HDTV and tough love

Making massive changes in technology is not easy on consumers. The move from vinyl to CD, for example, was slow — probably because people had a huge collection of discs and everything still worked. If the music industry had pulled the plug on vinyl at the same time as introducing CDs, change might have been faster, but the ire of the consumer would have been raised. I had more mental problems moving from reel-to-reel tape to cassettes because the quality was so much poorer, but the general public loved the enclosed tape system — as did Dolby.

The absorption rate of VHS was really quite fast. Apart from that little frisky fight with Beta the consumer was being offered something completely new in the domestic world. The ability to record a program when you wanted to was a welcome relief from always having to be at home when your favorite show was on. But did you see a shift to S-VHS? No, the consumer didn't get the message, video stores didn't stock S-VHS tapes and the receiver manufacturers didn't make products with Y/C inputs until much later.

The move to DVD has been staggeringly fast. It is not perhaps a quality issue to most consumers. Many are still hooking up their DVD players using the composite output. Others have gone to Y/C or component, but the majority of users love the added value of outtakes, the story of the making of the movie and the ability to jump chapters. Few of them get annoyed at the lip sync problems that will occur if you stop a disk for a bathroom break. It seems that optical storage has become synonymous with the digital age, and we all know how good digital always is, don't we?

In the UK, when it was decided to go color in the 1960s, it was also decided to go from VHF to UHF, with 625 lines, for the new services. The duplication in monochrome on the down-converted 405-line VHF network was a gift to those who couldn't afford a new receiver. But many families, like my own, had no problem converting because — as was extremely commonplace in the UK — our TV was rented. In the early, unreliable days of television, that was a sensible thing to do. Line output transformers in the receivers in my house seemed to average a nine-month life! And if the technician who came out couldn't repair a receiver on the spot then it was immediately swapped out. The conversion to color, and UHF, was surprisingly fast for much of the population.

In the United States, the adoption of NTSC was achieved by using a back-compatible system that provoked jealousy. You might be watching a program in monochrome, but we might be watching in color. Guess where the neighbors wanted to drop in to visit.

We don't have the same luxury with DTV and HDTV. There is little or no peer pressure to jump on the digital video bandwagon. Some of us watch DTV anyway, from the satellite or cable, but the change to accepting completely new equipment for HDTV is a big jump.

I have said time and time again that the reason people will adopt a new technology is content. For audio cassettes it was the convenience of playing things you wanted to hear in a vehicle. For DVD it has been the additional content over and above that on the VHS tape. For faster adoption of HDTV it will also be content. If Monday Night Football was available only on HDTV then the number of receivers sold would multiply by a factor of ten overnight. We shouldn't miss an opportunity to spell out the quality and vividness of HDTV.

The decision of NBC to cover the Winter Olympics in HDTV was an opportunity to plug the technology in a massively positive way. But the way the company decided to go about it was incredibly silly. HDNet's Channel 199 on DirecTV was chosen as the champion for the programming, but the decision was made that coverage would be from the previous day's events. So, if you wanted to watch HDTV you had to bear up to the fact that the gold in every event would be discussed around the water cooler before you saw it — and you avoided newspapers and the news for a couple of weeks.

I loved the quote from Jack Sander, the chairman of the NBC Affiliate Board: “We support and applaud NBC for this innovative effort… we believe this allows for the growth of high-definition television while protecting the core Olympics, NBC and local stations throughout the country.” The only thing this decision did was to protect the affiliates. HDTV is not an easy change for consumers. It can be made easier by denying them programming that they can otherwise get elsewhere. Call it tough love.

Paul McGoldrick is a freelance industry consultant based on the West Coast.

Send questions and comments to:paul_mcgoldrick@primediabusiness.com