Is HD a subscription service?

High-definition images will save over-the-air broadcasting. Right? Not so fast, TV breath. It seems that viewers are so confused about HD that almost half don't know if HD programming is available in their area and 23 percent don't even know if they have an HDTV set!

A recent study by Dove Consulting provides a conflicting image of viewers' perceptions of HD programming and technology. The study, which was based on 1500 consumers, was finished in November 2003.

More than 87 percent said they had some awareness of HDTV. That's up from 81 percent in April 2003. Also, there's an increased willingness among viewers to pay a premium for an HDTV set. About 10 percent of those surveyed said they would pay $1500 for an HDTV set. This rate doubles to 20 percent if the set costs $1000, and almost one-third said they'd buy an HD set if it cost $700.

When it comes to HD programming awareness, it's clear that both broadcasters and the consumer electronics industry have again failed to educate the public. Of the less than half that do know that HD programming is available in their area, 56 percent learned about it from some form of advertising. Cable is the most effective at marketing HD, with almost 33 percent of viewers learning about HD programming from their local cable provider. Only 11 percent learned about the availability of HD programming from their local electronics stores. This again shows that the local retail electronics outlets are missing an important opportunity to educate the public about the availability of HD programming.

One aspect of the study does concern me, and it centers on what viewers think they have to do to receive HD programming.

There appears to be a viewer perception that HD is only available through the rental of a receiver or STB. Some 45 percent of non-HDTV set owners said they would be more interested in buying an HDTV monitor if they could “rent the set-top box/receiver from the cable/satellite provider for a small, additional fee.” Note there is no mention of free over-the-air reception.

Among those planning to purchase an HDTV in the next six months, a whopping 75 percent would be even more interested in buying an HDTV monitor, if they knew they could “rent” the set-top box.

All this hints that consumers may mistakenly believe that HD programming is strictly a subscription-based service. They also may wrongly assume that HD receivers are expensive, hence their desire to rent one.

Unfortunately, this study supports my own experience. In all my travels this year around the country, I have never seen an analog television station promote their own digital service. That tells me a lot about how little these stations value their digital signals. Worse, it does nothing to promote the technology that represents their future.

If broadcasters won't promote HD as a free, off-the-air service, why would a consumer ever bother to install an antenna? After all, they are being told by cable that HD is a subscription service.

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