Tube Tied

We still want our HDTV.

Last summer, the WB affiliate in New York City broadcast every  Mets game played at home in high-definition. Watching those games was amazing. The clarity, the detail, the widescreen panoramic breadth, the lifelike texture and color and light—it felt closer to being there than I’d imagined possible. Yet when I asked several Mets fans if they knew about these broadcasts, not a single one did.

High-definition television, the long-awaited revolution that promised to dazzle our senses and transform the TV medium, is finally here. The fight over a uniform standard, which kept the technology on hold for a decade, is settled. Prices of high-def TV sets are plunging. All the commercial networks, plus HBO, Showtime, and PBS, now broadcast at least some of their programs in high-definition. You can even watch the Winter Olympics in HD.

So, why does everyone seem to be keeping its arrival such a secret? Well, suppose this article inspires you to run out and buy a high-definition TV set. Let us count the obstacles that await you before you can use it.

First, an HDTV is expensive: $1,500 minimum—a steep decline from the $4,000 that the cheapest set cost a couple of years ago, but still. You bring the set home, only to read the fine print and realize that it is merely “High-Definition Ready.” This means it can display HD signals—images that consist of 1,080 horizontal lines of data, more than twice the resolution of standard television’s 480 lines—but you need to buy, and learn how to hook up, a separate decoder to receive the signals. To make matters more confusing, the HD companies don’t call it a “decoder”; they call it a “set-top box.”

Alternatively, the major satellite-broadcast services, DirecTV and DISH Network, sell special HD receivers (so you don’t need a separate set-top box) for about $600. But then you’ll need two dishes (or a special, more expensive bi-directional dish) for the roof—one to pick up signals from the normal satellite, and one for the HD satellite, which is swirling in a different orbit. Next you find out that, while a few HD broadcasts are beamed from outer space (one channel each of HBO, Showtime, a Pay-Per-View, a couple of others), most of them waft through the air from your local TV stations’ antenna towers. So you have to go buy a UHF antenna and a separate decoder for its signals, to the tune of another couple of hundred dollars. (The new generation of DirecTV’s HD receivers have this terrestrial decoder built in.)

If, like most people, you have cable instead of satellite, you’re probably out of luck. Very few cable companies, even those with digital cable, offer any HD channels. Those few that do—Cablevision in New York, Action Sport in Oregon, Comcast in Philadelphia, and a handful of Time Warner affiliates—don’t seem to tell their sales staff about it.

Even if you do manage to jump through these hoops, you’ll have a hard time finding out which channels broadcast in HD. Don’t ask the dealer who sold you the set; he almost certainly doesn’t know. Good luck at finding anyone at your local station or cable service who can help. No newspaper or magazine publishes a high-def program schedule.

No wonder a friend who recently subscribed to digital cable and bought an HD-ready digital TV set mistakenly thought that he was watching high-definition television. It certainly looked better than the standard cable he’d been watching on his old analog TV, but it wasn’t high-definition—it wasn’t 1,080 lines (or, another form of HD, 720 lines scanned twice as fast). Digital TV simply means a set that can receive and make sense of the 0’s and 1’s that comprise a digital signal. It has a sharper image and more accurate colors, but without the HD decoder, you’re still dealing with those tired old 480 lines.

The retailer hosed my friend by not telling him what he needed to get HD signals, thus making it easier to sell the TV set. The manufacturer hosed him by not making clear what this fine-print “separate set-top box required” was all about. (Sony and RCA make a few sets with built-in decoders, but they haven’t made a selling point of the feature.) The cable carrier hosed him by not explaining the difference between digital and HD. The local TV stations hosed him by failing to trumpet their own HD transmissions. (In New York City, this issue is temporarily moot; most of the local stations’ digital towers, which carry HD signals, were on top of the World Trade Center.)

Finally, the feds let my friend down by not demanding clarity on the part of all the other players. Then again, they’re guilty of their own evasions. The FCC is requiring all local stations to convert to digital this year and to turn off their analog signals—which would make the conversion irreversible—by 2006. But there are two massive loopholes. First, as my friend found out, HDTV is digital, but digital TV is not necessarily HD. So, many stations, rather than devoting a wide chunk of bandwidth to one HD channel, will break it up into several non-HD channels. Second, the FCC regulation puts off the deadline if fewer than 85 percent of households have digital  receivers. This is an impossible target. After all, only 70 percent of homes currently have cable, despite all of its unique and far better-publicized programs.

According to the Consumer Electronics Associaton, 2.5 million Americans own digital televisions. But most of them were bought for watching DVDs, which look much better on digital sets. Only 362,000 of these people also bought the set-top boxes, or sets with the internal decoders, that receive HD signals. This is a pathetically puny number, but it also explains the slow progress on the road to HD. The networks wonder why they should spend a lot of money for HD cameras and transmitters when so few people can appreciate it. The customers wonder why they should spend a lot of money for HD-decoders when there’s so little HD programming to watch.

Still, the numbers are growing. A year ago, only 30,000 decoders had been sold, and there weren’t many HD broadcasts beyond the continuous loops of fireworks and nature footage on the HDTV promo channel. As the numbers grow, economies of scale set in, prices drop, the numbers grow higher, and on it goes. But this cycle will have to repeat itself many, many times before a mass market takes hold.

Last month, Fox’s digital channel carried the Super Bowl in widescreen format—but only in standard TV’s 480 lines, not in true high-definition. This steamed a lot of the 362,000 people who own the special decoder and who had invited friends over to watch their jaws drop. The previous year, CBS aired the Super Bowl in true high-def, but, again, 99.9 percent of viewers didn’t know the difference. Fox probably thought, “Since widescreen at 480 is good enough for the millions who watch DVDs, why spend a lot more to please the few purists?” If the other networks start thinking along the same lines, the revolution will be over just as it’s getting underway.

Some errors, which have since been corrected, appeared in the original version of this piece.