Let viewers know programming is in HD, advises HD guru

Joe Kane, the author of an upcoming HD-DVD and Blu-ray disc to help viewers calibrate their HDTVs, sees consumer confusion abound and says a new approach by broadcasters to educate viewers is needed.

Joe Kane is on a mission to help TV viewers get the most out of their HDTV sets.

The former Eastman Kodak employee, HD studio consultant and consumer HD educator certainly has the right background to get the job done. Having worked on SMPTE committees that helped set the standards for HD, Kane “knows enough about it to know that if you follow the system configuration for high definition, it’s a spectacular system,” he says.

In October, Kane, who is billed in promotional material as an HD guru, will release “Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics” on HD-DVD and Blu-ray disc, a compilation of easy-to-use calibration tests and setup instructions to help consumers maximize the performance of their HDTV sets.

With the nation fast approaching the DTV transition deadline and the TV industry about to embark on a greater viewer education effort, it seemed wise to talk to Kane to learn his view about where TV viewers are today in their understanding of the digital transition and HDTV and how broadcasters can be most effective with their educational efforts.

HD Technology Update: The NAB, broadcasters and other interested parties inside and out of the government will begin a push to educate viewers about the impending DTV transition. Polls show a widespread lack of knowledge about the transition. What is your perspective on the general level of knowledge about the upcoming transition among consumers, given that you are focused on helping consumers get the most out of their HDTVs?

Joe Kane: I’m not sure the consumers know a lot about the transition. I’ve certainly talked a lot about it to basic consumers and found that very few of them understand what’s going on.

It’s usually only the enthusiasts — the people who are really interested in video — who are making any real attempt to get HD today. The average consumer may think they have it because they have a widescreen TV set, but until they actually experience it, they don’t have any idea of what they are actually looking at.

HD Technology Update: Do you have any advice for the broadcast industry as it embarks on an education program?

Joe Kane: I certainly think broadcasters need to make an effort to let people know that programming is truly HD. There has to be a way of identifying that a given program is an HD signal and letting viewers know they are watching it.

In other words, on an SD channel, they are going to have to take away identifications of HD, and on the HD channel, they are going to have to put something in that literally says, “You’re watching high definition.”

I think they have to find a way of differentiating their HD channel from their SD channel to make it easy for people to understand which one they are watching.

HD Technology Update: Right, because there are reports of consumers seeing a message at the bottom on the screen saying, “This program is available in HD,” on the SD version of the program and watching that instead of the HD version on their HDTVs.

Joe Kane: That’s correct, so I think the broadcasters have to make an effort on the HD channel to say, “You are watching the HD channel.” On the SD channel, they might say something to the effect, “You need to switch to the HD channel to see this program in HD.”

HD Technology Update: Early HD adopters tended to turn to over-the-air broadcast for the HDTV programming because so little existed elsewhere. Now, HD

programming is widely available on cable, satellite and even IPTV. What will happen in over-the-air HD households as the non-broadcast HD availability grows?

Joe Kane: I think that’s going to be content driven. In other words, I record a lot of off-the-air material for watching because I happen to like watching things when I want to watch them, but the majority of my HD viewing is with the networks because they offer content I want to see. Quite often, I look at programs because they are in HD and have discovered a lot of interesting shows because they are in HD, and I am going to give them a chance.

I actually think the networks can compete on content.

HD Technology Update: With over-the-air delivery in the form of owned and affiliated television stations?

Joe Kane: First of all, the broadcaster has to compete to get the consumer’s attention from the other HD services, but, more important in making the decision on whether you receive the network from cable or over the air, sometimes getting it through cable is the only alternative.

It has certainly been my experience that over the air looks much better than any of the cable or satellite systems I’ve seen. When we’ve made comparisons of the image quality obtained from the signal, in almost every case, the over the air has been better than from any alternate source.

HD Technology Update: Do you think that message should play into the education effort the broadcast industry is about to begin?

Joe Kane: I think the broadcasters should encourage anyone who is interested in looking at the best quality to try off the air versus any other means that they have for getting the broadcast signal. But I do think broadcasters should at least let people know that there is the potential for a really good picture off the air. In doing that, they are going to have to be careful not to step on the toes of the cable systems, saying, “We’re better than the cable systems.”

I recognize that they are going to have a lot of difficulty in trying to do that, but by the same token, I think they should be encouraging consumers to look at off-air signals and make judgments for themselves about what’s better for them, the cable system or off air.

HD Technology Update: What are the basic HDTV video-related essentials most consumers are unaware of that prevent them from getting the most from their sets? How do the six essential calibration test patterns on your disc relate?

Joe Kane: The basic test patterns on the disc are there to make sure the fundamental adjustments — the user controls — are set as close as they can be to the proper setting.

The tutorial in “Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics” goes to great lengths to explain what broadcasters go through to deliver a good picture, and explains that if a consumer is going to get that quality at home, there has to be an effort at home.

The first is to identify if the set can actually do HD. Among the test signals we are providing are guidelines to answer, “Does your set actually do high definition?” It’s a yes-or-no situation. Then, it will guide them through some basic user controls for setting things up. It also makes them aware that there are other things that can be done to the set like grayscale calibration, positioning of pictures that may be really important and where they may actually need to consult someone else to come in and help them get the best picture they can possibly obtain.

On a side note, “HD Basics” will have the most accessible menu system of any Digital Video Essentials program to date. We spent a lot of time thinking about the average consumer and how to balance our desire to educate them, while allowing them to access the information they want, when they want it.

HD Technology Update: The disc also includes advanced video test patterns. Could you address those?

Joe Kane: Part of the reason for including advanced test signals is that I fully anticipate someone needing them to make all of the adjustments to see the kind of quality from the set that it’s capable of producing.

There are basic things I expect consumers to establish if they have a good set, if they have something that is really HD capable. Once that’s there, I want the professional to be able to use the same program and to come in and make the final adjustments on the set that would be required to get everything out of it that it is capable of doing.

HD Technology Update: What are they unaware of when it comes to 5.1 surround and implementing it properly?

Joe Kane: That’s a tough question for me to answer. The majority of homes I’ve been into that have purchased an HD set are using the internal speakers in the system to get the audio, and so much is missed in audio quality by using an internal system.

It’s difficult for a set manufacturer to build in an audio capability in the set that even remotely approaches the capability of an external 5.1 audio system. It is my position that if people actually want to get the full experience, they are going to need an external audio system to go along with the video. It is nearly impossible for a manufacturer to build the kind of audio quality into a set that will reproduce what’s being broadcast.

HD Technology Update: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Joe Kane: The most important thing for me about HD is that every person to whom I show true high-quality HD looks at me and tells me, “Gee, you’ve been holding out.” They had no idea that HD was that good.

Everybody who’s sat down and watched my system and seen the video quality has said, “Wow, this is so worth it.” It is so valuable that it’s a completely new experience. I believe consumers need to find out what HD really is, and once they find out what it really is, they will be excited about having it.

HD Technology Update: Is that where we are now, given the pace at which HDTVs are being purchased?

Joe Kane: I honestly think that what’s being delivered right now is style over function. When I walk into people’s homes who think it’s HD and look at what they actually have, it’s style and it is not real HD. That’s part of what the “HD Basics” program is all about — to help consumers identify what real HD is as opposed to style masking itself as HD.

For more information, visit www.videoessentials.com.

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