The high-definition wasteland
Those HDTVs look great—until you try to watch at home
When longtime Chico resident Pam Knight and her family bought a new 43-inch high-definition digital television set for Christmas in 2002, it didn’t take long for them to realize they’d made an expensive mistake.
The picture looked “beautiful” in the store, Knight said, but at home it looked “like crap.”
“I felt like I was really taken,” she continued. “I just wanted to go back to that store and say, ‘How can you do this to people?'”
Knight said she was told by a salesman that the picture would look even better in her home than it did in the store, where computer-generated images provide the signal to the TV. The salesman went on to say that within a few months high-definition movies would be available on cable. That time has passed, and it’s yet to happen. Knight said she feels angry and humiliated every time she looks at the set.
“I go into my son’s room and watch his 19-inch TV,” she said. “It’s embarrassing.”
The Knights are far from alone. Steve Clark, manager of Payless Electronics Repair, said he goes on as many as four calls a week lately to deal with problems related to high-definition TVs. Usually the problem has nothing to do with the actual set, but with the bloated expectations delivered to HDTV buyers by TV salespeople.
“We have people telling us the picture quality isn’t as good as the set they got rid of,” Clark said. “I tell them the signal quality you’re putting in is not as good as what they use in the store. It’s analogous to listening to an AM radio station from San Francisco with a lot of hiss and pop in it on a really nice stereo. It’s going to sound terrible, where if you had bought a little transistor radio it would actually sound better.”
For better or worse, almost everyone in the United States has a television set—and often two or three. While that isn’t likely to change anytime soon, the way we watch is supposed to be undergoing a radical transformation. The coming digital age in TV is already upon us, yet most people don’t have a clue what that means.
Every day, the various industries involved promise more and better features, like viewers being able to choose their own camera angles for sporting events, receiving Internet over the airwaves and even getting multiple programming choices over the same station.
But the reality, especially in rural markets like Chico, is not as promising.
A quick trip to any place where television sets are sold will illuminate the problem. On a recent jaunt to a few local big-box electronics retailers, it was clear that, even among the folks selling digital TVs, there is not a whole lot of consensus on what the future will bring or when it will arrive.
At one place, the salesperson said high-definition digital TVs simply wouldn’t work with cable, only with a satellite dish, and only with the brand that the store just happened to carry. At another store, the salesperson said HDTV was available through cable but suggested buying extra components.
With so much confusing and conflicting information out there, and with high-definition TVs selling in the $2,000 to $7,000 range, many consumers are adopting a wait-and-see attitude, at least while their trusty Trinitrons are still working. In a chicken-and-egg kind of scenario, the longer those people keep their old sets, the longer everyone will have to wait to get the new digital options.
They may be the smart ones. Just like when TV switched from black and white to color back in the 1950s, the “early adopters” of the new technology—people like Pam Knight—have become the guinea pigs of the experiment.
When the Federal Communications Commission mandated in 1996 that TV broadcasters switch from analog signals to digital by the year 2006, it opened a can of worms that to this day thoroughly confuses the average consumer. Aside from the obvious question—"You mean my old TV won’t work anymore?"—anyone buying a television set within the last couple of years is likely to have found himself befuddled by choices he or she never had to make before.
It used to be you could just buy a TV, plug it in, maybe wrap some foil around the rabbit ears and watch. Now consumers have to carefully weigh not only how big a TV they can afford, but also where they want to get their programming from. While people who live in the big cities already have things like multi-casting and free high-definition broadcasts, folks in the remaining 30 percent of the country may not see the benefits of the new technology for years to come. The problem is, they aren’t being told that when they go to buy a new TV.
“For consumers, it’s often one of the biggest investments they make,” said local electronics dealer Dave Maurer. “The more we tell [customers], the less likely they are to buy a television set.”
When Maurer first started selling high-definition sets, he quickly realized that most of the folks coming into his shop, Sounds by Dave, had no idea what they were getting into. The problem isn’t with the sets, he said, it’s with our local signal sources. Customers who hook up to cable complain about the ugly picture. Customers with antennae wonder why they can’t get high-definition programming when their friends in Sacramento can. Satellite viewers can’t figure out why their picture dissolves into big squares every time the action on the screen picks up. Even worse, a lot of customers have started having problems with burn-in, which is what happens when a standard, square image is viewed for too long on a rectangular, high-definition set—the sides of the screen where the image is blank can be permanently “burned” into the screen, turning a $5,000 TV into a $5,000 coffee table.
“The first three months I sold these things I was so depressed I could barely get through the presentation,” Maurer said. “We’re a small store. We can’t afford to be running all over town picking up returns.”
Now, instead of trying to sell TVs to potential customers, Maurer said he is just as likely to advise them to put off their purchases for a year or so, or until the local broadcasters and cable and satellite companies beef up their options. As a method of heading off product returns, the sales staff at Maurer’s store now puts potential customers through “HDTV Boot Camp” before trying to sell them a widescreen.
“We tell people, ‘You’re going to have a problem no matter what you do,'” he said. “It’s just a matter of matching the television with the use pattern of the viewer.”
For example, cable often gives viewers a picture that is grainy, speckled and distorted because high-definition sets actually accentuate noise within the signal that older sets don’t even recognize. Satellite images can look squashed or “pixelated” because the data are often compressed as they are sent, and some satellite subscribers have to buy a second dish and pay higher monthly fees even to receive high-definition pictures.
An antenna on your roof is the way to go, but only if you are able to get a big-city signal. Around here, that means you’re probably one of the couple hundred people who live on the southern side of the Paradise ridge.
So why does Sacramento have digital and high-definition TV and most of Chico doesn’t? In a word, money.
“It’s mostly cost,” said KHSL chief engineer Steve Burt. “To broadcast to nobody watching is not a very good business decision.”
KHSL and KNVN just went on the air with a digital signal, one that is about 50 times less powerful than their analog one. The station spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in new equipment to do so, as required by the FCC. It might cost the stations millions more to convert to true high-definition, and in most “small-market” areas in the United States, local stations simply can’t afford to do it. With so many people receiving TV through cable and satellite, many station managers wonder where the incentive lies, especially since they won’t technically have to suspend their analog broadcasts until 85 percent of the local population has a digital TV or tuner box.
“It’s going to be a while before you see high-definition around here,” Burt said. “Before people really start investing in it, there will have to be a lot more content available than there is now.”
The difference between analog and digital TV is the same basic difference between a cassette tape and a CD. While the analog signal is a physical reproduction of the original, the digital version is an electronic facsimile, encoded in packets of ones and zeroes—the binary language of computers—and translated back into a form we can see and hear. The big advantage of digital is that you can squeeze much more information into a much smaller space, just as a CD can hold more information than a cassette.
When broadcasters get up to speed with the new technology, it will allow them to transmit a lot more information over the airwaves than they can now. If a station wants to split its programming among five channels, it can do it. If it wants to provide streaming data along with a program—such as statistics on every batter during a baseball game—it can do that too. Or it can use the entire spectrum to transmit “high-definition” images, which look about five times as good as the stuff most of us get on our TVs now.
The problem nationally has been in getting all of the industry players, from the manufacturers to the broadcasters to the content providers, on the same page. While Hollywood has pushed for a “broadcast flag” that would stop some programs from being pirated, the electronics industry has balked, charging that such an addition would ruin the market for home recording devices. TV stations have been forced to upgrade their equipment at a very steep cost, even though most viewers are unable to watch without buying new equipment of their own, and cable companies have dragged their feet in creating a standard for digital cable tuners because they fear it will lead to breakups in their tightly held regional markets.
The problem locally has been that broadcasters have had a hard time justifying the increased expense of digital transmission before a majority of the population is ready to receive it.
“You’ve got to remember there aren’t a heck of a lot of people out there who are set up to watch [HDTV broadcasts],” said KIXE Program Manager Brad Fay. “We’re going to spend the first year or so experimenting with what looks the best and what works the best.”
Being a public station in the new digital market has its advantages, Fay said. For one, public stations have traditionally embraced such emerging technology as closed-captioning and descriptive audio channels, so they are already poised to make the next jump to digital. In September, PBS will begin airing a low-power digital signal that may or may not get picked up in Chico. PBS is already feeding a 24-hour HDTV program loop to all of its stations, so KIXE will be ready to provide HDTV programming as soon as the digital signal goes live. But will anybody be watching?
Nobody knows. One station manager guessed there were about 12 people in the entire Chico-Redding market who are set up to receive over-the-air HDTV. Fay said that figure was in the realm of possibility but also commented that the less there is to watch, the fewer people will make the switch.
“I think we [have to] try to put the programming out there. The more we can be out front and show people the pretty pictures, the more people will adopt [the format].”
Fay said his station may provide HDTV in prime time but multi-cast during the day, offering a children’s channel, an educational channel or other programming, all on the same bandwidth.
Almost everyone involved, from station managers to TV salespeople to consumer advocates, think digital TV will be better for consumers in the long run. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, prices for HDTVs and digital tuner boxes—which allow analog TVs to display a digital signal—will have dropped by about 30 percent by this time next year. As with all things electronic, more people buying the hardware translates into more programming options available. As it is now, 84 percent of recent HDTV buyers rated the amount of programming available for them as “poor,” and 62 percent felt they weren’t getting their money’s worth out of their new set.
For someone who watches a lot of DVDs and plays a lot of video games, an HDTV set might be a good investment. But the average TV viewer out here in rural America might want to think twice before tossing out that Trinitron.