Confusing the customer

We have been subjected to some really strange numbers when it comes to the delivery of DTV and HDTV systems. A bunch of those reporting, including research groups and analysts, cannot get it right. There seems to be a universal agreement that about 4 million DTV “units” were delivered in 2003, and an estimated 7 million in 2004, but there is a universal disagreement about what proportion of those numbers were actually HDTV deliveries. It is also exceptionally common for customers to believe that they have HDTV capabilities.

Are most of the problems created by retailers who do not seem to know what they are selling? Or, are the retailers deliberately manipulative in training their staff badly? It seems hard to believe, but some of the retail speak is so “cunning” (in “Much Ado About Nothing” terms) that even I don't understand it.

Take a recent ad from my state newspaper. It first advertises a “Mitsubishi 42in Tabletop Rear Projection HDTV* with AMVP Image Enhancer & Full A/V Connections.” The asterisk refers to the small print at the bottom of the full-page ad, which I have difficulty reading even with my glasses. It says, “ALL HD READY TVs require external HDTV receiver/decoder to process HDTV signals.”

Where does one begin to try and understand that? First of all, what the heck is an AMVP Image Enhancer? And what does “Full A/V Connections” mean? Are component video capabilities included? And, of course, the “HDTV*” isn't actually an HDTV receiver because it needs an “external receiver/decoder.” Well, well, and I would have thought it might need an HDTV tuner or STB because the picture flags an “HDTV Ready” sign.

Not to be outdone in the acronym department, the next item advertised is a “JVC 52in Microdisplay HDTV* with D-ILA & Four-Point Color Management Technology for True-to-Life Images.” “Microdisplay” obviously doesn't refer to the picture's diagonal size! “D-ILA” and “Four-Point Color Management Technology” leave me completely defocused. And, that nasty asterisk has snuck in there again.

Keeping up with its fellow Japanese products — and I cannot imagine that this stuff originates from any of the vendors themselves — last advertised is a “Sony 42in Plasma WEGA HDTV* with Built-In TV Tuner, Audio Amplifier & Stereo Speakers.” Wow, that's almost understandable. Now, I know what the WEGA engine is all about; but how many consumers will have any kind of clue? And, of course, although the “receiver” has a tuner, it's not an HDTV tuner — that darned asterisk again.

The confusion created by advertising like this is just one example of what retailers are doing. The rules on having an “ATSC tuner” built-in to monitors to make them DTV receivers has only confused the situation more.

ATSC reported last year that there were 575 models of HDTV monitors available on the market and 106 with integrated HDTV capabilities. Where are they, and why do you never see them advertised?

An apparently cooperative “tip sheet” for consumers has been produced by the FCC, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the Consumer Electronics Retailers Association (CERC) and is available at It intends to reduce the confusion out there and spells out very clearly that “a component solution includes a DTV monitor (screen) without a DTV tuner (these monitors are sometimes labeled ‘HD Ready.’)” Apart from arguing about the “sometimes,” what makes not having a DTV tuner “HD Ready?” Similarly, we have the wonderfully helpful definition of “Integrated HDTV: An HDTV that has the digital tuner built into the set. It does not need a separate set-top box to receive over-the-air DTV signals.”

So, research says there will be 47 million DTV units in use by 2007 and 37 million in service by 2008. The numbers don't seem important when you have no definition of what kind of “units” we are actually talking about. It's not just the consumers who are confused; it's me too.

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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