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
Theres a television revolution happening right now, and its going
to change the way you watch the boob tube.
Its high definition television (HDTV), a quantum leap in television
technology thats even bigger than the transition from black and white
to color during the 1960s.
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 theres still a long way to go before the changeover to digital
broadcasting is anywhere close to being complete.
HDTVs 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 ones enjoyment of the show.
But if you think TVs 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,
its scarce mind-numbing pablum.
HD, when truly delivered in HD, is a wonderful revolution, says
Darren Lane, owner of Calgarys 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 OConnor, 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. OConnor says plans for over-the-air HD service are also under
What is HDTV?
Current TV = approx. 480 scan lines, interlaced, Approx.
330 lines of resolution.
Current DVD's = 480 scan lines, but higher resolution
HDTV = 720p, 720 lines, scanned progressively as in a
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 HDTVs 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.
Its already happening - widescreen TV sales, HD broadcasts, are
Old TVs 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 PVRs 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, its all about money. Part of the problem is return
on investment, OConnor says. In the US, HD is mandated, but
here market demand will drive it and we're not under the gun except for competitive
Thats how CTV sees the situation, too. CTV president Rick Brace says
Were in the planning stages, taking (HDTV) very seriously.
And thats about as far on the limb as hed go except to hint that
they would hopefully have an announcement This year. Brace says
theyre 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, Seattles 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
theres 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 TVs digital offerings. And later this year theyll add
Craigs new Toronto stations HD broadcasts. These feeds rain down
from the companys new Nimiq 2 satellite, which means current ExpressVu
customers will have to upgrade their dish as well as adding the companys
$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 ExpressVus 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 theres still a long way to go before everythings 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 doesnt really do HDTV; its digital widescreen
channels transmit in 480p, which is comparable to DVDs.
On top of that, ESPN, HBO, Discovery, Showtime, TNT, and the WB offer some
HD programming, though it isnt 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 Groups 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 doesnt 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&Ws
Lane says that even when HDTV is supposedly being offered, it often isnt
true HD. Sometimes they arbitrarily truncate the signal (slicing off the
sides to form a 4x3 image), or down convert it to 480p which shouldnt
be represented as HD. Lane also says that just because a broadcast is
widescreen, and DVD quality (480p), doesnt mean its really HD. Its
Some of what he refers to is the mixing in of non-HD programming (usually simulcasts
of the networks non-HD shows when an HD version isnt 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 werent available as
of this writing (the channels were there, but our dish hadnt 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 HDs benefits. But the quality of garden variety network
programming is all over the map, ranging from the sublime (ABCs HD broadcast
of Disneys 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 doesnt offer the game in HD by then. For
years, the CRTC (Canadas 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
wont be allowed with HD signals until the Canadian channels are HD as
Or will it? No one seems to know for sure, including the CRTC, so theres
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 its 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 doesnt
allow its supposedly free citizens to watch US services, so this would create
a larger class of people wholl 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 DVDs and watch TV programs that are now broadcast in HD, then its
probably a good investment. He also points to the proliferation of DVDs
as an excellent reason to embrace HD-ready TV now.
K&Ws 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 cant 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, DVDs offer a compelling reason to buy a
widescreen, HD-ready television, even with the current dearth of HD programming.
Widescreen DVDs 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
DVDs - for the duration.
One drawback to going widescreen, however, is that when you watch conventional
4x3 broadcasts on it youll 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 TVs
dont 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 its 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 TVs down convert 720p signals to
480p, taking them right out of the high definition realm.
So buyer beware! Fortunately, increasing numbers of the new HDTVs accept
and display both major HD formats natively so this problem will work itself
out over time.
What happens to todays TVs 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 youd 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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