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Video's big leap forward arrives

Programming is sparse for HDTV

Words like revolutionary are cheap in commercial-speak. But once in a while something comes along.

Meet high definition television.

Touted for years as the wave of the future, it's here. It is the biggest leap in video since color.

A recent story in the Los Angeles Times told of crowds of shoppers gathered to behold this marvel, much like in the earliest days of color TV.

KSYS Channel 8 plans a program about HDTV at 10:30 p.m. Monday. And an HDTV demonstration is set for 7:30 tonight at Larson's Superstores, 213 S. Fir St., Medford.

Employees at several other Medford stores that sell televisions said Wednesday the stores do not yet carry HDTV sets.

Electronics specialist Bob Kukoski of Larson's says reaction among those who have seen HDTV has been remarkable.

They're just awed by it, he says. They're just blown away.

About a dozen major makers have sets out. The Mitsubishi models have screens running from 50 to 80 inches, which puts them into the higher side of the home entertainment spectrum. A 50-inch model sells for about $4,000.

Between the hefty price tag and a (for now) scarcity of programming, it's not clear how long this future will take to fully arrive. But one thing is clear: the picture.

There are no scan lines running across the screen, as with regular sets. The eye of an owl or the slithering tongue of a snake in an HDTV demonstration program stored in a computer looks like you're seeing the world through the viewfinder of a fine camera, or through new glasses on the day you get them.

The reasons for the quality of the image: a digital, instead of analog, signal, and resolution many times more powerful than possible with standard TV.

A regular broadcast has 150,000 pixels (tiny dots) per frame. An HDTV broadcast, by comparison, can have more than 2 million pixels per frame.

HDTV equipment can cost $5,000 to $12,000 and up, depending on the screen size and other features. You'll have to buy a special tuner to receive the high definition signal on models that don't have one built in. You'll also need to buy a special antenna and, on some models, a receiver. If you don't already have home theater, you'll want to add a couple thousand more for that.

The cost may come down, as consumer electronics historically do. But there's also the matter of programming. There's not a lot out there yet.

High-definition broadcasts officially debuted on a limited basis in about 20 cities this month.

ABC on Sunday aired a digital version of the Disney film 101 Dalmatians. NBC plans to air The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in high definition in the spring, the movie Men in Black sometime next year and Titanic in the year 2000.

More than 40 stations in 23 cities are either offering some high-definition programming or about to, according to an industry trade publication.

Where all the programming will come from is unclear. Even analog broadcasts -- used by almost all stations now -- will look better on HDTV sets, but stations must broadcast in digital for you to get the full benefit.

Switching to digital is a concern for cable operators, who are required to give up regular channels to do so. Some in the industry are calling for the federal government to require cable systems to carry local broadcast systems in digital. And some stations already offer both digital and analog channels (both the ABC and PBS affiliates in Seattle, for example).

Don't expect to see much HDTV outside of prime time for the time being. That's because most prime-time shows are shot on 35-mm film. That's easily converted to high-definition video. Broadcasting a ball game or concert, in contrast, would require tons of pricey new equipment. Industry analysts say that probably won't pencil out for networks until there are more digital viewers out there. That's where that picture comes in.

Bob Kukoski of Larson's Superstores in Medford demonstrates HDTV. Newspaper printing doesn't reproduce the television image accurately. Larson's will demonstrate HDTV at 7:30 tonight, and KSYS Channel 8 plans a program about it at 10:30 p.m. Monday. - Photo by Jim Craven