Roger Ebert Home

The advent of High-Def TV, circa 1988

A 1980s GE Home Theater system. Not quite High-Def yet.

I have seen the future of television, and I want one. I want a High-Definition Television system for my living room, even if I have to build a living room big enough to accommodate it.

I want the 135-inch screen and the wide-screen picture, the surround-sound and the image that delivers twice as much information as a current TV signal. And I want it now, but I'm going to have to wait until 1992, or maybe 1993.

“High-Def” television has been on the horizon for about five years now, but at last it seems ready to sail into port. I spent some time last week at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show, a massive trade supermarket that filled McCormick Place, and although every conceivable TV hardware and software product was on display, High-Def TV seemed to overshadow everything.

It must have been a little like this in the late 1940s in the record industry, just before long-playing albums came onto the market.

High-Definition television will supply a signal made up of 1,125 lines of horizontal definition, as opposed to 525 on the set in your living room. It will be broadcast in a wide-screen ratio of about 5.3 to 3, instead of the current TV screen dimensions of 4 to 3. The signal will be available on TV sets that look much the same as your current model, except for a wider screen. But it will also be available on projection TVs that will fill much larger screens, big enough to cover an entire wall of the average room.

That was the kind of High-Def image I saw the other day in a big production room at the Panasonic and Technics areas at the Consumer Electronics Show. I have been in multiplex theaters with smaller screens. And although the picture quality was not as good as light-through-celluloid (I doubt if any television image will ever be that good), it was so much better than current TV that there was simply no comparison.

Forget any notions you may have about big-screen TV being fuzzy and undefined. This was a good picture. The subject of the demo was the 1984 Olympiad, and as the camera zoomed back to show hundreds of Olympians on the screen, all of them remained in sharp focus and good definition. A movie on a system like this would give you a reasonable approximation of sitting in a film projection room, especially if you linked it to high-quality disc-based surround-sound.

But how long are we going to have to wait for this technology, and how much will it cost? I cornered Bob Burroughs, a Panasonic executive who specializes in cable systems, and he said that High-Def technology exists now (as I had seen with my own eyes), but that there would be a delay in bringing it to the marketplace because of the ongoing debate about how High-Def will coexist with existing broadcast signals.

In a nutshell, a High-Def signal requires twice as much bandwidth as the current TV signal from an over-the-air station. Bandwidth is no problem for cable systems, which have lots of channels to spare, but there are no empty spaces between over-the-air channels, and so the networks and existing local stations are concerned that a High-Def signal on cable could upstage and make their 525-line signals obsolete.

There are a couple of ways that a 1,125-line High-Def signal could be squeezed into an existing over-the-air frequency and then decoded at home. But no international standard has been agreed upon, and that's why there's a delay in marketing the new technology.

“It's an open secret that HBO is already thinking in terms of High-Def on cable,” Burroughs said. “They have starting shooting everything they do in High-Def as well as 525-line, so that cable could go ahead and offer High-Def on its own. It could happen.”

If it does, it won't be cheap. Burroughs said Japan will start supplying a High-Def satellite broadcast to its consumers in 1990, and that High-Def should reach America “in the early 1990s.” At first, it's likely to turn up in sports bars – which were the original launching pads for big screen back-projection TVs. If cable suppliers such as HBO and the sports channels start simulcasting in High-Def, bars would fight to install the new technology, and the sight of the World Series on a 135-inch TV with a wide-screen format would popularize the new format overnight.

The cost? “At first, around $10,000,” Burroughs estimated. “Eventually, they'll have to get the price down to reach the consumer marketplace. Maybe we'll see $4,000 systems before long. And eventually, like everything else, they'll find a way to make it even more cheaply. It's a chicken-and-egg situation. It depends upon demand.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Janet Planet
Fancy Dance
Copa 71
What Remains


comments powered by Disqus