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Keep an Eye on HDTV

AS Congress considers legislation dealing with the fast-changing video world, high definition television (HDTV) deserves high priority - and close oversight. It is among the more appealing prospects in the medium's future, holding out the prospect of sending images and sounds to home TV sets that rival the clarity of today's digital compact discs. It's a field in which United States industry has gained an apparent technological lead over Japan.

The Federal Communications Commission has reserved frequencies in anticipation of HDTV's arrival. Now a bill in Congress would let commercial stations use these channels for profitmaking, non-HDTV purposes. The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently accepted by voice vote an amendment that allows stations to use the frequencies for such services as home-shopping networks.

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Broadcasters say they need this kind of freedom to make the transition to HDTV and to compete in the new TV universe. For all its technical advantages, HDTV alone, they argue, will not allow them to survive in a market that may offer 500 channels and an array of interactive services.

Opponents see the move as the latest in a long line of congressional concessions to an industry on which lawmakers depend for reelection. Some fear that once these channels go to non-HDTV uses, fulfillment of their main purpose will be delayed or ignored. Yet the amendment does require station owners to pay as close to a market rate for these HDTV channels as feasible, and any non-HDTV uses must not interfere with future HDTV services. This is an improvement over a previous amendment (since dropped) that would have granted the additional channels without such stipulations.

Even the successful amendment will be meaningless, however, without regulatory vigilance. Existing broadcast laws resound with public-spirited phrases that often are ignored in practice. Congress must ensure the kind of teeth that enforce the amendment's requirements. The allocation of HDTV frequencies to commercial stations is a risky ``investment.'' The public deserves a fair return.

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