Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment: video, audio, computing, and wireless, how these are coming together, and what's likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life.
Column #39 (08/15/02)
HDTV Update: Mandates, Promises, and Mergers
Transition To Television Heaven Not Dead After All
When you've got a capable, properly calibrated set, you really only have to see HDTV once. I've seen it happen. I've even heard the words spoken out loud. The words aren't "I want one," or, "I need one," or even, "how much does it cost." They are: "I will never go back to regular television again." But given the obstacles - lack of programming, technical difficulties, complicated technologies, warring broadcasters, and stratospheric cost - there's always been a constant negative chorus questioning whether HDTV will ever catch on.
The good news: there’s been a flurry of activity on the HDTV landscape lately, all making the transition itself less of an open question.
Technology Marches On; This Time, Customers Are Ready
Digital TV sales are on the rise and prices are on the decline. While CRT-based displays such as tube televisions, and most large screen Rear Projection TVs (RPTV) remain the most affordable, the most dramatic price drops have been on the newer technologies such as plasma, LCD, and DLP. Plasma televisions now start at $4,000 for a 4" thick, 42” widescreen set, and a "mere" $10,000 for third generation 50” sets with much better picture quality than before. Digital front projectors that can throw a picture up on the wall measured in feet, not inches, now start at $2000. At these prices, plasmas are no longer for interior decorators, and front projectors are no longer exclusively found in Hollywood screening rooms.
It's not just that prices have come down. The technologies are becoming more familiar. Plasmas are now sold at big box electronics retailers, a sure sign that they're no longer exotic. Customers are used to HDTV's wide screen aspect ratio due to widescreen DVDs and even prime time television programs. And front projectors are a staple of business presentations.
Manufacturers are helping things along, too. More HDTVs come with a digital tuner integrated into the set (see more this below), and less expensive add-on HDTV tuners are hitting the market (I reported on Samsung's $400 entry in Column 37: Samsung's Summer Product Lineup). Widescreen TVs are becoming mainstream. Several manufacturers joined Mitsubishi in marketing 65” RPTVs that come in two separate boxes, making it possible to install these giants in rooms with limited access (stairs). And new, higher performance mid-priced DLP RPTVs are just hitting retailers that offer big screens with short, shallow cabinets – perfect for folks who don’t want to overwhelm a room, but don’t have the money for plasma. Widescreen RPTVs based on DLP are also a perfect match for those who plan to watch a lot of regular 4:3 (square) TV without fear of grey bar burn in.
Manufacturers are also beginning to put digital connections on their digital tuners, televisions, and projectors. Two different (and, sadly, incompatible) interfaces are the most popular: Firewire (also called iLink or IEEE1394) and DVI. Both can carry digital signals without first having to convert them to analog; Firewire is the preferred method for connecting to DVHS decks for recording, and, if implemented, for easier setup and control of different components.
Greedy Government Forces Manufacturers To Move
Still, while over three million digital television sets have been sold, the number of people with digital tuners to make those HDTV-ready boxes actually display digital television remains is in the neighborhood of 360,000 - the other 2,640,000 people are just watching DVDs. The tuner number needs a big shove upwards if the HDTV transition is going to take place in the next decade, never mind by 2006, the original crossover date set by Congress.
So that's just what the FCC did earlier this month, requiring all TVs bigger than a breadbox to have digital tuners by 2007 (see chart). This is undeniably good news for over-the-air broadcasters, who have to comply with similar edicts on their end. Here in the NY area, HDTV has been knocked off the air by terrorists*, but in major metros around the rest of this country you may be able to tune into a local HDTV broadcast from one of the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS are all broadcasting significant HDTV programming, and the WB might start soon, too). It should be good news for manufacturers, as well, although they've been fighting the ruling (and may go to court over it). While I the falling prices will initially stabilize or even bump up a bit as expensive tuners get added to the package, I predict consumers will respond positively - assuming they can figure out what to tune in to.
Why is the government stepping in? Money. I'm sure you're shocked, just shocked to discover that HDTV wasn't pushed forward because it's a zillion times better than regular TV, but because the feds figured that they could sell the analog spectrum TV broadcasters have been using for free for the last fifty years or so. It's not pocket change, either - Congress estimates that they can get $5 to $10 billion at auction. These estimates probably predate the telecom implosion (the folks who are most likely to ante up), but, then they probably didn't count on eBay, either. Once 85% of the citizenry have HDTV - or at least DTV (without the H, that's just Digital TV), Congress gets to take back the old airwaves and sell them.
Of course, even if you have a tuner built into your TV, and you live in an area with digital broadcasts, you'll still need an antenna to pull in those transmissions. And the best kind of antenna? You guessed it, the bane of landscapes everywhere, the roof antenna. But even if there's resistance to over the air broadcasts, nobody watches TV that way anymore anyway, right? There's always cable and satellite.
Satellites Fly High
Satellites are providing limited HDTV today, though depending on your service provider and where you live you may need another small dish to get it (in addition to the one you already have, pointed in a slightly different direction). DirecTV currently offers three HDTV channels, and EchoStar's Dish Network gives you five. We aren't talking about the major networks, rather, pay per view offerings, HDNet - an all-HDTV all-sports network, HBO, Showtime, Discovery, TLC, and Animal Planet. The EchoStar/DirecTV merger is complicating things going forward, but according to the New York Times, the HDTV channel lineup on satellite may expand to twelve, and the capacity exists for some rebroadcasting of local HDTV network feeds.
Even the Cable Guy is Getting On Board. Slowly. We think.
After years of providing fuzzy analog signals, rate hikes, and poor service, cable wasn't about to break their streak and get in early providing their customers with HDTV.** This "HDTV? What's that?" stance did have some technical merit - there's no way to stuff the huge amounts of data HDTV uses onto wimpy analog cable lines. However, having rolled out upgraded digital service (not necessarily better, just digital) around much of the country, that is no longer a legitimate sticking point. And after this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Big Cable finally decided to get on board. Sort of. According to several reports, cable execs were spotted wandering around CES mumbling angrily how all the display manufacturers were aligned with their satellite arch enemies. When confronted, the display manufacturers pointed out the simple fact that you can't get HDTV on cable, you can on satellite, and they have to display HDTV on an HDTV set to properly demonstrate its capabilities. Fair enough.
Then the cable execs did some simple math. Like many businesses, their most profitable customers are the ones who upgrade to the most expensive programming packages. And these are precisely the same folks who are early adopters of HDTV. So, if the cable companies don't want to permanently lose their best customers to satellite, they need to adopt HDTV, and they made an announcement to that effect. A very vague announcement. They basically said that the top ten cable companies will start delivering some HDTV to their digital cable customers by January 1, 2003. Details - such as exactly what will happen this coming New Years - were lacking, though they did say that they will make space for as many as five channels.
Without details, all is speculation (but that's what I'm here for, no?). You will likely need a separate digital cable box - likely replacing your spiffy new FCC mandated HDTV tuner. The connection standard will probably be DVI, which Big Cable's technical committee decided on earlier this year. DVI cannot be recorded, so it is unknown how D-VHS or Replay/TiVo would interoperate if a Firewire port isn't also on the HDTV cable box, though integrated TiVo functionality may well be part of the feature set of the set top box itself. It's also undetermined whether analog outputs will be provided, or whether an HDTV-Cable-Ready set will require a DVI input. You’d think they’d have to include analog inputs, given the 3 million HDTV capable sets already sold which don't have DVI, but don't underestimate copyright paranoia. If analog outputs are included, the resolution on them may be deliberately lowered, making it not-so-high-def after all.
In terms of content, it's likely to be similar to satellite: HBO, Showtime, Discovery, and Pay Per View. Cable is in a long running battle against must-carry rules (forcing them to rebroadcast local stations), so they are unlikely to pick up the major networks' digital feeds and force the issue overall.
It's always possible that the satellite merger will go smoothly, HDTV subscriptions will take off, and, to compete, cable will get consumer friendly in a hurry. In this magical fantasy land, the cable companies push Hollywood to accept gear with consumer-friendly copy protection, they broadcast all the HDTV they possibly can - including the major networks - and give lollipops to all the world's children. Historically, "consumer," "friendly," and "cable" are not three words that go together.
What does it all mean?
About six months ago, I was fairly certain that without government intervention, we wouldn't have an HDTV transition at all. Now that we've had government intervention, a transition is definitely underway.
And it's a confusing mess.
Want to watch ER in high definition? NBC will be broadcasting it. But it probably won't be on satellite, and almost definitely won't be on cable. You'll need to live in an area where it's being broadcasted, you'll need an HDTV tuner (either built into your HDTV, or as an add-on), and an antenna - possibly on your roof, depending on how far from the broadcasting tower you live, and the local topography.
What about a movie on HBO? HBO is broadcasting it. If you have satellite service, you'll need a second dish ($200) and an upgraded receiver/tuner box (as low as $500), and you're all set. Get a model with a Firewire port and a matching DVHS VCR, and you can even record the show and watch it later. But even if cable makes good on their latest HDTV promises, the scenario may look like this: you'll need to live in an area served by one of the top ten cable companies, and in a municipality that's been upgraded to digital service. Then you'll need an HDTV cable receiver (price unknown), and a TV with a DVI input. Forget about recording the show to watch it later, and if the HDTV you bought doesn't have a DVI port, that movie might not be in high definition after all.
This may take a while.
*The 9/11 attacks human tragedy included several technicians maintaining the World Trade Center’s broadcasting facilities. The WTC hosted most of the metro area’s broadcasting capabilities; analog broadcasts have been restored at the Empire State Building and in Alpine, New Jersey, but additional antenna space for digital broadcasting simply isn’t available at this time. The local metro PBS station, WNET, began transmitting HDTV again in July from a temporary spot in Midtown Manhattan, but its reach is limited. (Correction, added 9/26/02) CBS is still broadcasting its HDTV programming in Manhattan from the Empire State Building.
**While that's true around the country, it's not entirely true in a few areas. The New York Times did some HDTV cable sleuthing, and they report that "some cable operators — including Charter, Cox and AT&T — have added high-definition channels to their digital packages. A customer's location makes a critical difference. Time Warner in New York City offers five channels with high-definition programming — WCBS, WNBC, WNET, HBO and Showtime — while just a few miles away on Long Island, Cablevision transmits only three, HBO, MSG and the local Fox Sports cable channel." But Cablevision here in Northern New Jersey doesn't provide any HDTV at all.
CRT - CRT = Cathode Ray Tube, the good old electron guns used for televisions for decades. It's a mature technology, and still can provide the richest images, and deepest blacks of any display device. Most rear projection televisions use 7" tubes. Front projectors may use 7" tubes, 8" tubes for higher resolution, or expensive 9" tubes for full HDTV resolution and that looking-out-a-window feeling. CRTs are also large, heavy, difficult to install and set up, not very bright (you need a pitch black room and a relatively small screen), and require touch-ups by professionals every now and then. Industrial front projectors based on CRTs are becoming obsolete, and used models can be had at bargain prices.
DLP – Digital Light Processing – a technology popularized by Texas Instruments that bounces light from an expensive light bulb off of a chip. Most consumer and business DLP machines use a single chip, which is covered with hundreds of thousands of tiny mirrors. The light then passes through a rapidly spinning color wheel, through a lens, out into the air, and onto your screen. Commercial movie theaters moving to digital displays use three chip DLP models with higher brightness and without the need for a color wheel.
Grey bar burn in - regular TV is square. HDTV is rectangular. When you display a square inside a rectangle, you have unused area on either side of the picture. While there are several methods of stretching the square into a rectangle, none of them are perfect, so many people end up with black or grey bars on the sides of the image. On any television using tube technology (CRT), these bars can "burn in" and appear semi-transparent over the rest of your image. Forever. A DLP device creates an image by rotating mirrors up and back - they don't get stuck en masse, so with a DLP RPTV there's no need to worry about burn in.
HDTV - High Definition TV. Sharp images, a wide screen, and digital sound. When done right, it can take on a "looking out the window" quality. Digital television can comes in 18 different flavors, but only two resolutions are considered high definition:
RPTV - Rear Projection TV. You know, a traditional "big screen" TV. Comes in a giant box, inside of which is a CRT and a mirror. The CRT projects the image from the rear of the screen (which you see through), hence the name.
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© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart