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HDTV - Coming to a TV Near You - Eventually

By Jim Bray

(Note: This column deals mostly with HDTV relating to the Canadian market, though there's some US information as well. Thanks to Bell ExpressVu for providing TechnoFILE with their Model 6000 HD receiver for this article).

There’s a television revolution happening right now, and it’s going to change the way you watch the boob tube.

It’s high definition television (HDTV), a quantum leap in television technology that’s even bigger than the transition from black and white to color during the 1960’s.

Just as compact discs took recorded music from the analogue to the digital domains, and in the process ushered in an era of awesome sonic capability, HDTV is moving TV from its analogue roots, offering digital delights that are arguably better than your local cinema.

But an observer watching the way the format is being embraced by most Canadian broadcasters would hardly know what a fundamental change is under way.

In fact, Canada has only one HDTV broadcaster so far: CITY TV in Toronto, which began offering limited HD programming in January of 2003. In the United States, however, high definition broadcasts are multiplying by leaps and bounds, though there’s still a long way to go before the changeover to digital broadcasting is anywhere close to being complete.

HDTV’s digital signals can offer a substantially better picture and sound than is available from “old style” television broadcasting (see sidebar), and they're transmitted in a 1.78:1 (16x9) widescreen format rather than the traditional 1.33:1 (4x3) screen shape you know and love. This opens up the picture dramatically, allowing for a more pleasing viewing experience as well as helping avoid the cropping of widescreen movies to fit your TV and the loss of image that entails. Widescreen is also nicer for sports events because in the longer shots you can see more of the playing surface.

Whether or not such sitcoms as “Frasier” or “King of Queens,” both of which are now shown in HDTV, benefit from the widescreen treatment is probably a matter of opinion, but the better overall picture and sound of their HDTV versions can still enhance one’s enjoyment of the show.

But if you think TV’s a vast wasteland now, with “hundreds of channels and nothing on,” wait till you try to watch HDTV: not only do you find much of the programming to be the same mind-numbing pablum for which TV is famous, it’s scarce mind-numbing pablum.

“HD, when truly delivered in HD, is a wonderful revolution,” says Darren Lane, owner of Calgary’s K&W Home Automation. Lane is disappointed with the implementation of HD so far, however, and he puts the blame squarely onto the shoulders of the broadcasters. “We as retailers have supplied more than enough HD-ready television sets, but the problem is a lack of programming.”

John O’Connor, Vice President of Technology, Western Operations, for Global Television, disagrees. “The missing component has been public awareness that HD is next wave,” he says. "HDTV is a high priority for Global and we are planning on launching an HD service to Satellite and Cable by year's end.” O’Connor says plans for over-the-air HD service are also under serious consideration.

What is HDTV?

Current TV = approx. 480 scan lines, interlaced, Approx. 330 lines of resolution.
Current DVD's = 480 scan lines, but higher resolution (500 lines)
HDTV = 720p, 720 lines, scanned progressively as in a computer monitor
1080i 1080 lines, interlaced (resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels)
Interlace: two fields, even and odd scan lines, per frame.
Progressive: all vertical scan lines in one frame at the same time.
Widescreen (16x9) Aspect Ratio

Most HDTV’s receive both 720p & 1080i, but don't necessarily display both. 1080i seems most common

Digital Sound- Dolby Digital 5.1 surround capable:

Will HDTV replace
your standard television?

YES! Just like color did to B&W.
It’s already happening - widescreen TV sales, HD broadcasts, are increasing.
Old TV’s will eventually need set top box ($100-$200US) to convert HDTV down to NTSC - letterboxed?

What do you need for HDTV?
HD-capable TV and HDTV tuner -
Built-in tuner or set top box
set top box more flexible.
HDTV PVR’s coming.
Satellite = HD Receivers.
ExpressVU Model 6000,
Star Choice “piggyback” + “400 series” receiver
Cable uses HD Digital cable box.
$600-$800 Cdn investment (+TV)

Not surprisingly, it’s all about money. “Part of the problem is return on investment,” O’Connor says. “In the US, HD is mandated, but here market demand will drive it and we're not under the gun except for competitive reasons.”

That’s how CTV sees the situation, too. CTV president Rick Brace says “We’re in the planning stages, taking (HDTV) very seriously.” And that’s about as far on the limb as he’d go except to hint that they would hopefully have an announcement “This year.” Brace says they’re looking into the time frame as well as the costs, both technical and for program production and acquisition.

Another bottleneck is the carriers of TV signals in Canada, where the vast majority of consumers get their television via cable or satellite. Shaw Cable has recently begun offering limited HD broadcasts via digital cable terminal, while Star Choice and ExpressVu satellite services have been transmitting one or two HD channels offering a mix of American programming, movies, and demo material that, while looking and sounding great, wears thin very quickly. Some HD Pay Per View is also on tap.

Shaw currently offers three HD channels, Seattle’s NBC and CBS affiliates and a Star Choice HD feed, and will add three more (either from Seattle or Detroit) “soon.” Their HDTV-capable set top box sells for $600 and right now there’s no premium for the HD programming.

According to its Web site, Star Choice has been offering “100 hours of HD programming per week” though that figure is quite misleading considering all the filler material that loops over and over. And despite repeated attempts to speak with the company they refused to make a spokesman available to talk about their plans for HDTV. This could lead one to believe that they have nothing more on tap.

But Bell ExpressVu appears to be taking the high definition bull by the horns. The company announced early in March 2003 that this summer it would offer 11 new HD channels to augment its current digital “lean cuisine.” Included in the lineup will be digital feeds of ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and PBS from both Boston and Seattle, as well as CITY TV’s digital offerings. And later this year they’ll add Craig’s new Toronto station’s HD broadcasts. These feeds rain down from the company’s new Nimiq 2 satellite, which means current ExpressVu customers will have to upgrade their dish as well as adding the company’s $799 model 6000 HDTV receiver.

Offering Eastern and Western feeds is welcome, and will definitely increase the amount of HD programming available to Canadians, but since most of the shows are identical on both feeds, Bell ExpressVu’s HDTV customers will also be able to “time shift” their viewing by taking advantage of whichever feed suits them the best.

American broadcasters are steadily increasing their HD programming output, but there’s still a long way to go before everything’s wide and sharp. CBS is doing the best job so far, offering most of its prime time lineup in HD, as well as the soap “Young and the Restless.” ABC and NBC have HD-versions of “select prime time programming” (all three networks also offer select sporting and special events - such as the Superbowl - in HD) and PBS runs “Great Performances,” nature documentaries and an increasing amount of other programming. Fox doesn’t really do HDTV; its digital widescreen channels transmit in 480p, which is comparable to DVD’s.

On top of that, ESPN, HBO, Discovery, Showtime, TNT, and the WB offer some HD programming, though it isn’t necessarily available in Canada.

So is it a lack of programming, as the retailers say, or a lack of HDTV sets in living rooms as broadcasters claim? Consumer electronics market researcher NPD Intelect says that HDTV-ready television sales in 2002 reached 173,585, an 87 per cent increase over 2001. NPD Group’s Asad Amin says sales of HDTV Ready TV's “Are one of the major driving factors within the television market today.” And, as if to back up these figures, it doesn’t take a lot of searching to find widescreen, HDTV-ready models prominently on display in virtually every electronics store.

All of which indicates a rapidly growing audience thirsting for HD programming.

But as it turns out, all HD broadcasts are not created equal. K&W’s Lane says that even when HDTV is supposedly being offered, it often isn’t true HD. “Sometimes they arbitrarily truncate the signal (slicing off the sides to form a 4x3 image), or down convert it to 480p which shouldn’t be represented as HD.” Lane also says that just because a broadcast is widescreen, and DVD quality (480p), doesn’t mean it’s really HD. “It’s dishonest.”

Some of what he refers to is the mixing in of non-HD programming (usually simulcasts of the network’s non-HD shows when an HD version isn’t available) as well as commercials and promos that are shot with standard TV technology and use its 4x3 aspect ratio.

Requests made of both satellite services and Shaw cable for samples of their HD wares fell on the deaf ears of all but Bell ExpressVu, who ponied up their model 6000 HD receiver to allow us to make some observations of the state of HD broadcasts. Unfortunately, their new HD channels weren’t available as of this writing (the channels were there, but our dish hadn’t been upgraded), so the following comments come from the previously offered HD programming.

And it really can be breathtaking. The looping demo programming, while it can be tedious, generally looks spectacular and is easily enough to convince one of HD’s benefits. But the quality of “garden variety” network programming is all over the map, ranging from the sublime (ABC’s HD broadcast of Disney’s animated “Tarzan” looked great and the five channel audio was very good, though it was lacking in bass) to the ridiculous (CBS’ Bruce Springsteen concert featured reasonable widescreen video but unacceptably muddy, stereo audio).

Which means the old adage “garbage in, garbage out,” applies to HDTV as well.

Another, temporary, advantage to HDTV is that consumers can get the raw US feeds, which means you might even get to watch the real Superbowl commercials, assuming a Canadian broadcaster doesn’t offer the game in HD by then. For years, the CRTC (Canada’s broadcast regulator) allows Canadian analog channels to override the US analog channels, which drives many consumers absolutely nuts and protects Canadian broadcasters from having to compete, but this apparently won’t be allowed with HD signals until the Canadian channels are HD as well.

Or will it? No one seems to know for sure, including the CRTC, so there’s a possibility that Sheila Copps’ merry band of protectionists may allow US HD signals to be overridden by upconverted Canadian analogue signals. This would be the worst case scenario because it could make your HDTV set useless if it’s fed by a Canadian content provider. It would also lead to HD consumers buying so-called “grey market” satellite dishes from American providers and watching American-originating services. The Canadian government doesn’t allow its supposedly free citizens to watch US services, so this would create a larger class of people who’ll have to look over their shoulders lest they be busted for daring to watch what they choose instead of what the government wants them to see.

Regardless of which from side of the border the programs come, the current dearth of HD programming will fix itself eventually, so the burning question for consumers today is “Should I buy an HDTV?”

The answer, according to Les Enser of Matrix Video Communications, is maybe. “It depends on your viewing habits,” he says. “ If you rent a lot of DVD’s and watch TV programs that are now broadcast in HD, then it’s probably a good investment.” He also points to the proliferation of DVD’s as an excellent reason to embrace HD-ready TV now.

K&W’s Lane agrees, adding that it also depends on your budget. “A quality entry level HDTV set costs $3500-4000, so prices need to come down as well.” Lane recommends that if you can’t afford HD but you need a new TV anyway, you should buy an inexpensive 4x3 and “throw it away or move it to the bedroom in a few years.”

As Enser pointed out above, DVD’s offer a compelling reason to buy a widescreen, HD-ready television, even with the current dearth of HD programming. Widescreen DVD’s look their best on a widescreen TV, so much so that movie fans can easily put up with the lack of HD broadcasts - and the inevitable HDTV DVD’s - for the duration.

One drawback to going widescreen, however, is that when you watch conventional 4x3 broadcasts on it you’ll notice they have black or grey bars to each side of the screen, similar to the way widescreen letterboxed movies have black bars above and below the picture on a conventional TV. These bars can burn in, leaving permanent damage to widescreen CRT or Plasma televisions (LCD TV’s don’t have the problem). Fortunately, TV manufacturers offer an acceptable compromise that stretches and zooms the picture to fill the 16x9 screen; everything looks slightly shorter and fatter than normal, and part of the top and bottom of the 4x3 picture can be cut off, but it’s better than ruining your TV investment with unnecessary burn in.

Another drawback to the current state of HDTV is the misinformation that passes for knowledge. While researching this piece, one of the people who should know better (a satellite salesperson at a mall kiosk) pitched the author on the “fact” that HD broadcasts are carried on the individual stations’ regular channels, so that you can watch, for example, Jay Leno in HDTV on the same channel you usually watch him in standard TV. This is dead wrong! Digital channels are completely separate from the analog ones, and never shall the twain meet. In fact, once the market has gone all digital, the old analog channels’ bandwidth will be reused for other purposes.

More misinformation: when a salesperson in an electronics store was asked if a particular HD-ready TV displayed 720p signals without converting them, he initially said yes then, when pressed, admitted to not knowing. This is an important consideration because some TV’s down convert 720p signals to 480p, taking them right out of the high definition realm.

So buyer beware! Fortunately, increasing numbers of the new HDTV’s accept and display both major HD formats natively so this problem will work itself out over time.

What happens to today’s TV’s when all broadcasts go digital? The word “obsolete” comes to mind. There will be a workaround, however, with set top boxes that will “dumb down” the digital signal to be compatible with analog televisions.

But you’d better get used to having black bars above and below the picture if you follow that route.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE Syndicate. Copyright Jim Bray. 


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