The HDTV transition has had more than its share of speed bumps. Whether technological, financial or political, the industry seems committed to going quickly over the bumps even if everyone in the industry is bounced around so much as to put the digital transition on a road to nowhere.
The good news is that, for all the jostling and bumping, there are a number of good signs that HDTV could finally get the
self-sustaining momentum it needs. But, like the launch of television itself (a 1939 editorial in this magazine on the difficulties of launching TV was titled "Sane-vision," calling for a clearer message to consumers), HDTV seems to be in need of a more-focused message and energy.
Eight months ago, I invested in an HD set. In New York City, Time Warner Cable provides the free HD service that brings me local HD signals plus HBO, Showtime and the occasional special HD event like the NBA playoffs.
But, for all the programming, one aspect continues to frustrate. Most of the time, the HDTV/DTV viewing experience is truly stunning, but sometimes it makes me wonder whether the networks and cable operators take HD as seriously as their HD viewers do.
Take, for example, NBC. Over the past season, NBC finally stepped up with a large amount of prime time HDTV programming. But, on a couple of evenings in the past month, WNBC-HD was an HD mess. Viewers tuning in for American Dreams
in New York on a recent Sunday night were treated to color bars followed by what appeared to be a repeat episode of Dateline NBC
with no audio.
Since when did technical problems lasting more than 20 minutes, let alone 40, become acceptable? Most broadcast engineers I know don't find any
technical problems acceptable. At one point, I wondered whether anyone at NBC was actually monitoring the HD signal.
Technical gaffes of that sort send one message to me as an HD viewer: Just because you were stupid enough to spend $2,500 on a TV set doesn't mean we have to be stupid enough to spend money to maintain proper signal quality.
Then there is the proverbial whipping boy of the HDTV viewer: Fox. That network has committed to widescreen 480p broadcasts, which aren't HD but are fully compliant with FCC requirements. I have to admit the logic of their argument: Why incur extra costs when there are few viewers? Nonetheless, it would do wonders for the adoption of HD for Fox to step up with 720p productions for sports this fall. HD Major League Baseball playoffs and NFL regular-season games would be the best thing an Australian has done for the U.S. since...well...ever.
Another new factor: With the advent of ESPN-HD, Discovery HD and HD-Net (and later this year Bravo-HD, InDemand-HD and NBA-HD), suddenly there is more HD programming I'm not receiving than HD programming I do get. The impasse between the cable operators and the programmers concerns rights fees, a business issue that typical consumers don't follow closely. Their interpretation will be simple: The cable operator isn't interested in giving them more HD content. But, with DirecTV offering an HD tier that includes those currently absent-from-cable HD services, maybe cable MSOs will figure out a solution.
The end result of such difficulties is an HD transition that hems and haws. More important, it has potential purchasers and consumer-electronics retailers hemming and hawing. The technology is complex enough. Throw in reception and carriage issues, and the average sales pitch becomes one more reason not to buy an HDTV set.
And that's too bad because, right now, there are many reasons to buy. More than 900 DTV and HDTV broadcast stations on air, declining prices of HD sets, plenty of programming—all the pieces are in place for HDTV to be a winner. But a long line of caveats and hiccups usually results in one reaction: maybe next year.