New York – Twenty years ago, 6-year-old Carol Anne, a character in the Steven Spielberg thriller Poltergeist, uttered the words "They're here," just before being sucked into her family's television set by "the TV people."
In the 21st century, any one of us can be sucked into the tube -- at least figuratively -- and we have digital television to thank for it.
Whether you think it's cool or horrific, HDTV and other forms of enhanced television are coming to a small screen near you. With some digital television sets selling for under $2,000 these days, the ubiquity of DVD, and the government's push to make digital television a reality, it's only a matter of time before television viewers are interacting with their favorite programs, watching videos on demand, and experiencing better picture and audio quality as an inalienable right.
So what's all the hype, and will consumers actually care? Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell thinks so.
"Consumers across the country will benefit with super sharp television pictures and even more entertainment and educational choices," said Powell in a recent FCC press release.
And broadcasters are already distributing digital content. Fox's broadcast of Super Bowl XXXVI, for instance, was entirely digital, and it will begin broadcasting at least one NFL game every week in digital format starting in September. The other big three networks and some pay channels, like HBO, are also broadcasting some programming in DTV format.
One of the ways viewers stand to benefit from DTV is something called multicasting. That's when a broadcaster sends several different programs along the same signal simultaneously, giving you at home the power to choose which program you'd like to view in that timeslot.
But that's only the beginning of the potential benefits viewers can experience. Stan Honey, chief technology officer of Sportvision, the company responsible for the yellow first-down line in football -- among other sports broadcast enhancements -- believes the real benefit is the ability to customize the viewing experience.
"Americans don't want to sit on the couch and press buttons. But they do want to be able to choose how they watch the program," says Honey. "In the case of Sportvision, enhanced or high-definition television will enable a hockey fan, for instance, to turn the glowing hockey puck back on, or display an entire football pattern on the field rather than just the first-and-ten marker."
Mark Cuban, whose HDNET is the only television network that currently offers 100 percent high-definition programming, doesn't think interactivity or customization is very important. "No interactivity. Just an amazing picture quality and the viewing experience that comes with it," Cuban, who also owns the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, told Foxnews.com.
Part of that amazing picture quality is due to the fact that DTV is broadcast mostly in wide-screen format, giving you at home the same scope of vision you get at the movie theater.
In April, Chairman Powell challenged the broadcast industry to accelerate its digital television initiatives voluntarily, sparking increased movement toward DTV from the broadcast networks and studios, and debates on industry standards.
With all the potential benefits to consumers and higher-quality content for the networks, you might be wondering why the federal government need push anybody toward greener digital pastures?
Money, for starters: The hardware and software transition from the current analog systems to digital ones is costing billions of dollars combined for networks, production studios, local television stations, and major cable companies.
All of these entities are already heavily invested in existing broadcast standards. Television manufacturers, too, have been slow to mass produce digital sets and set-top boxes, mainly because of the lack of digital content currently distributed. And then there's the issue of content security. We all remember how a college kid set the entire music industry spinning with a little software code he called Napster.
One of the biggest recent breakthroughs among industry leaders is the concession on so-called "broadcast flags."
Andrew G. Setos, president of the Fox Group and a developer of the broadcast flag, says the flag will help to protect licensed content from illegal redistribution. "This is digital television wanting the same protections that have achieved commercial reality for other media, like pay TV or DVD," Setos said.
Advocacy groups say the flag will prevent consumers from some of analog television's basic benefits.
"Today, a father who spots his son in the local news college sports highlights can use a VHS video cassette to send the video to his mother, or can attach the video clip to an e-mail message," said Seth Schoen of the Electronic Frontier Foundation through a statement. "The BPDG (Broadcast Protection Discussion Group) Standard would make this impossible."
Not entirely true, says Setos. "We're trying to avoid content being indiscriminately redistributed by consumers, not limit recording," Setos said. "Consumers can make copies of programs infinitely, and with DTV you'll never lose quality, no matter how many copies you make, [however] if you can't preserve the uniqueness of DTV then why would you license me your content?"
"Everyone recognizes DTV is clear text, it doesn't require any license or secret to unlock," Setos said. "The only way to achieve protection is society says, 'You can't sell or make something in the U.S. that allows content to be indiscriminately redistributed around the world.'"
And it appears our government agrees. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., and Reps. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and John Dingell, D-Mich., are pushing the FCC to solve some of the remaining policy issues, like implementing the broadcast flag, to help the transition to DTV.
As far as the "digital leaders" are concerned, once the public has a taste of digital television and HDTV, it won't want to go back to the standard color TV.
"Analog television will soon go the way of the black-and-white," Cuban said.