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AT LARGE: This, I gotta see

AT LARGE: This, I gotta see

I can barely believe this. It's nearly the end of 2000. All these decades of anticipation and doomsaying prophecy, and it's nearly over. And the world didn't end, or anything. In a scant few weeks, we'll have the last of our arguments over whether the new millennium starts in 2000 or 2001 (because it will have started, either way) and needn't address the issue again during my lifetime. Relief!

You may also notice, as I have, that it only took people a few months to stop saying "the year 2000". I thought that habit would take longer to break. We still haven't quite sorted out what to call this coming decade ("the oughts", and "the noughties" seem to be the front-runners) but we've got time to work on that one. Perhaps it will be a decade so devoid of interest that history will have little reason to mention it again. That would solve that one, I suppose.

As if to foil my hopes, though, 2001 will kick off in grand style, with a brand new technological revolution. Finally, the wait is over for digital television. Startling clarity, distortion-free, massive resolutions, multiple video streams on a single channel - I'm sure I don't need to tell you all the great stuff about it. It's legislated to start on January 1, 2001, and I'm itching. As a dedicated bean-bag potato, I welcome advances in this most idle of activities.

Of course, I do have reservations in amongst my unbridled enthusiasm (please do not point out my non sequitur, it is obvious even to me). For one thing, I expect the shows will be much the same as what we get now, right? Digital technology won't mean the writing gets any better, or that at least some of those weird home improvement/competition hybrid things will vanish? No. If anything, there will be more of them, and they will get worse.

Then, of course, hardly anyone is going to be able to see it when it first starts up. Digital television sets are still a ways off, and they'll be way pricey when they do hit town.

Not to worry, say the networks, which are madly producing set-top boxes to allow people to receive the digital signals on their standard old analog TV sets. Note: this will allow you to decode and view the digital signals. It will not allow you to view them digitally. You need a digital TV for that. These set-top boxes are essentially digital-to-analog converters, allowing you to see a fuzzy, distorted version of the crystal-clear but nonetheless unattainable content on the digital broadcast.

It's somewhat akin to getting an e-mail address where people can send you information instantly, and it is then printed up and posted to you via snail mail. Yes, you get the info, but something is lost.

Then there's the whole issue about the digital standards: HDTV versus SDTV and the morass of complicated issues affecting each of these. All of this has been written into the legislation in Australia effectively to extend the life of our old TV sets. It will do this by making the decision of which digital TV to buy so complex and expensive that no one will, for at least a few years.

The hype for digital TV suggests that it is "the biggest change in TV since colour", a claim which I would dispute. With colour, you had exactly the same issue of needing to get a new TV to take advantage of it. There were even a few people, confused by the rapid rate of change, who didn't know whether their old TV sets would still be able to receive the ABC once it was in colour. Ads from the time show black and white TV sets on sale with stickers proclaiming "colour compatible" - eerily prescient of the analog TVs you can get now selling themselves as "digital ready". (This sticker purely and simply means that you will indeed be able to plug in one of the aforementioned set-top boxes to make digital TV look just as bad as analog).

The difference is, with colour you could immediately see the difference. Greens were green, blues were blue, and reds were, well, mostly green, actually, but technology has improved since. Will most people really spot the difference between standard-definition digital and standard-definition analog - especially when viewed on an analog set with a set-top box? I doubt it.

The final disputable claim by the proponents of digital TV is that it will "change the way you watch TV". This I seriously doubt. Curled up on a bean bag with pizza and Coke is pretty much my way, and I'll not be shaken out of it easily.

Matthew JC. Powell does not know the number for Peter Reith's telecard. Stop asking him for it on mjcpowell@ozemail.com.au


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