It may smack of heresy to suggest that high-definition TV (HDTV) is anything but beautiful. But as mesmerizing as those highly defined pixels are, there are other sides to the HD phenomenon.

With apologies to anyone associated with the 1966 spaghetti Western, the HD story contains elements of the good, the bad and the ugly. In fairness, the ugly is primarily a matter of what everything looks like in comparison with HD, but that’s a problem all the same. Consumer misunderstanding and network constraints form a large part of what might be called challenging, if not bad.

The good is represented by strong consumer demand and accelerated programmer supply. Forecasters expect those trends to persist. Abetted by the Feb. 2009 digital television (DTV) broadcast transition, the eclipse of standard definition (SD) by HD was one of five 5-year trends that Comcast CTO Tony Werner listed in an address he delivered at the CableNEXT event in November 2007.

For that 5-year eclipse to take occur, the good will need to overcome the various (bad, ugly or otherwise) obstacles standing in HD’s way. Good trends If the trend is indeed your friend, then HDTV is becoming a good buddy.

The numbers indicate that in 2007 many American consumers acted upon the message that HDTV offers the finest quality digital picture with superior sound. An estimated 4.5 million HDTV sets were sold in the first half of the year, a 50 percent increase over the same period in 2006.

Before the holidays, retailers such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy slashed prices on HD electronics to the lowest levels yet seen. Sizable, brand name HDTV sets with tuners could be found for less than $500. The Consumer Electronics Association predicted that by the end of the year, consumers would have purchased 16 million HDTV sets.

As befits a maturing industry, the market moving beyond early adopters. The Diffusion Group is one analyst shop that already has shifted its focus to a segment they’re calling “HDTV Intenders,” the one-third of non-HDTV households that were interested in purchasing a new HDTV set within the next six months.

“The next wave of buyers is comprised of early mass-market consumers, a much larger segment (than early adopters) with a focus on practical considerations,” said TDG principal analyst Michael Greeson in a statement.

Such considerations may already be in play. Needless to say, superior video quality is a key driver to HD. (Comcast.net lists widescreen, progressive scan, no ghosting, shaper image and better sound in its standard list of HD benefits.) Leave it to Tony Werner, however, to say something that actually needed to be said, or which would have been more obvious were it not for techno-hype that has surrounded HDTV for several years running.

In the keynote address referenced earlier, Werner said that consumers are purchasing HDTV sets now more because of form factor than any other reason. “What they really want is a flat TV that they can hang on the wall,” he said.

Apart consumer demand, the HD story in 2007 was also a matter of content kicking into high gear. Satellite providers, cable operators and the telcos are engaged in a fierce competition for HD video subscribers, touting ever-expanding channel counts in intensive comparison advertising campaigns.

By the end of the year, both DirectTV and Comcast had declared themselves “the leader in HDTV.” DirectTV claimed to have “75 of the best national HD channels” with more to come. Comcast offered HD on demand.

Further upstream, programmers were getting even more serious about HD. In a development announced at a Cable-Tec Expo breakfast meeting in Orlando last June, HBO CTO Robert Zitter said that his company would transition into HD on its own terms, namely: using the MPEG-4 advanced video codec (AVC).

For the cable industry, this was a “be careful what you pray for” moment. More efficient encoding means more HD content, a good thing. But it’s a better thing for cable’s satellite competitors, who have millions of MPEG-4 set-tops deployed, as well as for telco video providers, who are even less attached to legacy MPEG-2 devices. Capacity limits How cable ops are going to transcode (or re-encode) MPEG-4 HD video into MPEG-2 (HD and/or SD) video is only one of many network-related HD challenges that they and their vendor partners are now facing.

The larger question is how much HD content will fit within cable’s limited spectrum. For several years, that question has figured in the background calculations of nearly every discussion of how to adjust or upgrade cable’s physical plant: whether via switched digital video (SDV) or spectrum enhancements or node splits or deeper optics or better video processing or some combination thereof.

The question has multiple answers. According to an analysis presented by Aurora Networks CTO Dr. Oleh Sniezko at a CableNEXT session on “Preparing for an All-HDTV Programming Environment,” HFC capacity for peak-hour viewership on a 750 MHz plant is 200 MPEG-2 or 400 MPEG-4 HDTV streams. Those stream counts increase to 240 and 480 on an 870 MHz plant and 280 and 560 on a 1,002 MHz plant.

The point here isn’t to explore that analysis or compare it with others, but to indicate that some of the industry’s sharpest brains are engaged on this sticky, multi-variable equation.

Whether those stream counts are high enough is yet another question, which feeds back into the consumer demand piece. There you find not only marketing hype, but also a troublesome level of confusion. Numbers, and confusion In late October 2007, Nielsen released statistics on the success of HD penetration inside the estimated 112.8 million U.S. television households.

Surprisingly (for anyone who imagines that HD adoption is close to ubiquitous) the Nielsen numbers revealed that only 11.3 percent or 12.7 million of those households possessed the full compliment of technology necessary to experience HD programming: an HDTV set, an HD tuner and reception of at least one HD network or station.

An estimated 13.7 percent or 15.5 million of U.S. television households are ready and willing but not able to enjoy HD. Those happy few are said to have the proper TV and tuner but lack programming.

What about the rest of those 84.6 million households out there in the dark? Even if the “HD Intenders” mentioned earlier begin making their expected purchases over this year’s holiday season, you’re left with an overwhelmingly non-HD consumer base. Will the next Olympics turn this into a mass-market phenomenon? HDNet’s Marc Cuban, among others, has been beating that drum for six years.

Consumer confusion about HD technology is certainly one obstacle to its adoption. In fairness, the terms defining HDTV can get technical very quickly. There’s not only the 16:9 aspect ratio and 720p (borderline HD) or 1080i or 1080p line resolution, but also frame/field rates per second, color coding and quantization.

An August 2007 telephone survey of men and women age 18 and older conducted for Best Buy discovered that a majority of potential customers had more basic misconceptions about both the technology and cost of a proper HDTV system:

 —11 percent of consumers in general and only 19 percent of HDTV owners felt they completely understood the technology.
 —32 percent of consumers said they had no understanding of HDTV at all.
 —39 percent did not identify an HD-ready TV set as necessary for the HD experience.
 —52 percent of the group underestimated the significant (and necessary) peripheral costs.

In response to these findings, Best Buy launched its HDTV Done Right campaign, an effort to educate consumers, both in-store and online, and provide free tech support by phone.

Cable companies have also stepped up their efforts to clarify the technology for the consumer. Time Warner and Cisco, for instance, have partnered on the “HD Clear & Simple” Web site, a user-friendly guide to choosing HD hardware and service.

Sometimes, however, you have to go elsewhere – to HDTV user forums, for instance—to get answers on the real challenges of using HDTV. The ugly The moving pictures that greet many consumers gazing into the screens of HD devices on the floor of any consumer electronics store – often running off a Blu-Ray drive at the astonishing speed of 35 Mbps – are truly a sight to behold.

A big problem, however, arises when you take the remote, turn off the Blu-Ray machine and change channels to SD programming. It’s not an HD problem by itself; it’s how inferior everything else looks on an HD display device.

“Why Does My HDTV Have Poor SD Picture Quality?” That’s a FAQ on the Digital Home Web forum, the answer to which includes 14 points, including this takeway: There are lots of reasons why it can – but need not necessarily – look bad.

Aspect ratio also plays a part in consumer ambivalence. If you watch SD on a 16:9 widescreen HDTV set, and opt against the left and right margin bars, the image will stretch, making people look short and fat. This creates an obstacle, so we’ve been told, to the sales of HD DVDs of wedding ceremonies….

Finally, there’s the problem with television viewing, period. If a TV broadcast enters a home and nobody is around to watch it, who cares if it’s HD?

Television viewership is on the decline. In August 2007, Nielsen said that “the drop most likely is due to real changes in TV viewing behavior and is not due to TV ratings methods, or new technologies like DVD players, video game systems or digital video recorders.”

Will HD significantly thwart that trend? Did Sprint’s “so close you could hear a pin drop” pitch for landline service hold off the rise of mobile phone use? Conclusion When, if not whether HD becomes mass market is an open question. So far, however, 21st century technology is all about consumer control, something noticeably absent from the traditional television viewing experience.

The cable industry’s on-demand infrastructure and its deployment of digital video recorders are advancing one aspect of control, time shifting. As for device shifting, or portability, that looks more like a work in progress, with the current advantage in the hands of over-the-top providers, such as Apple.

Getting viewers back on the sofa, engaged in the TV programming that drives the ad revenue, is largely a matter for the content side of the industry. But can technology help provide an experience so unique that its entertainment value cannot be replicated by any other consumer electronic device?

Given growing demand from consumers and supply from programmers, HDTV will continue to play an increasing role in engaging a growing segment of television viewers. On the other hand, this ongoing HD transition—which has five years ahead of it if we take Tony Werner’s word for it—is likely to be a matter of several steps forward and a few steps backward at the same time.

Jonathan Tombes is editor and Jenn Rinaldi is the associate editor of Communications Technology. Reach them at jtombes@accessintel.com and jrinaldi@accessintel.com.

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