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Screen Test

The digital age arrives as KUAT debuts HDTV signal.

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Midtown resident Fritz Hause had a reason to celebrate recently: He finally had a chance to test out his 2-year-old digital television receiver when KUAT-TV, the local PBS affiliate seen on channels 6 and 27, began beaming the first digital TV signal in Tucson.

"I'm happier in the last month than I've been in a long time," says Hause.

In the parlance of TV station officials, Hause, 63, is an "early adopter." That means the IBM retiree was willing to shell out several thousand dollars to be on the cutting edge of digital high-definition television, which offers an over-the-air picture so dazzlingly crisp that TV junkies may never again release their remotes.

"Once you see the high-def picture, you want to get your glasses checked when you go back to the other," says Hause, who likes to compare high-definition and standard programming on HBO, which offers its primary channel in both formats via his satellite dish. "I find myself sitting there switching back and forth, driving my wife nuts."

Hause, who calls KUAT's new broadcast "absolutely fantastic," may soon have a chance to see what commercial networks have to offer. Chuck Amy of KOLD Channel 13, says his station, as well as channels 4, 11 and 18, could have a digital broadcast by the end of February, "barring a massive snowstorm between now and next week." In a joint venture, the four stations are sharing a recently finished facility, where they're now ready to begin installing equipment to get the digital signals on the air.

KUAT, which has spent about $4 million to get the digital signal up and running, is broadcasting a national PBS feed rather than Channel 6's daily fare. The station is raising the additional $3 million it will cost to finish the transition to digital broadcasting, according to Michael Serres, KUAT's creative services manager.

What does the dawn of digital TV mean for the average couch-bound Homer? In the short run, nothing. But eventually, says Serres, the analog signal your TV now receives will no longer be broadcast. Under federal regulations, that won't happen before 2007; even then, at least 85 percent of the market has to have digital reception, so the shut-down could drag out for a few years beyond that.

But sooner or later, if you don't have cable or a satellite service, you'll have to buy a digital receiver--which today runs roughly $500--to pick up the local broadcasts.

But don't put away your checkbook yet. While the digital receiver will most likely allow you to see a crisp picture on your old analog box, you'll want a high-definition display once you've seen how good it looks in its wide-screen glory. Go ahead and pick up a big one, because the picture quality holds up brilliantly even at that size. The 58-inch rear projection screen will run you about $1,500; a plasma screen goes for about $5,000.

At those prices, the technology has yet to catch on; KUAT officials are tracking about two dozen people who are receiving the signal locally. But as more programming becomes available, more people will show interest--and as more people show interest, more programming will become available. In theory, consumer demand will drive down prices of both receivers and HDTV sets. To spur the transition, federal law will require all new TV sets to include digital receivers by 2007.

That's just the tip of digital revolution. Besides high-definition broadcasts, stations will have the option of sending out several separate channels of programming. And interest continues to grow in digital recording devices like TiVo that allow you to record hours of programming for playback at your own convenience.

Although he says he may have "jumped the gun," Hause has no regrets about buying his high-definition TV system. About the same time he bought it, he and his wife also picked up a hot tub for about the same price.

"We've probably spent six or seven hours in the hot tub," he says. "Probably the same amount we spend in a day or two watching TV."

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