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The Meaning of HDTV Ain't Very Clear

You might not have noticed that there's probably as much news on the north side of a mountain as there is on the south side. Think about it.

Meanwhile, what I really want to rant about this month is good old high definition. The problem is defining definition and figuring out how high is high -- that and some other stuff.

Let me start with the good noncommercial folks at PBS. At CBS, the "S" stands for system. At PBS, the "S" stands for service. I ain't exactly sure what that's supposed to mean, but I know that "service" is what a bull might provide to a cow, and methinks there's some bull in the latest PBS HD.

At least they're upfront about it. Right in the headline of the press release about the new PBS HD channel they wrote, "PBS to launch 'PBS HD Channel' March 1, 2004, featuring state-of-the-art, award-winning programming in high definition and widescreen."

Now, then, you might figure that the mention of "high definition" and "widescreen" was to emphasize the two main features of HD pictures: increased resolution and a wider aspect ratio. But, no, the reason PBS mentioned widescreen separately from HD is that a good chunk of what will be carried on the PBS HD Channel ain't going to be in HD, just widescreen standard-def.

How good a chunk? A PBS executive speaking at a conference in February said the ratio of programming coming in was then running around 5:1 for non-HD widescreen to actual HD. Now there's a wide ratio for you.

ALL THE HD NEWS THAT FITS

But sometimes the problem is a strict adherence to HD being HD. For instance, have you had a look at Voom, the satellite service offering more HD than any other multichannel provider? Nah, you probably ain't. They started up last October, but, even though they weren't charging a penny for service through the end of February, as of Leap Year Day they had barely more than 1,600 "subscribers."

Anyhow, they do offer more HD than anyone else. Most of it is movies, which is A-OK in my book. Another channel, Moov (they prefer that the "oo" in the middle be replaced by an infinity symbol, but I can't count that high), is just funky patterns that must have traveled through a time warp from a 1960s light show, which is also fine. But then there's a channel called HDN.

HDN is High Definition News. Every single frame in it is HDTV, all right, but this time that's the problem.

I can't remember who it was, but some newscaster who'd moved from CBS to ABC once complained about how visual the latter network was. "If you said, 'that's water under the bridge,'" he reported, "you'd better have a picture of a bridge with water flowing under it."

TV news concentrates on stories that have pictures. Satellite-gathered news ignores stories on the north sides of mountains (in the northern hemisphere) on account of being unable to see the satellite from there.

Voom's HDN carries only stories shot in HD. So, on a day recently when stories like the war in Iraq, the U.S. presidential election and the conflict in Haiti were dominating other news sources, HDN's top story was that non-Chinese businesses, like McDonald's, were showing up in New York's Chinatown. Methinks it took up about half the newscast. The weather reports for Africa and Central Asia took up another good chunk (the maps were gloriously HD sharp). No Iraq. No Haiti. No election.

HDN is definitely HD. It just ain't particularly news.

Then there's the story of another recent HD-related start-up, USDTV. The home page of its Web site says, "USDTV is simply the most affordable way to view HDTV."

I'll sort of buy that (in a linguistic sense; I'm pretty tapped out otherwise). To watch HDTV, you need an off-air receiver, an HD cable box or an HD satellite box. Time Warner Cable charges zilch extra for its HD cable boxes, but its monthly fee for service that includes HD ain't lower than USDTV's $19.95, and the other cable ops charge even more.

Voom goes for twice as much per month as USDTV (now that it's charging), and the other satellite folks can't beat them either. And USDTV charges just $99.95 for it's off-air HD receiver-installed; methinks not even the computer-card folks charge that little. So I'll sort of buy their cheapness argument-for a few more months anyhow.

On July 1, the beginning of the digital "tuner" mandate kicks in. That's supposed to mean that, when you buy an HDTV display, you get an off-air digital receiver included free. Free is cheaper than $99.99. And free offers exactly the same amount of HD as USDTV's $19.95 a month. But there's more.

USDTV says its total first-year cost is $339.35-equipment and service. That compares favorably on its Web site with what they say Comcast ($699.48), DirecTV ($866.88) and DISH ($769.80) would charge. They don't figure on stuff like Gateway's free receiver offers, but methinks they might still be cheaper.

But the monthly service (aside from helping to subsidize the cost of the receiver) delivers zero HDTV. All the HD that USDTV "carries" is the HD that's already available for free from broadcasters. This is listed by USDTV as "All local HD channels, plus HDTV for all the best programs & big TV events on the broadcast networks."

I like that "plus." It's not just broadcast HDTV but also broadcast network HDTV shows. Uh-huh.

Anyhow, methinks you might be able to buy an off-air HD receiver (definitely at least a computer card) for less than $339.35. And you get exactly the same amount of HD.

The really scary thing is that USDTV might actually be preventing viewers from getting all the HDTV they otherwise would. It all has to do with what you do get for the $19.95 a month -- 10 standard-def cable-ish channels: Discovery, Disney, ESPN and other stuff like that there. USDTV gets local broadcasters to carry those channels as conditional-access multicasts.

In USDTV's first market, Salt Lake City, the local UPN affiliate, KJZZ, carries four of those cable-ish channels, including both ESPN and ESPN2. That means USDTV has contracted for a big chunk of data rate on KJZZ. That means KJZZ can't carry HDTV programming, which UPN started to offer last season. So maybe you don't really get "all" the best programs on the broadcast networks. Or maybe USDTV doesn't consider UPN's HD offerings to be in the "best" category.

MAKING IT UP

Then there are our pals at the Consumer Electronics Association, abbreviated CEA, and pronounced See-ya. Methinks I ranted a little about this last month, but Nellie the Neuron can't remember it, so here I go again.

In case your memory is even just twice as good as mine, I'd better remind you that See-ya is the organization that defined "digital television product" in such a way that there doesn't have to be anything digital about it beyond the on/off switch. Oh yeah, and See-ya's definition of "digital television product" doesn't necessarily have anything to do with its own definition of "digital television." Is America a great country or what?

Anyhow, CEA from time to time releases two different kinds of figures about how things are going in its bailiwick. One set is of figures for factory sales to dealers. It gathers those from reports from its members. The other set is for household penetration. "Penetration," in this case, ain't got anything to do with the bull's service; it's what percent of homes have different consumer-electronics gadgets like TVs and telephones.

They gather those household-penetration statistics from telephone surveys -- except the figure for household penetration of HDTV. They make that one up.

That last sentence is not meant to insult See-ya. As a matter of fact, the reason they make the number up is that they recognize that the phone-survey number is wrong. They recognize that the phone-survey number is wrong on account of its being considerably higher than all the HDTVs that have ever been sold to dealers.

So, to sum up, what's carried on an HD channel ain't necessarily HD, HD News ain't necessarily news, a service that promotes broadcast HD helps prevent broadcast HD, and folks without HD think they've got it anyway. Have a nice day.