Nov. 3, 1997: HDTV Revolution

Speculation over how a switch from analog to digital would impact television.
8:35 | 11/02/11

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Transcript for Nov. 3, 1997: HDTV Revolution
This is what all the fuss is about high definition television. Astonishingly clear television images and equally clear sound. The technology as you can see from -- -- Orioles baseball game tape is available right now. We just can't get it from here to where you are because of politics and money and because of downright confusion. Revolutions it seems are not always what they're cracked up to be. He was ten years ago that the television networks including ABC. Urged the government to pursue a high definition television system. Without HDTV the network said we would -- desperately far behind other nations. Congress agreed perhaps too enthusiastically. And -- didn't do what critics called one of the biggest government giveaways in history. Broadcasters received for free digital channels worth tens of billions of dollars. A decade later some of those broadcasters led by ABC. Have publicly worried that a real high definition TV might be too expensive. And maybe they should try several pay channels instead. That in turn led -- members of congress to publicly worry that the public was being swindled by networks all too eager to back out of their promises. One thing is certain we are stumbling. Into this revolution in a box. What looked so glorious a decade ago. Now just looks confusing. We Begin with Nightline's Jeff Greenfield who has a lot more questions. Than answers. I didn't have a -- -- and listening. -- London here's how -- like to visualize progress as a long march of technological ones. From the telephone. Line. For the radio but I -- back to television's first flickering images. An unforgettable video memories. And to the big screen full color multi channel stereo television today -- -- television. Is poised for the next leap into the future it involves a -- so great it may be the biggest thing to hit television since television. And yet barely a year before this historic change is set to Begin many in and out of the industry are describing it as a giant leap into the unknown. I'm talking about the move from analog to digital broadcasting. It's like the difference between a one man band. And the symphony and that's what we -- talking. A whole new way of broadcasting television signals instead of the much -- leading radio waves of today's analog television. Digital TV sends out its signals in packets of ones and -- the way computers CDs handle data sent. A year from November 24 stations in the ten biggest cities we'll start broadcasting digital in addition to analog signals. The year after that all ABC NBC CBS and fox stations in the thirty biggest cities will join in. The rest of the nation will be phased in somewhere around 2006. -- -- didn't who watched. The frank reality is that none of us knows what this new technology will meaner for. -- the most talked about possibility is high definition. HDTV. Television with a crystal clear reading -- a motion picture she -- and CD quality sense. Last month at the Texas state fair Dallas station WFAA. And ABC affiliate. Demonstrated high definition television. The response was enthusiastic. I think it's like watching my friend Phil Linda it's pretty amazing myself plus. It's where we -- -- -- one but. Before one right now I'm gonna get it. Robert Decker -- president of the below corporation. They -- WF 88 and eleven other television stations I think the market place will move very rapidly once consumers. Can see the quality of these pictures. Here the -- quality of digital sound with high definition television. And know that they can purchased the sets to receive this signal. And put it in their homes congressman Billy tells -- who chairs the key house committee on telecommunications. Policy agrees. Some broadcasters or already broadcasting HDTV. To specialize monitors at sports events and sports fans are flocking to those monitored. I think the marketplace is gonna demand this this technology and I think broadcasters are gonna see the wisdom of providing it. But not everyone sees HD TVS. The key advantage of digital television. For one -- a true HDTV signal takes up the entire six megahertz digital bandwidth. But broadcasting -- slightly less intense digital picture broadcasters would have a lot of band with left over. Which means they could send out several different signals at the same time so called multi casting -- -- -- They'll put six regional games on the same time if the teacher watch. That kind of thing can work different sport -- -- in different cities and you choose. This possibility has some broadcasters very excited. David Smith who Sinclair Broadcast Group owns 24 UHS stations in smaller and middle sized markets is one of them. Multi channel four can can constitute many -- multi channels of data multi channels of television. The point is is that there -- a whole series of new services and products the can be offered of the consumer that heretofore never been available. Today will examine the extent and significance of possible changes the kinds of programming television broadcasters may be preparing. To offer television. Viewers -- the idea of multi casting also made some United States senators very angry they wanted reassurance that the digital spectrum they'd given broadcasters for free. Would be used for high definition television here. At a hearing they got that reassurance. NBC he's still remains committed to broadcast HDTV program. We remain committed to giving HD. TV a fair market test. The broadcasters were also reminded by legislators that broadcasting any digital signal other than HTTP. Would come with a price. If you don't do HT. Or if you use that spectrum for non HDTV purposes even in conjunction with -- HDTV. You're gonna pay for you're not going to get it for free this was not a giveaway. And there's a broader -- broadcast. The first generation of digital sets will likely cost anywhere from three to 101000 dollars it's only an affluent handful five cents. How can broadcasters make any money. I programming for so small an audience -- outgoing FCC chairman Reed -- response to this chicken and egg argument within patients. We know we still have a chicken egg problem the broadcasters are chicken to make -- business decisions necessary to get in the digital TV business and they're gonna lay an -- here and we won't have. Free over the air local digital TV if they don't just get our office. Here's what I was single broadcaster. But the digital license if you won't build the system. Then sell the license to somebody who will discount it. But get on with what. Many broadcasters are comfortable with the idea of a single channel simply beating out a far better picture and sound combination. But looking around the corner is the whole world of computers the Internet the -- interactivity. A 21 century world that promises or threatens enormous change for the twentieth century technology of television. Television is going to become -- an extremely more important device in our homes than even it's become to this date. And when it becomes not just the place in which were in -- -- and we receive news and information. But it becomes a place -- -- -- communicate when and where we educate one knows -- you think about it in those -- if you see that this is much bigger. And whether or not we have an HDTV signal to watch sports game. So we'll broadcasters Begin transmitting incredibly clear high definition television in a year. Will they be sending us dozens of new channels. Will consumers flood the market place to spend thousands of dollars -- these new digital television sets what will cable do. What -- the government permit or demand of broadcasters. These are all very good questions. Perhaps before digital television begins next year someone will supply some of the answers. I'm Jeff Greenfield for Nightline in New York.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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