The Greater Picture

We remember the trade shows in the late '90s at which the National Association of Broadcasters showed television executives a beautiful, gigantic high-definition display. (As we recall, it was an underwater camera filming exotic fish in the South Pacific.) TV fans that we were, we left the room saucer-eyed and slack-jawed. The picture was stunning.

For a few years HD sets were offered, but only early adopters bit. That's changed now, but what a strange, strange trip it's been.

HD went through a seemingly prolonged chicken-and-egg phase. Manufacturers would make more sets, if there was more programming. Programmers would produce more, if only more people were watching.

Early on, HD engendered little urban myths. We heard that high definition would show the wrinkles in anchors' faces, ruining their careers. Those cheesy, plywood Action News anchor desks would look like the sets of a high school play when seen in full, glorious HD.

Now HD sales are robust, and programming is plentiful. DirecTV says it will have 100 channels by the end of this year and Verizon says its FiOs system will have 150 by the end of next year. Everything from Two and Half Men to NASCAR races is available in HD.

In this special HD edition, we list the distinct HD channels, a list that seems to grow like kudzu. Where once there was little to choose from, now there's a banquet of choices. And the price of an HD set has come down, too, to an average that is less than $1,000. As Ross Rubin, an analyst at NPD Group, says in a story this week, HD “is at the intersection of desirability and affordability right now.”

Those who have it love it—but a packet of absurd hurdles have presented themselves along the way.

For example, if you were a network or an advertiser, you'd expect there would be some reasonably reliable figures about how many operable HD sets there are out there.

It is going to be hard to sell commercials on HD networks if there's no good guess about who's seeing them.

Analysts have a number, Nielsen has a number. Everybody has a number. We figure that between 15 and 17 million homes have an HD set.

That's almost the easy part.

Because then the question becomes: Are they watching HD? Experts believe as many as 40% of the HD sets out there aren't actually hooked up to get HD. That's either because their owners don't know they aren't getting HD, or because they don't really care. Who could have predicted that consumer behavior? Perhaps it's as simple as this: If you buy an HD television set for a lot of money, and it says HD right on the box, you'd expect it would deliver an HD picture.

But it's not as simple as that.

And who would have guessed that on the road to the digital transition, the government would have to prepare to issue coupons to consumers who don't get cable or satellite and don't have digital sets, so they'll be able to continue to see television on their old analog sets?

Back when HDTV standards were being formularized, few thought in advance about what would happen to consumers who did not have digital sets by the time the government ordered broadcasters to relinquish their analog channels and go digital. (That might be because deep down, broadcasters thought they'd be able to hang on to both pieces of spectrum.) On that now-chosen date, Feb. 18, 2009, regular analog television sets won't work unless their owners receive a downconverted signal via their cable or satellite provider. The trouble is that about 20 million Americans don't get cable or satellite, and so the government will soon begin offering coupons to consumers that will help defray the cost of buying subsidized downconverters.

Except for readers of publications like this one, we'd bet that very few people know this will behappening.

But the trouble—and potentially a very bad scene for a new president in his (or her) second month in office—is if most of those coupons get distributed to people who want a set-top converter so they can keep watching their second set in the basement, rather than to people who, for whatever reason including lack of income, aren't hooked up to cable or satellite at all.

We are soon to experience the full force of a public relations campaign to inform the public, but somehow it seems to us that the people who just aren't going to “get” the idea of a new set-top box are the people who actually need it.

Most broadcasters will spare no expense in their migration to HD. Every broadcaster is required to have equipped itself for the digital switch, and have spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to have done so. But because only 20 million homes (out of about 112 million TV households) get signals via over-the-air TV, this seems wasteful, and led to the clumsy coupon solution.

And around every corner, there has been a technological surprise like that. For example, everyone wants to tell consumers that HDTV is vibrant and detailed. But not as many tell consumers that watching standard definition on an HD set results in a picture that is often just awful.

So for all of that, we celebrate HD? You bet. For lots of viewers, HD is an imposing new technology, but for almost everyone who sees it, it is arguably an invigorating, improved viewing experience.

This holiday season, we anticipate a new wave of HD consumers about to experience television at its finest. Someday HD will be the norm, like color TV. And that someday is happening very soon.