As The Spud Turns: More Confessions

Our story to date... last month I described my well-meaning efforts to upgrade my living room TV into a small, pleasant home theater.
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Our story to date... last month I described my well-meaning efforts to upgrade my living room TV into a small, pleasant home theater.

At the end of that column, I intimated that I had more to say about what I found. In spite of a substantial budget and the assistance of some well-qualified professionals, the system does not quite work as advertised and it is unlikely to fully do so without a major, expensive revision (almost pitching everything and starting over).

Viewed in that light, our TV production/distribution/delivery system ain't quite (A) what we would like it to be, (B) what we say it is, or (C) what it oughtta be. And we've all got to share responsibility for this.


The basic core of the problem goes like this: although everything works together sort of, nothing works entirely correctly, and the system really doesn't work together all that well.

While there may be periods of really nice HD video and decent 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, this is most definitely not a high-definition experience. It isn't that seamless, smooth, compelling and effortless enjoyment of video that the producer intended us to enjoy (and that we've been promised). Instead, it is a clunky, slow, uncertain experience and the mechanics of it seem to demand constant intervention.

Further, as we attempt to integrate elements of the system, we lose many of the individual features and benefits from various components of the system. For example, Bang & Olufsen has an excellent screen-stretching algorithm that is almost invisible, as well as quite convincing.

However, in order to receive HD from DirecTV, I had to abandon that quite clever benefit and revert to DirecTV's screen stretcher, which makes everyone look as if they were finalists in a Boston Baked Bean's-eating contest! So much for that enhancement. I'm back to a clunky 4:3 aspect ratio for most stuff. Yecchh!!

No manufacturer makes a complete system (from the TV camera and microphones to the home screen and loudspeakers) except possibly Sony.

Mostly, manufacturers make, or try to make, products that deal with one or more parts of the process and, theoretically, fit into and enhance "the system."

It is particularly to the manufacturers' benefit (profitwise, which is in fact a big deal), to enhance the system. This leads manufacturers to strive for excellence and to differentiate their products from those made by others, which are presumably less excellent. This is all sweetly reasonable.

The problem arises, however, when such differentiation interferes with smooth or correct operation of the system. Two badnesses accrue: the first has to do with the manufacturer appropriating language to describe features of the system, so that Dialnorm becomes something like "SuperEnhanced Intelligent Level Sense," confronting the end user with jargonal incoherence and preventing her or him from determining what is going on.

A worse badness occurs when said manufacturer decides to add extra enhancements and features. Scientific-Atlanta decided, for instance, to add an extra audio compression option on their set-top boxes, in addition to or contravention of the Dolby metadata standards. What does it mean? What does it do? Who knows? It's a mystery setting.

As I noted above, manufacturers don't do this out of spite or customer hatred. All the ones I've worked with seem to genuinely care about making better, more effective products. And given their expertise in their particular niche in the system, they notice things where they may genuinely make improvements.

Consider Scientific-Atlanta's extra compression setting, for instance, or B&O's stretched screen. It is reasonable to assume that they both do good things and make a positive contribution to the outcome of the system (which I tend to think of as end-user satisfaction).

Why should they be constrained? Why shouldn't they be allowed to try to make the system better?


The service providers are in a similar fix. They exist in that tender region between the rubber and the road. They get big bundles of signals from a diverse bunch of sources and then distribute said bundles to their subscribers. They get paid by their subscribers, (that'd be me) for doing this.

Therefore, it is in their interest to please their subscribers. And if something is wrong, they are the ones who receive the complaints, regardless of who is actually responsible for said wrongness. Does loudness variation between channels come to mind?

At the same time, service providers are well-advised to do as little tampering as possible with suppliers' signals. Producers (that'd also be me) have our opinions about how things should look and sound, and we do not take kindly to others gratuitously reworking our efforts to make them better. We tend to think our productions are perfect already and should just be left alone!

My personal experience with service providers hasn't been all that hot, and I get the sense that they are still working on obtaining marketshare and getting their infrastructures to work reasonably reliably, if cheaply.

They don't seem particularly sharp on customer relations, customer satisfaction or signal quality management. Unfortunately, their operations have been sufficiently opaque to me that I can't really figure out whether the problem lies at the management or operations level, or what combination of the two is involved.

It does, however, seem like a no-brainer to me to bring channel-to-channel audio levels and picture color to a reasonable level of consistency, and I confess I cannot understand why they don't do it as a matter of course. It ain't rocket science and it ain't expensive.

Nonetheless, the service providers are stuck between program sources of wildly varying level and quality and subscribers with wildly variable installations, expectations and states of mind. There is, in fact, no reasonable way they can satisfy everybody.


For very good reasons, manufacturers make gear sufficiently idiosyncratic that it doesn't necessarily work very well with other manufacturers' gear, or fit in the system all that well. Unintended consequences abound. At the same time, service providers are dealt a fairly shabby deck of signals they are expected to make into really nice signals for their subscribers, while not, ah, changing them from what the producer ostensibly wanted. How are they supposed to do that? It's a puzzler!

In any case, the result is a moderately dysfunctional system that cannot reasonably be regarded as high definition.

More needs to be said. Next month, we will learn to also pity the poor broadcaster (that'd be you!) and the poor couch potatoes (that'd be me!). Then we'll consider what we might do in a more perfect world.

Thanks for listening!