The Unseen Promise of HDTV

At NAB, manufacturers were proud of the fact that they could announce that their product or technology was now HD-capable.
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At NAB, manufacturers were proud of the fact that they could announce that their product or technology was now HD-capable. I have a problem with that. By now, HD should be the norm, and the industry should be scolding those who are playing catch up.
Regardless, the related industries of broadcast, cable, and satellite still have a multitude of problems when it comes to HDTV. I’m not talking about infrastructure HD conversion, but high definition television...the type of HD transmitted to those HDTV viewers we’ve all waited for.
I get a lot of complaints about HDTV. From everyday consumers who find my contact info on digitaltelevision.com to seasoned industry veterans who are also HDTV consumers who can’t believe how bad things are.
I’m going to be fair and pick on everybody—broadcast, cable, and satellite—because very few in each industry really know what they are doing with HDTV.
First, let’s bash the sometimes not-so-brilliant folks at Nielsen Media Research. I applaud the fact that their PVR ratings plan will be ready a year ahead of schedule (A/P Meter in April 2005 in the local set-meter markets, and July 2005 in the National People Meter Sample and in Local People Meter markets with the capability to measure time-shifted viewing). But Nielsen has no public comment on when the industry can expect HDTV ratings measurements.
How important is this? Let’s follow the money: HDTVs are still a sizeable investment...an investment made by people with money...money that advertisers would like redirected to their products and services. Some networks really pull in those money viewers, like The Golf Channel (TGC). Nice demographics at TGC...the kind advertisers with big-ticket items love. But what if TGC couldn’t give advertisers ratings info for their HD viewers? Well, they can’t. Which is why Andy Murphy, the vice president of network operations for TGC told me that HDTV won’t “realistically become an issue for three to five years.” All because there’s no way to measure those highly coveted HDTV viewers.
Nielsen’s response? In a letter from Susan Whiting, Nielsen’s U.S. president and CEO, she reminds us that “buyers and sellers of commercial time need to have absolute trust in the integrity and inclusiveness of the ratings estimates as the currency for the television industry. Nielsen’s job is to continue to make certain that television is the best-measured medium.”
Obviously “inclusiveness” does not include HDTV.
Now onto broadcasters. How are you folks monitoring your HDTV signals in your control rooms? I’ve seen network HD programs as postage stamps within an HD letterbox. I’ve seen more lip-sync errors than non-errors. I’ve never seen PSIP information done completely right, whether it be the program guide, channel mapping number, or even the time of day.
What do broadcasters really think of HDTV? In the May 12 edition of USA Today, Michael Hiestand quoted Fox Sports chairman David Hill talking about Fox’s All-Star Game in HD: “I can’t understand the excitement about it. It just lengthens and broadens the picture, makes it sharper but doesn’t change it.”
Gee, just like widescreen DVDs—the major reason folks have been buying HDTV sets—a better picture. Hill is more interested in 3D TV.
At least the HDTV over-the-air picture looks good (even when downconverted to 480p like a number of stations have been doing—shame, shame, shame).
Which brings me to cable. How I hate cable. Analog noise, too much digital compression, those annoying set-top boxes, and the cost.
Imagine this...paying $25 extra over the cost of the basic tier for the digital tier and the HD tier, plus the HDTV set-top box. All for two local HD channels (HBO and Showtime are extra). Not something to be proud of, Adelphia. It’s no wonder that members of the House Commerce Committee have asked the FCC for a detailed study on cable à la carte (the ability to pay for individual channels instead of blocks or tiers).
And let’s not talk about quality (heck, the cable companies don’t). I’ve been told of cable installers trying to push off SD as HD and audio dropouts all over the place. Come on people...get a clue. You’re expensive, limited, and crappy looking HD is not what people have in mind.
And now, satellite. DirecTV, DISH, and Voom. At least it’s an all-digital HDTV signal. Keep in mind that local HD is via over-the-air. Satellite HD? Looks pretty good...as long as you don’t look in the blacks, watch a fade to black, or watch the background instead of the foreground. It will be interesting to watch Voom HD once they switch to Windows Media 9 HD encoding next year.
One other little annoyance...HDTV consumer equipment. Sure, the picture looks good (is that really 1920 x 1080?), but connecting components shouldn’t be so difficult. And then there’s the antenna. Mine is in the attic surrounded by fiberglass.
I love HDTV.