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DIGITAL MODE MAY DISPLACE HIGH-DEFINITION TECHNOLOGY

High-definition television - once hailed by the industry as its high-tech savior - may not be required viewing as broadcasters move into the digital age.

Federal regulators have agreed to re-examine rules adopted in 1992 that the broadcasters must follow to enter the new digital world.One of the key issues being re-examined by the Federal Communications Commission: Should broadcasters be required to air a minimal amount of high-definition programs?

The TV industry says there should not be such a requirement. TV set manufacturers, among others, say that there should and that broadcasters should have to air such programs during prime time.

If broadcasters don't air programs in high definition, known as HDTV, then people won't have any incentive to go out and buy new high-definition TV sets, set manufacturers say.

TV broadcasters began telling the FCC in 1987 that they would be crushed by their competitors - mainly cable - if they were not able to provide high-definition television to the public.

Today, top broadcast executives say they support HDTV, but they don't view it as their savior. That's because advances in digital technology mean that broadcasters could put four to six digital channels in the same airwaves space that one analog channel takes.

That, in turn, offers more opportunities for broadcasters to bring in more revenue by offering new services, such as transmitting sports scores to personal computers, offering home shopping or movies on demand.

Digital signals use the language of computers - zeros and ones - to transmit information. The technology is more efficient than existing analog technology, which operates like radio.

As they convert to digital television, broadcasters will operate two TV channels, transmitting in analog on one and in digital on a second to be allocated by the FCC. That way existing TV sets won't be rendered useless immediately.

The FCC is considering whether broadcasters should be able to use their digital channel as they see fit.

Some experts believe that if the FCC gives broadcasters maximum flexibility and doesn't require a minimum amount of HDTV programming, HDTV will be dead on arrival.

But FCC Chairman Reed Hundt rejects such notions.

"That is not true at all," he said in an interview. "In fact, flexibility is the only thing that is going to guarantee high-definition television."

By Hundt's reasoning, TV broadcasters need to be able to offer other services to help support the big investment they will have to make in new equipment in order to provide digital television and its even sharper and more expensive counterpart - HDTV.

"Why would any broadcaster want to air `Oprah' in high definition? It's a waste of bits unless you want to count the pores in her face," Hundt says.

While digital television alone will give viewers CD-quality sound and movie-quality images, HDTV will give even sharper pictures. During a baseball game broadcast in high definition, for example, one would be able to see the stitches on the ball.

There's also the possibility broadcasters may be able to charge people for new services offered on the new digital channel if the FCC lets them - another issue the commission is looking into.

FCC Commissioner James Quello and others don't want to give broadcasters carte blanche to charge for services beyond traditional television, fearing that programs like the World Series and the Super Bowl would migrate off regular television to a pay service.

Free broadcast television has served the public well, said Commissioner Rachelle Chong. "I don't want to see that system lost in a digital world."

Hundt said there is no FCC rule that requires broadcasters to provide programs for free. "The market has caused television to be free," he said, not the FCC.

The FCC is also considering shortening the 15-year period broadcasters now have to make the transition to digital TV. This is important because at the end of the transition, broadcasters will have to give up their old analog channel, affecting the life of the existing 220 million analog TV sets in the country.

The commission also is thinking about imposing additional public interest obligations on broadcasters.

"The questions are immensely difficult," Hundt said, calling it the most important and challenging item involving TV broadcasting before the commission.

As a result, he would like to see Congress - not the FCC - figure out the rules broadcasters must play by in the new digital world.