Obfuscation through labels

Different cable systems will not necessarily be able to bring their receivers with them. Putting labels on things is a way to identify what the objects
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Different cable systems will not necessarily be able to bring their receivers with them.

Putting labels on things is a way to identify what the objects are; applying labels to tell you what things might become is at best confusing — and, at worst, misleading. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) is doing the industry a great disservice with its latest venture into the world of definitions and labels for digital television products.

I am certainly not a supporter of the “HDTV-Ready” and “DTV-Ready” tags that have been hung on products in retail stores, but the new advice for the industry is also difficult for me to swallow, and in some cases I think it downright misleading. The CEA (a sector of the Electronics Industries Alliance) starts the right way with a resolution that “allows consumers to clearly differentiate between the new DTV sets and analog-only televisions. The resolution states that analog-only televisions (televisions/monitors with a scanning frequency of 15.75kHz) “should not be marketed or designated to consumers as having any particular DTV capability or attributes.”

That is a fine statement. But, as you will see, the spirit of the resolution is followed less in the fact of the labels.

To define the categories of the various component elements of a display system, the CEA resolved to divide the performance into three categories: High-Definition Television (HDTV), Enhanced Definition Television (EDTV) and Standard Definition Television (SDTV). I have problems with each category.

HDTV components are defined as those that will receive ATSC terrestrial digital transmissions and decode all of the Table 3 standards. Display scanning for HDTV must be 720p or 1080i and must offer a 16:9 display with at least 540p, 810i or higher in the viewable area. Excuse me? HDTV receivers do not have to have a native 16:9 aspect ratio? And terrestrial? What happened to the need for alternate modulation schemes than 8VSB for cable systems that are using QAM?

EDTV is a new, confusing, category. It has only marginal relationship to the government-defined Extended-Definition Television (EDTV in document FS-1037C), which described improvements to the NTSC system but still resulted in signals being fully compatible with NTSC receivers. The CEA's version of EDTV calls for a terrestrial (again) reception and decoding of all of Table 3 with a display of at least 480p; there is no definition of aspect ratio. So, a 480i off-air receiver with a Table 3 decoder and fitted with a scan doubler would qualify as an EDTV receiver — and the doubler can be bypassed with 480i received signals and still be EDTV.

Down in the SDTV definition we have the really misleading situation. An SDTV receiver is required to receive the terrestrial (again) signals and decode all of Table 3 “and produces a useable picture.” No aspect ratio is defined and the display scanning format “has active vertical scanning lines less than that of EDTV.” Now let's see: What standard is there that is less than 480p? My, maybe 480i? So an SDTV receiver is “digital” by CEA definition simply because it is capable of receiving the terrestrial signals and decoding them to a “useable” picture. Sure, that's not analog because it's not receiving analog transmissions. But in the first resolution of the CEA an analog receiver is defined as a “television/monitor with a scanning frequency of 15.75kHz.” Am I missing something about the line scanning frequency of a 480i SDTV receiver? And can you imagine some of the butchery that is going to take place to get all of Table 3 standards down to SDTV displays?

“Consumers can buy with confidence knowing that the DTV products they purchase do indeed have DTV capability and are upgradeable to a specified level of DTV performance,” remarked Gary Shapiro, CEA President and CEO. “This new terminology, developed by the TV manufacturing members of CEA, will give consumers a ‘good — better — best’ choice when shopping for digital TV products.”

These new tags will give consumers a confidence that is not justified and will create major problems for cable users who will, after all, be a major portion of DTV viewers. We will even have the situation where people moving between different cable systems will not necessarily be able to bring their receivers with them.

Downgrading HDTV to allowing 4:3 displays to be used is disgraceful; inventing a marginal display standard in EDTV is really unfortunate, and creating an analog receiver with a tuner for digital channel reception in SDTV is marketing at its worst. The previous definitions agreed upon between CEA and the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) did include cable, but the television industry balked about using them. Now we can see why — there is a preference to sell the consumer short by labels that promise more for less.

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