With the transition to digital broadcasting only 15 months away, legislators have been pushing broadcasters to make sure viewers get the information they need. And consumer advocates are keeping an eye on makers of HDTV sets to ensure that they don’t exploit the transition to "upsell" viewers on pricey HDTV sets they don’t need.
So let’s hope they caught the "Hot Holiday TVs" segment on the Nov. 13 broadcast of CBS’ Early Show, in which anchor Harry Smith interviewed David Gregg, senior editor of Behind the Buy, a Web site for "non-techie, time starved, curious consumers."
"In 2009, the television world is going all digital," Smith began. "That means you don’t have much time to replace your TV with the rabbit ears." So far, so good.
But as the two stood beside a quaint little rabbit-eared Sony, Gregg, an Early Show and shopping-channel regular, proceeded to explain: "In 2009, the federal government, the FCC [Federal Communications Commission], has mandated that all commercially licensed broadcast stations are now required to broadcast in high-definition."
"Wow!" Smith responds. The correct response, however, would’ve been, "Come again?" That’s because the federally mandated transition requires the majority of broadcasters to broadcast in digital, not HD.
Gregg then explained, "If you don’t have an HDTV" after the transition, "you will need a converter box."
Wrong again: Non-HDTV sets with digital tuners can receive digital over-the-air signals just fine. It’s the analog-only sets that need converter boxes. And if you have digital-cable, satellite or telco service, you’re golden.
Gregg did get it right when he tried to explain the government voucher program for subsidizing those converter boxes. But Smith inexplicably laughed through the explanation before segueing into an on-set appraisal of several HDTVs ranging from $3,500 to "under $900."
For what it’s worth, a basic DTV set that’ll work after February 2009 will set you back only a couple of hundred bucks.
At least one CBS viewer noted the problems with the segment and posted a response on CBSNews.com.
"Broadcasters will be required by the FCC to transmit in DIGITAL, not HD," the viewer wrote. "There is a big difference between the two. It would be like telling people that the law requires that you license your pet when, in fact, they only need to license their dog."
In an online response, Gregg acknowledged that the viewer’s "observation about digital-TV signals is technically correct." But he maintained, "The main objective of this segment was to address a possible TV purchase during the holidays," adding, "Using the term HD as a blanket reference to this digital-broadcast changeover was intended to simplify an already-confusing concept for most consumers to understand."
The segment has some other pieces of misinformation that broadcast engineers might find amusing.
After Gregg notes that a number of consumers still rely on over-the-air broadcasts that they receive with rabbit ears or rooftop antennas, Smith nods in assent.
“Sure,” says Smith. “Even if they have a widescreen [set], for instance, maybe, they still use an antenna. What happens then, when this whole big digital revolution takes place?”
Gregg doesn’t answer that question directly, but goes on to discuss the converter box program. The answer, of course, is that nothing would happen to a viewer who has a widescreen HDTV set with an integrated digital tuner connected to an antenna. As broadcast engineers and antenna manufacturers will tell you, those viewers are probably already enjoying the highest-quality HD picture available today, as their network HD programming is not being further compressed by cable or satellite providers.
Gregg disseminates more confusing information when discussing the choices in display resolution and explaining the difference between progressive and interlace HD.
“There are basically two numbers that people will be seeing, 1080 and 720, in high-definition technology,” says Gregg. “The higher the number, the better the resolution, the picture’s going to look better. Now there’s the ‘I’ and the ‘P’. Simply, ‘I’ stands for interlace, ‘P’ stands for progressive. The ‘P’ means it’s a pretty good picture, and the ‘I’ means…it’s not necessarily inferior, but not as good. So you always want to shoot for a higher number with P next to it.”
When talking about the resolution of 720p flat-panel plasma or LCD displays versus 1080p models, Gregg is correct—though a consumer needs a Blu-ray or HD-DVD disc player to watch true 1080p content. But a 1080i HD set—and there are still some 1080i CRT (cathode-ray tube) models floating around from Samsung—has a higher resolution display than a 720p set.
Moreover, engineers at CBS, NBC, Discovery, HBO and other networks that broadcast their programming in 1080i might take issue with the statement that “I” means “not as good.” Those networks chose 1080i over the 720p format used by ABC, Fox and ESPN precisely because it represents the highest-quality transmission format available within the ATSC standard.
The segment can be streamed at CBSNews.com, where the accompanying story provides the correct information on the transition. A CBS spokesperson said the network has no plans to broadcast an on-air clarification.