Tuesday, April 16, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
Nine years in the making, technology that would give Americans super-sharp TV pictures and CD-quality sound stepped out of the lab in its first-ever broadcast in Las Vegas.
Using a special transmitter, CBS affiliate KLAS Channel 8 broadcast in high definition, a digital format developed specifically for U.S. television.
Broadcasters attending the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention got to look at the super-sharp TV. KLAS viewers continued to get their regular programming in the existing analog format.
The station's HDTV signal traveled unobstructed to the Las Vegas Convention Center, about half a mile away from the station. The signal was received on special equipment set up outside the center, routed to a makeshift theater inside and then to a projection TV with a rectangular screen, said Paul DeGonia, director of HDTV development for Westinghouse's Wireless Solutions Co. Westinghouse Electric Corp. owns CBS.
"It's an improvement, but vast is too strong an adjective," said Daryl Allen, who works at the convention center. "I was impressed -- as far as I can be by television."
But broadcast engineers gave it rave reviews.
Westinghouse Electric Corp. Chairman Michael Jordan called the broadcast "an important technical step and an important symbolic step" toward making high definition a reality for TV viewers.
Broadcasters watched a taped, 10-minute block of TV clips all shot in the HDTV format. The clips showed sporting events like skiing and ice skating, scenery like the Grand Canyon, a roller-coaster ride and national monuments such as the White House and the Capitol.
KLAS will broadcast the HDTV feed every half hour until the convention closes on Wednesday. "It's a step along the way to the digital TV age," said Dick Wiley, chairman of a committee that developed the HDTV system KLAS is using.
That system is called the Grand Alliance. Once approved by the Federal Communications Commission, possibly later this year, it will be the system that all U.S. TV stations will use to provide viewers the next generation of television. HDTV systems used in other countries have been shown at previous conventions, but the Grand Alliance has not.
"You can kind of see a gathering of momentum" behind HDTV, Wiley said. "HDTV is becoming a reality."
Westinghouse developed the special transmitter KLAS is using. DeGonia said that because it would cost about half the price of conventional transmitters, it should accelerate broadcasters' conversion to digital. Westinghouse's device will be "competitively priced" with transmitters developed by two competing companies, DeGonia said.
To receive the high-quality digital signals, viewers will need to buy new TV sets that won't be on the market for several years.
So as not to make all 220 million analog TV sets immediately obsolete, TV stations are supposed to simultaneously broadcast programs in both the existing analog format and the new digital one for 15 years. At the end of the period, stations will no longer transmit in analog. The Clinton administration wants broadcasters to complete the switch to digital in nine years, shortening the life of existing TV sets.
AT&T, General Instrument, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the David Sarnoff Research Center, Thomson Consumer Electronics, Philips Consumer Electronics and Zenith developed the Grand Alliance system.
Using the language of computers, digital technology is a vast improvement over existing analog. Digital is less susceptible to interference and is more efficient, allowing TV stations to pack four or five digital channels into the space of one analog channel.