Putting The H In DTV! Only The Picture Is Clear

Did you hear the one about the guy who goes to the electronics store, buys an HDTV set, and hooks it up to his basic cable? OK, OK... what happens is, a few months later, a research firm calls and asks if he gets HDTV and he says, “Why, sure!”

And here we thought plug-and-play wouldn’t hit the market until Christmas. It appears consumers have a different perception. In a recently published Forrester survey of HDTV owners, author Josh Bernoff found that (eye-glazing figure alert), 50% of cable subscribers said they were getting HDTV. Yet only 37% of them had digital service, which is necessary to get high def programming on cable. That would give us a 13% discrepancy if 100% of digital cable subscribers had HD set-tops installed. They don’t. Less than 1% do.

As one would expect, a few multiple-source subscribers were indicated, but not enough to account for the discrepancy between the 120,000 cable households that actually receive HDTV signals and those who believe they do simply because they reside in one of the 2.9 million cable households with an HDTV set. (By the way, over-the-air [OTA] leads cable in high def takers, with around 200,000 households.)

What could this mean for the industry? Unhappy consumers, for one thing. Wasted marketing potential, for another. Ordinary programming looks great on an integrated, 50-inch, 720p, 16:9, QAM-enabled, fuel-injected RCA Scenium...until it’s held up against true HD. These sets go for about 20% of the average annual U.S. household income after taxes and medical coverage. Plunking down that kind of cash for a marginally better picture versus true HD could be the difference between an indulgence and an investment. HD can be the tipping point of digital television. If you don’t think so, let’s talk next year, after Sony’s Blu-ray HD-DVD/R gets some feet.

To say that high definition will ultimately drive DTV (more specifically, DTT—digital terrestrial television) penetration is certainly debatable, as my erudite colleague Mark Schubin points out in this issue’s “Final Thought.” But HD is undeniably digital television’s single most compelling capability. Anyone can grasp it the minute they see it. Two hundred channels on cable? Fine. There are still only 24 hours in a day. VOD? Let’s see, what’s my personal ID number... HD? I turn it on, it’s stunning. Or it should be, if someone has taken the time to tell me I need a set-top box, a fat dish, or a stick on my house.

True HD Or The Truth About HD?

As clear and pristine as a true HD picture is, just about everything related to it is murky. Take the difference between HDTV and DTV, for example. It’s no wonder consumers treat the two interchangeably when regulators, retailers, and the media can’t get them straight.

Exhibit A: A June 2002 article by CNBC Washington bureau chief Alan Murray: “The problem with HDTV is that it keeps failing, over and over again...And it will certainly fail in 2006—the deadline Congress set for getting HDTV into 85% of American households.”

To quote Daily Show host Jon Stewart: “Whaaaaaa???”

Well, Jon, it’s like this: HDTV is to consumer media what laser eye surgery is to a large animal vet. It’s in the realm of stuff to know about in general terms. Misconceptions are to be expected when sources tap dance like Richard Gere in Chicago, (meaning not great, but good enough unless you’re Savion Glover. And I happen to know you’re not).

Exhibit B: This January 27, 2003 press release from the CEA, which boasts about the sale of “just under 5 million DTV units, which represents a phenomenal $8.6 billion market investment in this transition with average unit prices well within the reach of middle-income consumers.” The release continues: “And the best is yet to come as more and more programming becomes available in HD and millions of cable households gain access to HDTV through the convenience of plug-and-play products.”

DTV “units” sold and HDTV are disparate issues slapped together with a conjunction. “DTV units” mentioned here include anything 480p and above, roughly 90% of which are monitors. Monitors have little to do with HD programming and nothing to do with plug-and-play sets. Monitors are the one digital product that CEA members could reliably sell these last three years. They are, after all, in the business of selling things. The rest of the lingo in the CEA press release is boilerplate political pig Latin, intended to keep the FCC off its back.

Broadcasters and networks also tend to obfuscate things, to say nothing of Adelphia’s subterfuge. In our February issue (and on our website), we published an email exchange between an HD-seeking Adelphia subscriber and a wildly misinformed customer service rep who inferred that HD over cable was impossible, that broadcasters had no HD programming, and that digital OTA signals were available everywhere. Anyone familiar with the situation at Adelphia can read between the lines, but an average viewer would have no reason to question its steaming pile of verbiage.

On the network side, Fox is running 480p and calling it “enhanced” through its trademarked “FOX WIDESCREEN” campaign. There’s absolutely nothing that says it can’t do this, but how this skews public perception of HD is uncertain. Remember as well that the Fox always has an agenda, which in this case could very well be holding out the best content for the new U.S. BSkyB subsidiary.

Elsewhere in the realm of questionable HD is the load of upconverted content. “Suppose,” Schubin said, in a recent exchange, “ABC is doing Monday Night Football and wants to include some CBS footage [1080i]. That gets converted to the 720p that ABC distributes.

“It comes off the satellite at WFAA-DT in Dallas, a Belo station. Belo has ordered that all its stations be 1080i regardless of affiliation, so the 720p is converted back to 1080i. The WFAA-DT signal gets picked up by the local Comcast system. Back when it was AT&T, the MSO said it would not carry HD as 1080i because it wastes too much bandwidth. The FCC doesn’t (yet) care. So let’s presume the edict remains, and there’s another conversion. A subscriber with a Pioneer set-top box receives the signal. Pioneer’s box has only a 1080i HD output, so there’s another conversion. Then the subscriber feeds a Pioneer plasma panel, which can display only 720p. FIVE format conversions. Yecch!”

Several HDTV owners said they could spot upconverted signals, including longtime H/DTV observer and New York Times reporter Joel Brinkley.

“As for upconversion, lots of [premium cable] programming is upconverted, and it is immediately detectable,” he said. “The networks ought to label those shows instead of convincing viewers that they are seeing high definition when they are not.”

The stickler with HD truth in labeling is enforcement (as Jonathan Bellows pointed out in his October 2002 column in this magazine). While high def was initially a catalyst in the DTV mandate, it never became a part of that mandate. And it won’t be a part of the DTV bill Billy Tauzin (R-LA) intends to introduce after Easter break, according to the Congressman’s spokesman. Tauzin’s bill will seek to enforce the broadcast flag and cable interoperability, and kibosh any whiff of dual must-carry. Insiders say Tauzin needs Fox to play along on the flag, so he’s not about to spank the Aussie for doing 480p. The best he can do to ensure true HD programming is a finger-shake. “He’s made it clear that we would not have given them 6Mhz of spectrum in the first place without some expectation that HD would be done,” his spokesman said.

Ed Markey (D-MA) has hinted that he’ll introduce alternative DTV legislation, primarily to keep dual must-carry alive. As for any sort of uniform HD standards, Markey’s spokesman said, “HDTV provisions are currently contemplated but no final decision has been made.”

Neither does the FCC protect the public’s interest when it comes to the quality of programming labeled as HD, nor does it help clear up the confusion between HDTV and DTV.

Last year, in his voluntary speed-the-transition plan, FCC Chairman Powell told broadcasters to make half their primetime schedules either HD or enhanced (meaning Fox). Then he pretty much told cable operators they didn’t have to carry those signals. They could instead choose to fill their quota with HD cable nets (for which they can charge a fee.)

How this was supposed to speed the adoption of DTV is a mystery, particularly when it ultimately depends on consumers buying new TVs—voluntarily. We all know what happened when the press got a hold of Powell’s DTV Tuner Act, which would make a good 200 million TV sets obsolete in 2006. (You think the NRA’s strong now...)

There are indications that consumers will voluntarily adopt HDTV, once decent quality sets become affordable—and you know they will when 600 or so are for sale on eBay on any given day.

The CEA’s own survey, conducted in March 2003, states that 81% of those who responded were familiar with HDTV versus 56% last year; and of the people who said they planned on buying a new set in the next 18 months, 47% said they were likely to get an HD set compared to 20% last year. Who knows what those figures would look like if retailers and programming providers knew (and were forthcoming) about what they were doing?

Jim Barry, who runs the CEA’s traveling HDTV tent show, told an audience at the HDTV Summit in Washington, DC last month that “retail store knowledge is appalling.” Personnel often don’t know the difference between HDTV and DTV, he said. “And it’s not just retailers. They’ll call TV stations...the camera guys, the on-air people, they don’t know where their DTV station is on the dial.”

Say, did you hear the one about the guy who goes to the electronics store, buys a high definition set and hooks it up to his basic cable? Yeah. You did.

Deborah D. McAdams is a contributing editor. She can be reached at dmcadams@uemedia.com.