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Ryan Piurek
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Thursday, August 19, 2004

I want my HDTV!

Digital television may be the wave of the future, but will politics keep viewers from catching it?

Jeffrey Hart

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Television viewers can watch the Olympic Games in Athens on high definition television (HDTV) at five times the picture resolution of a standard analog television set. But the future of digital television has yet to come into focus, and consequently, many puzzled viewers aren't tuned in to this new technology, according to Jeffrey Hart, professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington.

Hart paints a muddy picture of digital television in his new book Technology, Television and Competition: The Politics of Digital TV (Cambridge University Press). He shows how public debates over HDTV and digital television that began in the early 1980s resulted in a victory for "digitalism" (the claimed superiority of everything digital over everything analog) and "digital convergence" (the merging of computing, telecommunications and broadcasting structures) but also created great dissatisfaction and confusion among both broadcasters and consumers.

"Legislators can't keep up with technology, generally speaking. They aren't technically savvy, and they're being lobbied by the large money interests who aren't necessarily looking at the public's best interests," Hart said. He will be the first speaker at the HDTV Forum 2004 in Los Angeles, Aug. 24-26. The forum will explore a wide range of issues connected with television.

In trying to advance digital television, public policy-makers have catered to the established interests within the broadcasting, program production and consumer electronics industries, Hart said. He added that getting these industries to accept the digital movement required compromises that have resulted in differing and incompatible digital television standards, and in several instances, missed opportunities to develop the new technologies.

These compromises also have raised many questions, including who will regulate digital television, how it will be paid for and whether the public shares the digital community's interest in this new form of television.

Policy-makers have had a difficult time gauging the public's interest in digital television, Hart said. So far, the public has been slow to go digital. Consumers have not yet been willing to pay the required premium for HDTV, even though many have been willing to pay higher prices for wider screens and digital signals.

"A lot of people argue that consumers are perfectly happy with the definition they have and that they're choosing to use their leisure time in different ways. But as prices (for HDTV) go down, we may see sales come up," Hart said.

The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that all of the nation's television stations make the transition from analog to digital transmission by the end of 2006 or until 85 percent of homes are able to watch digital television programming. Yet Hart estimates that fewer than 10 percent of homes are now equipped for digital television.

Broadcasters have been equally slow to adopt the new technologies, despite receiving FCC incentives such as an additional channel for HDTV. Because the FCC did not mandate use of this spectrum for HDTV, these operators have been using the channels for alternate purposes such as multicasting, Hart said.

Now the FCC wants these channels back, and some legislators in both political parties have proposed auctioning off the channels to help pay down the federal deficit. But many broadcasters are reluctant to give their second channels back, citing the large costs of building a digital transmission capability.

"Public policy-makers set up a bad incentive system. They gave broadcasters an incentive to slow down the transition to digital television in order to keep the extra channels loaned to them by the FCC beyond 2006," Hart said.

While digital convergence may not be happening as fast as proponents argued it would, there is plenty of evidence that it is happening, he said. In recent years, MSNBC, CNN Interactive and HDNet -- a 24-hour national high definition TV network founded by IU alumnus Mark Cuban -- have all emerged from the digital movement.

Combined, these new networks offer digital viewers opportunities to access and interact with an unprecedented volume of news and information. HDTV allows broadcasters to place readable text on screen and easily switch back and forth from video to text, Hart said, giving it an enormous advantage over regular analog television in how it can present information. "In some ways, text is the most efficient way to convey important information," he said.

But this, too, raises a significant concern -- specifically, whether the new technology might contribute to an information gap between rich and poor segments of the population.

"The founding fathers knew we had to have an informed citizenry," Hart said. "One of the big issues is what happens when poor people no longer have the same access to televised information as rich people. What will happen when some people have access to high-speed data while others can only get the slow stuff? Will they have sufficient access to high-quality information and the means to process that information so that it is possible for them to be active and effective citizens?"

To speak to Jeffrey Hart, contact Ryan Piurek, IU Media Relations, at 812-855-5393 or