Here's the sales pitch: Wouldn't you like a TV so clear you could count the stitches on a baseball as it crossed the plate? Or watch individual snowflakes kiss the sidewalk? That's what we've been hearing ever since high-definition television (HDTV) arrived as a consumer product in 1998. And if you've ever seen it firsthand, you know it's true. HDTV really is that good, with a picture resolution six times as rich as ordinary analog TV--some 2 million pixels. Colors pop, and edges are crisp and distinct, revealing every hair and wrinkle. Enthusiasts call it a technological leap as momentous as the transition from vinyl to compact discs.
Yet today only 4% of U.S. households have HDTVs, and for years the best advice for those who wanted one was to wait. That created a classic chicken-and-egg situation. Consumers were reluctant to purchase HDTV sets because they were too expensive and there wasn't anything worth watching on them; broadcasters were reluctant to invest in HDTV programming until there was an audience big enough to make it worth their while.
This year, we may finally have reached a tipping point. Sales of HDTV-ready sets will top 2.5 million in 2002, a 65% jump from last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. It helps that prices are tumbling. Nowadays you can buy a 30-in. HDTV-ready set for as little as a grand, and bigger sets are selling for half what they cost four years ago.
Besides an HDTV-ready set, you'll need some kind of set-top box. Check with your cable- or satellite-TV provider to see what it recommends. You may even be able to lease one. If you're paying a few dollars a month for a Time Warner Cable digital-cable box, for instance, you can get one with a built-in HD converter at no extra charge. (Time Warner Cable is owned by AOL Time Warner, which also publishes this magazine.) Or, to get free HD over the air, you could hook a digital-TV tuner ($450 and above) and a UHF antenna (such as the Terk TV-55, about $100) to your HD set.
Of course, there has to be some HD to watch. Before you can see, say, The West Wing in HDTV, NBC has to create an HD version of it. That means a significant investment in digital cameras and cables--a tough sell to a business with billions of dollars sunk in the old way of making TV. Then either your cable company has to carry the big HD version over its coaxial cables (taking up precious bandwidth that could otherwise carry more channels), or the local NBC affiliate has to broadcast it over the air.
All these pieces of the HDTV puzzle are starting to fall into place. Over-the-air HD programming has doubled since last year. Under pressure from Congress to upgrade their systems by the end of 2006, more than 600 local stations in 165 of the nation's 215 TV markets are transmitting at least some of their shows--mainly prime-time favorites such as CBS's Everybody Loves Raymond and ABC's The Practice--in high definition, and the networks are adding programming all the time. ABC has announced plans to broadcast the next Super Bowl in HD. Starting next year, look for high-definition NBA finals, Stanley Cup and Monday Night Football.