to provide one or in some cases two high definition television programs simultaneously, or anywhere from two to about six standard definition or today's resolution digital television programs. And even those so-called SDTV programs will be higher quality than what we see today because the transmission is digital, so you get rid of snow and noise and ghosts in the picture.

Another very important use of this bandwidth, this bitstream, is for data services-sports scores, financial information, weather reports, a wide variety of information, a limitless array of potential information services. And many of these information services can be provided right along with top-quality high definition television.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Our Minister for Communications is currently in the United States looking at the differences between the system that is on offer from your country and that that is on offer from other areas like Japan and Europe. There is a battle between the standards, isn't there, in the world, that has to be overcome?

ROBERT GRAVES: Yes, there is, and Australia's in the midst of a very deliberate, careful process of evaluating the European standard and the North American standard, and it intends to choose one of those standards and use it. So it will never be a matter that consumers will go out and buy one TV and learn, a year later, that they guessed wrong and it's a different standard.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: So we're not going to have the battle that came between the Beta and the VHS, for instance, played out again?

ROBERT GRAVES: No. No. The battle is happening now and Australia will make a decision and then enjoy the benefits of that decision.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Now, you're speaking at a big industry conference in a couple of hours' time after this broadcast. What's the message you're giving to them?

ROBERT GRAVES: I am convinced that within six to 10 years, in developed countries throughout the world, viewers will not accept quality less than high definition television. This whole process in the US was undertaken to ensure that free over-the-air broadcasters had the opportunity to upgrade the technical quality of their service to high definition television so that they could compete in the decades, the years and decades to come, with pay services and other means of delivering video.

And I'm firmly convinced, in the US at least-and I suspect the situation will be very similar in Australia-in the US, at least, if broadcasters do not avail themselves of this opportunity to upgrade the quality of free over-the-air television, there won't be any free over-the-air television 10 years from now, because consumers-when you see the Superbowl or World Cup Soccer in HDTV, you never want to watch it in today's television. It's a quantum improvement, I think every bit as much a difference as going from black and white to colour. And so it's either innovate, make the upgrade, or prepare to exit the business over the next decade.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: American high definition TV specialist, Robert Graves.