There’s no questioning HDTV’s popularity right now. With 71% of respondents to a Consumer Electronics Association survey saying that they planned to buy a DTV set for their next TV purchase, retail stores are gearing up for a rush of consumers. And that’s where cable could find itself in big trouble—the level of confusion from both consumers and retail salespeople matches the level of interest in HDTV. The training retail salespeople receive leaves a lot to be desired, as we discovered in visits to nine consumer electronics stores in five markets served by the top six MSOs. Explaining complicated technology in lay terms is not easy. In general, the salespeople dumbed things down too much and didn’t bother explaining, for instance, built-in tuners, the different resolutions of HDTV versus EDTV and what a pixel is. They didn’t fare any better when it came to discussing industry issues, such as the digital transition and the plug-and-play agreement. Nor were the salespeople well versed in how cable operators charge for the service. Some in-store advertising was misleading, such as the poster in a New York City Circuit City that touted a "free" HD upgrade from Time Warner Cable, which, in fact, charges nothing to "upgrade" to HD service. (It does charge a bit more for its HD set-top box. A premium HD tier is additional as well.) The overwhelming preference of all the salespeople was for satellite, largely due to cost. Nobody liked CableCARDs, and several salespeople actively dissuaded us from using them (at least until the two-way cards are available). Granted this is a small, informal survey. But the results seem to indicate cable has a long way to go before making an impact on the retail level. Downtown Manhattan I started at J&R, the well-known electronics emporium in downtown Manhattan. Before heading to the store, I checked out its website to narrow down a list of questions. Instead, I grew more confused. The choices seemed endless. A search for HDTV pulled up 124 results. There were antennas and brackets and stands. There were HDTV-capable sets with optional HD tuner and antenna, HDTV-capable with optional antenna and sets with HD tuners included. There were 4:3 standard TVs, 4:3 standard with 16:9 wide selectable and 16:9 widescreen. I decided to head over and ask some questions. Minutes after I arrived and started looking at a 42-inch plasma set from Panasonic, the TH 42PX5OU, a salesman came over and said, "This set has all the features you need." He told me I’d have to switch my cable box to get HD and then said it has another feature that’s "very futuristic," before describing the CableCARD slot. He dissuaded me from going with the card, telling me more advanced cards allowing access to the guide and PPV would be out in six months. (Industry observers expect the so-called two-way plug-and-play agreement won’t be finalized for at least 18 to 24 months.) He never mentioned the set has a built-in ATSC tuner that would enable me to get over-the-air HD channels without any external hardware. When I said "I heard you get more HD with satellite," he responded, "That’s very true." But he couldn’t list the differences between satellite and cable HD lineups. He told me his personal preference is satellite, "because it’s cheaper," before telling me I would have to shell out $299 for a DirecTV HD system, plus $10.99 a month. He never explained that in New York, I still would need to put up an antenna to get the HD feeds of local broadcast stations if I went with satellite. —Mavis Scanlon Upper West Side, Manhattan When I walked into a Circuit City on the Upper West Side, I saw a poster advertising Time Warner Cable’s HD service. "Receive a free HD upgrade with purchase of any HDTV or EDTV compatible television," the ad said. Circuit City promised a free install, one free month of cable and one free month of HBO with the purchase. But wait. Time Warner Cable in New York doesn’t charge anything to "upgrade" to an HD box, although it does charge $8.95 a month to lease the HD box ($1 more than its regular digital box), and it offers an HDXtra tier that includes INHD, INHD2, HDNET Movies, HDNet and ESPN HD for an extra $8.95. Although the Circuit City salesperson pitched cable as the better HD alternative for New York City, he said satellite was better because satellite channels are all digital all the time, while not all cable channels are. He didn’t mention the quality of digital cable, which is comparable to DBS. He asked me questions before showing me a few HD sets, including what my budget was, if I was planning to wall-mount the set and what kind of set I had now. He was able to explain the difference between HDTVs and HD-ready TVs, but fared worse when explaining the difference between HDTV and EDTV. Maybe he thought that as a woman I wouldn’t be able to comprehend the differences between EDTV and HDTV resolution; he said simply that EDTV is high-quality but not HD-quality. —Mavis Scanlon Fairfax, Va. The sales clerk at Tweeter on Lee Highway pushed Cox service, but not because he thought Cox’s HD offerings were better than satellite. It was because DirecTV still is coming out with new equipment. "Whatever you buy now will be obsolete," he said. "It won’t cost you anything to change." DirecTV is launching D.C. broadcast channels in HD later this year. To see those channels, subs will have to get new equipment. Tweeter’s sales clerk was the most knowledgeable one I ran across. He was the only one who accurately described CableCARDs, warning me off them in the strongest language. He also ran through a list of Cox’s HD channels off the top of his head. And he gave me an accurate cost of the plan. A problem for Cox: He said DirecTV eventually will be the way to go once it launches the local channels. It will be a whole lot cheaper, he said. The only thing that could keep him a happy cable customer: the cable modem bundle, which would lower the cost of HD. Further down Lee Highway, Radio Shack, which only had two HD-capable sets on display, touted satellite, barely mentioning Cox. The clerk said Dish Network is better because it has channels like History Channel in HD. (History Channel hasn’t launched in HD.) He also said most of cable’s channels are analog, not digital, which means I could see better quality pictures on Dish. (Digital cable pictures are comparable to Dish.) It helped that Dish Network had signs all over the store advertising the DBS service. (Radio Shack is one of Dish Network’s biggest authorized retailers. Its in-store promotions read "See why Dish Network is better. Ask a sales associate for details.") Had the clerk picked up a pamphlet, he would have known that Dish Network does not carry History Channel in HD. —John P. Ourand Lakewood, Calif. A friendly young Best Buy clerk came over to me about two minutes after I entered the department. Now, two minutes may not seem like a long time, unless you’re waiting for something, but when you are waiting it can feel five times that long. He was knowledgeable and offered accurate answers to all my questions. Early on my questions were more fact-based ("What channels will I see in HD?" "Will my analog set be rendered useless after 2006?"), and he answered each correctly and in a refreshingly neutral and well-articulated fashion. He told me, for example, that while satellite offers more HD channels now, cable is adding more all the time, and he believed that the number of channels offered would be fundamentally the same at some point in the near future. (Cable and satellite both offer as many as 14 or 15 HD channels.) But then, when I asked him to be subjective, he finally let his guard down. "Should I get satellite or cable?" I asked him. "Where do you live?" he asked. When I fibbed and told him Long Beach, which is served by Charter, he softened his voice, looked around conspiratorially and said, "Frankly, we all think Charter sucks." —M.C. Antil Chicago A beacon of hope for cable. The Best Buy salesperson came over directly and greeted me warmly. When asked about the different providers of HD service, he mentioned them all, including overbuilder RCN. When asked which one was best, he pondered a moment, then said, "I’d say cable, but only because it’s a little less expensive. But other than that, cable and satellite both provide real good high-definition service." The only thing he stumbled on was something dear to my heart and my wallet. Before leaving, I asked, "So HD is available on Comcast everywhere in Chicago, right?" He answered cheerfully, "Yes sir, it most certainly is." I walked out of the Best Buy with a 55-inch HDTV, along with a remarkably expensive HD cable and a delivery date. It was only later, when I called Comcast, that I learned HD service was not available in my section of Chicago. Should I have asked about the availability beforehand? Maybe. But should someone at Best Buy have informed me that HD might not be available in my area? As Hamlet said, "Ay, there’s the rub." —M.C. Antil Frederick, Md. You’d never know Adelphia is the incumbent cable operator in Frederick, Md., by walking around consumer electronics stores. Its brand is nowhere to be seen in any of the stores I visited. But get the sales clerks talking about HDTV, and Adelphia’s brand comes up, usually followed by some invective. Case in point is the sales clerk I ran into at the Best Buy just off of Market Street. "Adelphia is the devil," he said, mainly citing its customer-service woes. That doesn’t mean he’s a satellite fan. "They’re even worse," he said, citing the higher start-up costs and lack of high-speed access. The Best Buy clerk peddled bad information when I got him off his pitch. Even though he said he subscribed to Adelphia’s HD service, he told me I’d be able to see most channels in HD, including MSNBC. Only channels like Pax-25 would not be available, he said. (Adelphia in Frederick has four off-air HD networks, six HD Plus networks and three HD premium services. MSNBC is not one of them.) He also said I’d have to buy Digital Video Interface or HD Media Interface cables for $120-$150 to get HD. Not true, says Adelphia, which maintains component video outputs can be used. He warned me against CableCARDs because I’d lose access to my on-screen program guides. If I wanted to, I could buy an HD set with a built-in tuner, use a CableCARD and not have to worry about a set-top box to get HD signals. Frederick’s Circuit City clerk was better informed, although she stumbled when asked about channel lineups and the CableCARD. Adelphia only has six channels, she said, and was unable to name them. (They have more than that.) And she warned me away from using CableCARDs, saying they aren’t currently available for HDTV. (They are available for HD.) She also slipped a little when she explained the difference between HD sets and enhanced TV sets, saying HD channels would look just as good on an enhanced TV set. "You won’t be able to tell the difference." (I may not be able to tell the difference, but an EDTV set has a lower resolution that doesn’t really do justice to an HD feed.) She pushed DirecTV, citing choice and cost and said she was preparing to ditch Adelphia for DirecTV. Neither clerk provided much insight on the system’s eventual sale to Comcast, saying only they hoped the service would improve. —John P. Ourand Long Beach, Calif. My visit to a Wal-Mart in Long Beach could have passed for a Saturday Night Live skit. The young clerk’s comments bordered on the sublime and her HD knowledge was nil. I asked her, "If I buy an HD set, will everything be in high definition?" "Oh yes, no question," she said. "The definition is very, very high; much higher than regular TV." Later on I asked, "Is satellite better than cable?" She said, "Oh yes, way better." Then she paused and said. "Way, way better." Then, just as I was about to ask my next question, she blurted out, "Way, way, WAY, way better." Given that she knew so little about what she was selling, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask her about the only two HD sets I saw on display in what was one of the most cramped and unappealing electronics sections I’d ever seen in a big box retailer. One was a 53-inch Panasonic and the other a 52-inch RCA. Each had a sign right above the set to that effect. One read "53 Panasonic" (with the model number and some features) and the other read "52 RCA" (again, with the model number and features). I asked her to explain the difference between the two sets. She then furrowed her brow and, looking very serious, walked over to each and said, "Well, this one is a Panasonic, and it’s 53 inches wide. And this one is an RCA and it’s 52 inches wide." —M.C. Antil

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