Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment. Avi understands TV, video, audio, computing, and wireless, how all these are coming together, and which technologies are likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life. In his weekly column, Avi answers your questions, does your product research, and provides free advice.
Why HDTV Doesn't Matter
Sorry to ask again but have been thinking again about which type to buy. Know you said that if I watch more TV than movies the 4:3 is better choice but wonder:
Lets say I get satellite dish(es) and therefore HDTV (or cable HDTV when it is available); will 'normal' TV be in 16:9 or 4:3 mode? By normal I mean what I most watch now - baseball, football, hockey, Frazier, etc.
So I guess more general question is "Is all HDTV 16:9 or just movies?"
If normal TV is also 16:9 then questions would revolve around which 16:9 to buy. You recommended a Sony HS series as a the 4:3 set. I love my Mitsubishi 32" and 19" - have had no problems with them. How are they? Does Sony have a comparable one? What would you recommend?
AskAvi responds: (October, 2001)
Nearly all HDTV shows will be in the 16:9 aspect ratio - sports, dramas, sitcoms, etc. If you get a 16:9 HDTV-ready set, your HDTV programming will fill up the screen, but any 4:3 programming will have gray bars on the sides. If you get a 4:3 HDTV-ready set (like I recommended in response to your question last week), your regular programming will fill the screen, and you'll be able to view HDTV just like a DVD - with (nearly*) full resolution but with black bars on top and on bottom.
You have to ask yourself: how much HDTV you're likely to watch over time, and weigh that vs. how much standard TV you're likely to watch in the same time frame. If you guess wrong, you could ruin your TV. (I know, it sounds really dramatic. Unfortunately, it's true.) So let’s look at how much HDTV you're going to watch, shall we?
In addition to buying an HDTV-ready television, how much HDTV you can watch depends on two things:
Some HDTV content is being created, but not all that much. ABC has their primetime lineup on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. They also have some sports, though they dropped Monday Night Football. CBS is doing a fair amount of their prime time broadcast throughout the week. NBC is just doing Leno. HBO and PBS are creating most of their prime time shows and specials in HDTV; HBO and Showtime also rebroadcast movies in HDTV. HDNet is a new HDTV satellite channel that so far mainly broadcasts random NHL games.
That’s it. If you regularly watch NBC, Fox, the WB, sports, daytime television, or any of the cable networks (Lifetime, A&E, MSNBC, CNN, VH1, Comedy Central, etc.)… there’s no HDTV content even being created. Why so little? Well, there’s a lot of added cost, with no added revenue. Plus, aside from the major networks with broadcast affiliate stations, there isn't a way to broadcast much HDTV (more on this below). Plus, everyone is dragging their feet because they fear piracy. (Among the biggest "threats"? Basic copying technologies like digital VCRs - the studios dragged VCR manufacturers all the way to the Supreme Court in the 1970's, and they're fighting it all over again.)
How to get it
Of the HDTV programming available, how much can you actually get? Realistically? Almost none – other than HBO on satellite. Here’s the rundown:
· Satellite - Currently, there are three satellite channels broadcasting HDTV. DirecTV has HBO and HDNet. Dish/Echostar has HBO and Showtime. For either service you’ll need a separate dish and the latest HDTV-capable satellite receivers (currently $600 - $800). Note, however, that nearly all HDTV satellite receivers can also decode over the air HDTV broadcasts, so once you've bought a satellite dish, if you're within the broadcast radius (in your case, pretty doubtful) and can mount a traditional style TV antenna on your roof, you may be able to get additional HDTV over the air (more on this below).
· Over the air - In most major metropolitan areas, many of the local broadcasters are simulcasting in HDTV. That means if you're within the broadcast radius of a major metropolitan area, and you buy an HDTV receiver ($600 - $1,200), and you can mount a traditional style TV antenna on your roof, you may be able to receive the limited PBS, ABC, CBS, and NBC HDTV content being broadcast. Many Fox stations are also broadcasting standard TV digitally; this is not HDTV, but it usually looks better than traditional analog broadcasts. UPN isn't doing much of anything (which is a real shame, given that they have Enterprise and Buffy). Note that just because you should be able to receive over the air HDTV, that doesn’t mean you will. In some cases, you can get HDTV with a $60 indoor antenna sitting on top of your TV. And in some cases, you may need a large roof antenna that can be rotated towards the broadcast antenna for each station.
· Cable - There is almost no cable HDTV in the US (exceptions: Hawaii is getting wired, and Cablevision was doing limited HDTV sports broadcasting over cable in Manhattan. But they may deny it if you ask them about it - seriously).
I think it's safe to speculate that HDTV content will increase dramatically over time, even if few people can receive it. Digital recording and editing will eventually bring down production costs, so as production companies replace their equipment, they'll replace it with the latest digital gear. Many TV shows are being shot in HDTV for easier release later on DVD. And networks have successfully trialed standard TV in the 16x9 aspect ratio, which is slowly gaining acceptance as people's TVs get larger and they get used to the idea from DVDs. That doesn't mean that studios will allow this HDTV content to be broadcast in HD, unless they can figure out a way to keep it from being recorded (long term - unlikely) or find some new way to make so much money off of it that the potential piracy is no longer a concern.
How to get it
· Satellite - there's no way to predict with certainty, but satellites do have the bandwidth to deliver HDTV. They may, however, need to displace other TV channels, digital music channels, or pay-per-view. Therefore, they'll only do it if they can make more money reselling HDTV than the alternatives. I suspect that as more people purchase HDTVs, and more content is available for broadcast, satellite providers will sell premium HDTV packages. It'll cost more than regular TV, but you’ll get what you pay for.
· Over the air - According to federal law, by 2006, all TV will be digital, except in areas where less than 85% of people can receive it. In other words, at current rates, all TV will be digital by the year 2057. Maybe 2058. The broadcasters also have no incentive to make the move - it costs them a fortune to overhaul their equipment, and they don't get any additional revenue for doing so. However, by reselling the bandwidth to business-oriented data providers, they make a tidy profit on top of the regular ad revenues from analog (or non-HD digital) TV broadcasts. Of course, federal regulation could change, the technology could change, and the adoption rate could change.
· Cable - without federal intervention it is unlikely HDTV will ever be carried on cable - their bandwidth is too limited. Of course, federal regulation could change, the technology could change, or the competitive environment could change. Cable is feeling the heat from satellite providers, so if HDTV ever takes off on satellite, cable may be forced to do something about it.
So why are manufacturers making – and people buying - 16:9 sets?
Aside from the really expensive ($7,500 - $10,000) sets that can truly display HDTV* (for people who must have the latest technology, are willing to shell out another $600 for a tuner, and can set up rotating antennas to receive the three shows being broadcast), it’s all DVD, baby. For the first time, movies are being distributed in their original aspect ratio on a mass medium format (Laserdisc doesn’t count. Only 2 million players were sold in the format’s history). Here’s how it works:
Conclusion - Guess Right, Or Else
There's little to no HDTV today. There also isn't likely to be much any time soon - though satellite is your best bet going forward. If you want to buy an HDTV today because you mainly watch DVDs in widescreen, and watch very little standard TV, that makes sense. If you want to buy an HDTV today because you mainly watch HD HBO, that makes sense. But if you mainly watch regular TV, with a few DVDs, and want to get an HDTV "just in case" HDTV takes off, that's a big mistake for two reasons:
1. TV technology will improve in quality over time, and come down in price. Buy for what you plan to use the set, and enjoy now.
2. Any tube-based TV needs to be used primarily in the aspect ratio it was designed for, or you'll suffer burn-in. This is really serious. Basically, if you buy a 16x9 set, and use it mostly for 4:3 material with gray bars on the sides, you unevenly wear the tubes in the middle of the picture. When you then go to watch 16x9 program material, the side areas of the picture will not have the same color or contrast as the middle of the picture. The same holds true for watching mostly widescreen material on a 4:3 set. There is a workaround on 16x9 sets - stretch modes, which either stretch the picture in varying degrees to fill the whole screen, or cut off the top and bottom of the image to fill the whole screen. Whether you find this objectionable is a matter of personal taste and what program material you watch (for example, sports tends to be worse in stretch mode, sitcoms are less of a problem).
So, if you mostly watch baseball, football, hockey, and Frazier, there’s really no question - you should buy a 4:3 set.
*As I discussed in last week's column, very few of today's HDTV sets can actually display HDTV in full resolution, which is so detailed it can fool the eye into thinking you're looking out a window. There are a few sets today that do have full resolution - they're mostly front projectors, though a few rear projectors based on 9" CRTs can also make accurate resolution claims. In any case, they're quite expensive (>$8,000). Still, the HDTV picture you get on a $2,000 - 5,000 HDTV-ready set is quite spectacular.
**See last week’s column for more on why this isn’t always the case.
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