2005: The Year of HDTV

If you're not an HD program provider, you're not going to be a successful survivor in the digital era.
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Finally, after a decade of frustrating uncertainty, the new year roared in with a confident television industry refrain: 2005 is the year of HDTV!

Along with that realization, however, came an equally strong subtext. If you're not an HD program provider, you're not going to be a successful survivor in the digital era.

At CES in Las Vegas, where new lower-cost models of slim, trim, flat-screen HDTV sets stretched for city blocks, almost all signs of analog television technology had magically vanished.

Even FCC Chairman Michael Powell marveled over the public's quick acceptance--as demonstrated by solid holiday sales--of high-definition TV sets.

"Consumers actually love (HDTV) more than I ever thought they were going to," Powell told a CES audience. "People are selling their second mortgage to buy an HDTV set."

A few days later in San Francisco, Apple Computer's Steve Jobs opened MacWorld with the proclamation that 2005 is the "year of high-definition video." Hoisting a new $3,500 Sony HDR-FX1 HDTV camera on his shoulder, Jobs--with Sony President Kunitake Ando at his side--introduced a professional HDTV editing software package priced at under $300.

With support for 720p and 1080i HDV video in the 16:9 aspect ratio, Apple's new Final Cut Express HD--coupled with Sony's groundbreaking camcorder--shot down any remaining excuses that professional-quality HD is too costly.

As if to drive the point home even further, Apple upgraded iMovie, its consumer-level video editor bundled with new Macintosh computers to have the same HD support as Final Cut Express. Don't smirk. More than a few video segments cut on the first-generation iMovie software looked fine on broadcast TV.

Missing in action during all the hoopla about HDTV were broadcasters. Powell made a frustrated reference to broadcasters at CES when he suggested that stations stop stalling and let consumers know when the transition to digital broadcasting will be over.

"What we have now is absolute ambiguity," Powell said. "Consumers need to be told, when they're at Circuit City and they have to choose between a $300 analog set and a $3,000 digital set 'When do I have to have this?'"

It is one of the great ironies in the history of American television that the very people who initiated the transition to HDTV--the terrestrial station owners--have put up the most resistance to deploying it and are dead last behind cable and satellite in embracing and promoting it.

Not only do we see little support among broadcasters to set a date certain for the analog shut-off, but there's little clarity in the way local broadcasters plan to support viewers who purchase new HDTV sets.

Of course, over-the-air digital reception may not matter much anymore. Most consumers who buy a new HDTV set quickly learn about the HD channels available from cable or DBS. Local antenna reception is usually a secondary consideration, if one at all.

However, new HD set owners will be looking for locally originated HDTV programming. For all the noise about multichannel must-carry, what are the local broadcasters going to do for HD viewers with their primary channel.

How many broadcasters are producing, much less thinking about, local news programming in HD? And what about 5.1 audio? Will local stations step up to the plate and produce local sound--, including news--in Dolby surround?

And what about local commercials? Might local advertisers appreciate the advantage of being the first in their market with drop-dead gorgeous HD spots for their business? And, again, don't forget all those new digital surround-sound systems that viewers bought with their HD receivers.

Since local broadcasters asked the federal government for HDTV more than a decade ago, you'd think they would be ahead of the game in implementing the technology. Yet, even as their pay-TV competitors are already on the air with a rapidly widening choice of HD channels, most broadcasters are still reluctant to embrace HD in their local production.


Some broadcasters are still using that tired old mantra that they see no business model for HDTV. One wonders, as their viewers get increasingly HD-savvy, if the owners of these stations might begin to consider that the relevant business model could just be survival.

There's a lot of speculation that some owners will sell their stations before upgrading their aging facilities to HDTV. That could explain a lot of reasons for the sluggish, unenthusiastic transition. But it doesn't explain how the station will remain competitive and profitable against multiple channels of HD competitors, some of which will certainly be local.

If 2005 is truly to be the year of HDTV, it's now or never for local broadcasters. As viewers rapidly migrate to HD, the arguments over digital transmission technology become increasingly irrelevant. Most viewers simply won't care.

One wonders when local stations will drop the stalling tactics and begin to show their hand as to where they fit in the HD future. Local HD origination of news, commercials and other local programming is coming soon. If local broadcasters don't do it, someone else will. You can count on that.