November 14, 2002
HD And The Heartland
What have I gotten myself into? That is what I asked myself after buying a 65-inch, widescreen HD monitor and a DirecTV HDTV receiver/ over-the-air set-top digital tuner a year ago.
At least I knew why I made the purchase: I was hooked on HDTV from the very first time I laid eyes on that diamond-clear picture. I bought my set in order to watch sporting events in HDTV. Since then, it has been an adventure trying to discover all the ins and outs of DTV. Although the major networks continue to increase the amount of HDTV content, local broadcasters have been less than quick to pass it through to their viewers. In fact, the bottleneck to the explosion of HDTV is the local broadcaster. For example, over-the-air HDTV content in the Midwest is much less plentiful than in New York City or Los Angeles.
KWTV, the local CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City, where I live, has informed me that when they start broadcasting digitally they will not pass through the HDTV feed from CBS network. They have instead elected to digitally broadcast only in standard definition. Management claims they cannot justify the expense of purchasing the equipment to pass through HDTV when there are so few DTV tuners in Oklahoma City homes. Many local stations in the Midwest want to wait until DTV tuners have penetrated the market substantially before purchasing the equipment to pass through HDTV. This strategy will not work. It is equivalent to retailers saying they will not carry DVDs until there are enough players in the market. The fastest way to get DTV tuners into homes is for local TV stations to broadcast HDTV.
When people first started buying big-screen TVs, the content was the same regardless of the screen size. The decision to buy was based purely on the technology÷the screen was bigger. Content was not a consideration. People are not going to purchase an HDTV-capable tuner and TV only because of the technology or the widescreen format. People will buy an HD set for its ability to display the superior quality of an HD picture. I should know÷thatâs why I bought mine.
The FCC is pushing DTV, but not HDTV. As a result, in the Midwest the number of HD channels is minimal. Without local broadcasters offering HD content, the public will not buy a $400-plus DTV tuner. While digital 480i and 480p are an improvement over analog, they are not HD. HD content must be available in the market before there will be a significant growth in DTV tuner purchases. Your ROI on the DTV equipment you have purchased will come much faster if you broadcast the highest quality picture to your viewers.
Once broadcasting in HD, stations must focus on the best presentation possible. One of the most painful things to see during an HD broadcast is the lack of consistent switching between the HD and SD content. The stations that rely on a person to ãflip a switchä must develop something more dependable. Nothing is more frustrating to a savvy viewer than having to call the newsroom to relay a message to master control to flip the switch.
Multicasting is also something that needs to be seriously evaluated. While it may be a good idea on paper, the potential degradation of the HD picture in a multicast situation makes people nervous. DTV should be about HD, not multicasting three or four channels of uninteresting content with a non-spectacular picture. In other markets I have seen stations that have an HD channel, a news channel, and a live Doppler radar weather channel on their digital channels. Are consumer electronics stores enticing customers to buy their products by showing live Doppler radar images or a high-quality HD picture? I canât speak for everyone, but I did not buy a DTV tuner to watch weather radar images.
Donât get me wrong, I believe multicasting can be useful when employed for the right purpose. During the NCAA Basketball Tournament some CBS affiliates broadcast four different non-HD games simultaneously on their digital channels. That was slick. But this should not be done when one of the games is available in HD. I know an HD picture can be sent at a lower bandwidth and still look good, but the problem is the picture breaks up during fast action or fast camera pans. When there is a choice, HD quality should be chosen over multicasting every time, especially during sporting events.
Over the past year, Iâve been keeping track of HDTV in Oklahoma through HDTVOK.com. I have become friends with a few of the TV engineers in our area. One of these engineers was kind enough to invite me to the local SBE meeting. There, I overheard some negative comments about the website. I expected this, and as a result did not reveal my connection to it. One engineer complained he was receiving emails from a lot of people asking about HD. He did not seem very happy about that. Also at the meeting, the SBE chapter had a consulting firm give a presentation about PSIP. When they asked if anyone was broadcasting any DTV locally, everyone chuckled as if it were a joke. DTV is not a joke in other markets, and it should not be one in the Midwest. In other markets I have seen local broadcasters give free DTV seminars to educate the public. This is an excellent idea. Local broadcasters are the key to educating the public about DTV and HDTV. The faster the public understands DTV and the more HD programming they have available to them, the faster DTV will be adopted in the home.
Kevin Sherrard is an administrator of www.hdtvok.com, in Oklahoma City, OK, and an HDTV viewer.