DTV reality check

Two engineers visit their local electronics store to what was actually available in regards to ATSC-compliant set-top boxes.

Samsung's DSR 9500 series digital set-top box receives local broadcast signals.

Although the Consumer Electronics Association continues to blame broadcasters for what they say is a lack of digital programming that’s contributing to the poor sales of digital TVs capable of receiving a terrestrial digital signal, a trip to the local CE store often proves otherwise.

Two weeks ago, with Super Bowl XXXVI on in pristine 720p HDTV, with multichannel sound, two separate Pappas Broadcasting chief engineers decided to go to their local electronics store and see what was available in regards to ATSC-compliant set-top boxes that are necessary to receive local broadcast signals with an antenna. They also wanted to see how beautiful the images looked in widescreen, after going through the broadcast chain.

The stories they tell, considered typical no matter where in the country you go, provide unique insight, detailing their frustration in dealing with poorly trained salespeople and inadequate in-store displays. Unlike most consumers, these are guys that understand the technology and what it can do.

“I tried to buy a consumer-level (digital) set-top box [Friday before the Super Bowl], and found three demo units that were receivers only,” said Rick Graham, chief engineer at KPTM-TV/DT (Fox) and KXVO-TV/DT (WB) Omaha/Lincoln, Neb. “No one had a box they would sell, and could not get me one until at least the end of February, with prices ranging from $400 to $650. Everyone wanted to sell me a DISH network or DirecTV [direct-to-home satellite] receiver, even though the DISH box was not capable of decoding terrestrial DTV.

“No store had a set-top box or integrated receiver hooked up, and store policies did not allow them to display local signals, even though four DTV transmitters are on-the-air (in the market),” he added. “This covered Best Buy, Circuit City, and the infamous Nebraska Furniture Mart - purported to be the largest furniture store in the U.S. Ironically, they all blamed broadcasters and the networks for the slow digital transition.”

The DTV set-top availability report from the Fresno, Calif. market is no better, according to Steve Dresser, chief engineer at KMPH-TV/DT (Fox) and KFRE-TV/DT (WB). The local ABC affiliate KFSN-DT, which carried the Super Bowl this year, has been on-the-air in digital for about a year.

"I found a similar situation here in Fresno," Dresser said. "On the afternoon of Super bowl Sunday I took a tour of Best Buy, Circuit City, Good Guys and Sears to see if any of them had KFSN’s ABC HDTV feed up for demonstration."

Here’s what Dresser found:

Best Buy: "They had no HD receiver setup for KFSN-DT. They had one widescreen projection set with analog channel 30 stretched. It was snowy and ugly. Their in-house DTV demo was running on most widescreen sets and even it was setup wrong. They had the widescreen in-house demo signal stretched also. Not a clue at Best Buy."

Zenith's LCD HDTV 16:9Monitor Projection TV needs a separate set-top box to receive digital programs over-the-air.

Circuit City: "They had no HD receiver setup for KFSN-DT. They had ONE widescreen projection set showing analog channel 30-stretched. Their in-house demo of widescreen video was set up properly. When I asked one of the salespeople why they did not have KFSN HD showing, he had a confused look on his face and pointed to the stretched analog signal. Not much of a clue at Circuit City."

Good Guys: "They had one HD receiver setup with a medium-size plasma screen receiving KFSN-DT and displaying the Super Bowl in true (720p) high-definition. It was spectacular. They were receiving KFSN-DT (VHF Channel 9) on an antenna sitting on a pole by the display. The demo had only two-channel audio, but at least they had the HD showing.

They have an area with couches and large projection screen sets but did not have the Super Bowl on these. All the other widescreens had the in-house demo that was set up properly. They do have a clue at the Fresno Good Guys, but could have done a much better job of showing [over-the-air] HD. The one plasma that had it was at the end of a row of tube type widescreen monitors showing the in-house demo."

Sears: "They had no HD receiver set up for KFSN-DT and an in-house demo only, which was setup properly. They showed no interest in showing KFSN-DT’s HD channel. They did not have analog channel 30 stretched on a widescreen. No clue. No interest at Sears."

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