Someday you might be able to say, "I remember where I was when I first saw digital TV." But for everyone but WTAE-TV employees, that day won't be Feb. 1, 1999.
WTAE began broadcasting in digital yesterday - maybe you saw the commercials on Channel 4 touting its debut - but basically no one could see it. That's OK with WTAE general manager James Hefner.
"We wanted to be first, and secondly, it is chicken and the egg," Hefner said. "What we're trying to do is create demand. We want to show other people in the marketplace what it's all about."
Hefner said WTAE will set up screenings, at locations to be determined, so the public can judge digital television itself. "This is something you can't talk about; you have to see it," Hefner said.
To see how much better a digital TV picture is than the image on a conventional analog set (the one in your living room), you must have a digital television. For internal purposes, WTAE borrowed a digital set from the Sony plant in Westmoreland County, which manufactures digital TVs.
Hefner said there's a marked difference between the conversion to digital TV and the conversion to color.
"When color TV started, we had a frame of reference," Hefner said. "Movies were in color since the late 1930s, so the appetite was already whetted. People understood black and white and it was easy to understand color. The difference here is that people don't understand the picture is twice as sharp."
WTAE currently broadcasts in low-power digital that reaches the city of Pittsburgh, with plans for full-power service that reaches the entire Pittsburgh market to begin in late April or early May.
When many people think of digital TV they automatically think of high-definition television (HDTV), which provides the absolute best digital picture and CD-quality sound. But the two terms are not synonymous.
"HDTV is a type of digital, and you can do digital TV without necessarily doing high-definition television," said WTAE director of engineering Dave Kasperek. "But you cannot do high definition without doing digital. High definition is a subset of digital."
Kasperek said ABC offers only about three hours of HDTV programming per week (including "The Wonderful World of Disney"), and WTAE is broadcasting in HDTV whenever it's available. Standard definition (non-HDTV digital) is better than current analog TV, but not quite as good as HDTV.
And this is where many questions about the future of digital remain.
With this new technology, stations can broadcast in HDTV, which under some technological formats uses up the entire bandwidth of the station's digital allotment. Kasperek said the format chosen by ABC allows stations to broadcast one high definition channel and one standard definition channel.
A station also could choose to broadcast only in standard definition digital, which would allow a station to provide four channels.
For example, WTAE's digital position is Channel 51, and the station could choose to multicast, offering Channel 51A, Channel 51B, Channel 51C and Channel 51D. But that's not WTAE's plan.
"We're going to be doing HDTV all day. That's our policy right now," Hefner said.
WPGH general manager Stu Powell said his station will go the multicasting route.
"We're all guessing a little bit, but we think HDTV will be the one that falls by the wayside," Powell said.
WPGH won't begin broadcasting in digital until this fall, near the federal government's Nov. 1 deadline for the Big Four affiliates in Pittsburgh to begin digital broadcasts. (WB and UPN affiliates don't have to go digital until May 1, 2002, and PBS stations have until May 1, 2003.)
KDKA has not yet announced its digital debut date, and WPXI officials did not return a call.
WPGH plans to only offer a low-power digital signal at first.
"Rather than spending a couple million more for higher power, we're going with low-power until we find out what the penetration of digital is," Powell said.
Cost is a prime consideration in the digital conversion. Hefner said he's heard guesstimates that the change will cost TV stations $10 million to $30 million.
"The fact of the matter is some of this equipment doesn't even exist yet," Hefner said. "We are pioneering here."
In addition to buying the equipment to transmit in digital, stations must also buy digital cameras, tape players, etc. Even if you order a digital set tomorrow, don't expect to see Sally Wiggin and Mike Clark in crystal clear HDTV for several years.
In this brave new world, TV stations will broadcast in the current analog format and in digital concurrently until 2006, when the government will take back the analog station positions. Or so the government says at this point.
"Nobody really believes deep in their hearts that there will be enough penetration of digital sets to warrant the loss of the analog signal [by 2006]," Powell said. "It's going to have to reach critical mass of penetration."
Whenever it happens, local stations will get the following digital channel assignments: KDKA, Channel 25; WTAE, Channel 51; WPXI, Channel 48; WQED, Channel 38; WCWB, Channel 42; and WPGH, Channel 43.