The Resolution Will Not Be Televised

Posted by Arlo on Dec 20, 2007 under Life of Arlo, Thought Objects

Oksana in front of the new HDTV

Right around the holiday season last year, I noticed that HDTVs on the market were finally starting to combine all of the best features. Full 1080p resolution, low-latency/burn-in free LCD panels, built-in HDTV tuners, 1920×1200 RGB support; it looked like it was almost time for me to enter the market. Oksana always said I could get an HDTV when the price dropped to $1500…

I decided that 2007 would be the year we upgraded, but we had to wait until August 20th before we found the model with the right price/performance ratio.

Months before, Costco had sent out a mailer with upcoming coupons. There it was, finally! $200 off a 52-inch Vizio with all the features above and more. Waiting three months was torture.

I researched everything I could about the Vizio and its competitors. There were few other 52″ models on the market and the only other two I entertained buying were from Sony and Sharp. Both were probably better than the Vizio, but they both cost at least $1500 more, too.

As the magical date neared, I began seeing reviews of the Vizio appear online. Apparently some Costco warehouses were selling the TVs before the coupon went active. On Friday, August 17th, I went to my own Costco for a look-see. Sure enough, on the top shelf, four giant boxes sat wrapped in cellophane – they had the 52″ in stock three days before I could use the coupon.

I decided to see if I could pull a fast one. I talked to one of the floor managers, asked him if I could buy one that day and then “price match” it the following Monday with my coupon. In effect, I would pay $200 more, but get that $200 refunded after the weekend. Unfortunately, not only wouldn’t he do the price matching, not only wouldn’t he even sell me the TV, he wouldn’t even let me reserve one! “I’m sorry, we only have 4 of them in stock and if they’re already sold out when the coupon drops, my customers will kill me.” His suggestion? “Just be there when the doors open at 10am and you’ll be sure to get one.”

Come Monday morning, I humbly begged my boss to skip out on a big, campus-wide meeting to stand in line at Costco. Oksana borrowed a minivan from work and we got to the warehouse about 10 minutes before the big steel doors rolled up. Oksana was embarrassed; I was fine. It wasn’t like we camped out there all night.

As soon as the doors opened, I grabbed a pallet cart, flashed my membership card and went straight to the HDTV section. A Vizio box was right there on the front corner. Oksana and levered it onto our cart. I looked around for the display model, to see what it looked like when it was set up. Then I looked everywhere else, trying to spot the other three boxes. Nada. Either the floor manager let someone buy them over the weekend, or employees had already snatched them up.

We took our new HDTV straight home and then returned to our respective workplaces. We were leaving for a vacation in three days; we barely had time to set up our new toy, let alone enjoy it.

When we got back 10 days later, it was time to spend more money. You can’t just jump into the HDTV market by buying a new TV. Think it through: If you want to take advantage of all that resolution, you’re going to have to shell out for more hardware. Oksana and I had already budgeted for:

  • (1) 52″ 1080p LCD HDTV = $2050

  • (1) 80GB Sony PlayStation 3 (for the Blu Ray format, a next-generation DVD) = $600

  • (2) New bookcases to hold all the stuff on our old entertainment system = $300

  • (1) 750GB hard drive, 1 wireless keyboard for our entertainment system’s PC computer = $250

  • (1) New HDTV cable package = $21 / month

  • (1) Subscription to Blockbuster Online = $15 / month

  • (1) Set of HDTV cables = $75

  • (1) New power strip = $35

  • (1) New entertainment system = $ ??

I expected Oksana to balk at the price list. Going $500 over the “You can buy it when it hits $1500″ price just for the HDTV didn’t help. Her only comment? “If we’re going to be buying a TV that’s going to last us 5 or 10 years, wouldn’t it make more sense to just amortize the extra $1500 on the better Sony model?” Guys, don’t ever think marrying an accountant is a bad thing.

Our old entertainment center scattered to the four corners of the apartment

We didn’t tell any of our friends about our new purchases. When we returned, I spent most of a week cannibalizing our old entertainment system (because we couldn’t find a single decent HDTV stand that met all our needs) to make a platform for our new 110-pound TV. I hooked everything up, plugged in the cable box, the surround sound receiver, both DVD players, a 200-disc CD changer, both Sony PlayStations (2 and 3), and my old “TiFaux.” Everything patched together elegantly… except for the mess of cables webbing the TV stand to the audio pier.

That Friday, when everyone was due for our weekly social gathering, we fired up a visually stunning game called flOw on the PlayStation 3 and watched people’s reactions as they came through the door. Greetings were dropped mid-sentence. Profanities were uttered. It made keeping the secret for three weeks all worthwhile.

Now that we’ve enjoyed our purchase for a few months, I feel like I can comment on the new quality-of-viewing HDTV offers.

First, Blu Ray is awesome! For my birthday, my mom bought me Planet Earth in that format and it’s stunning. HD movies look great, too. Once you’ve seen 1080p, there’s no going back.

GCI’s HDTV cable package is anemic, to say the least. They advertise that it’s only $6.99 a month to get HDTV, but what they don’t mention is that the new cable box / DVR combo costs an additional $15. What does your 22 bucks a month get you? Well, not the promised NFL games, I can tell you that. The NFL network is one of your 8-or-so channels, but they’re not allowed to broadcast any games live. ESPN HD is also on there, but they’ve got what, one Thursday night game a week?

To make matters worse, much of the content on their other HD channels are still broadcasting standard definition content. None of the networks (NBC, FOX, ABC, CBS, CW) are high def. It’s annoying and probably a waste of money. But even so, I must admit that when you do manage to catch an HD movie, it looks stunning.

Standard definition, what the broadcasters refer to as NTSC, looks terrible on our new TV. We’re taking a low-resolution picture with many digital and/or analog imperfections and blowing it up on a massive 52″ screen. Every stray pixel, each blurry edge, is magnified six times. It’s awful. But unlike Joe Consumer, I actually expected my $2000 purchase to worsen TV viewing experience, at least in that respect.

Which brings me to my rant on the state of HDTV today…

Ten years or so ago, we had one television standard in the United States: NTSC. It was pretty much terrible, but at least it was a standard. It worked with every television set.

Then congress decided that the government needed to reclaim a certain range of radio frequencies in the broadcast spectrum. No problem, newer digital technologies allow us to convert old analog signals into 1s and 0s and compress them into a smaller package while doing so. Congress was ready to mandate that every single broadcaster in the U.S. purchase new equipment, but they knew that would be an uphill battle. Instead, they mollified them all by illustrating the advantages of going digital. “You’re getting a smaller slice of the spectrum, but by using digital compression, you can actually ‘fit’ more video in that smaller space!”

So congress set a date… and it passed without full adoption. Then they set a new date, and it passed, too. Now the deadline is February 17th, 2009. We’ll see how that one goes.

Don’t worry. You only have to buy a $2000 HDTV set if you want to! You can keep your old 1970 Zenith oak-paneled floor model television set. If and when the last broadcasting and cable company switch over to digital-only, you’ll be able to buy a little $20 converter box (kind of like those old coax-to-RF y-clamp antennae converters we had to use to get our Ataris working.)

So, what’s the problem? The whole digital conversion thing is good for our country, right? We can finally leave standard definition, NTSC video behind!

Not so fast.

It’s a common misconception that congress is pushing us towards HDTV. Not true. They only said we have to go digital. “Digital” is a very nebulous concept in the TV world.

By not dictating a new standard, congress opened the doors to media mega-corporations like Sony, Panasonic, JVC, and even Microsoft. It seems like every company out there has a different opinion on what the next generation television format should be. Currently we have 18 (eighteen!) broadcast “standards” split among three broad resolution categories: SDTV, EDTV, and HDTV (standard-, enhanced-, and high-def.) Gee, thanks congress. Now I can’t even tell if the new TV I bought can display what I want to watch.

It gets worse. We all want HDTV, right? Better picture, surround sound, thin televisions you can hang on your wall, abandoning a standard that was developed in the 1930s… what’s not to like? Well, congress knew it would be impossible to get broadcasters to convert all the equipment in their stations to new format. Can you imagine how much it would cost even a tiny rural TV station to convert everything – from cameras, to editors, to tape playback machines, to the actual broadcasting equipment – to HDTV? There would have been a rebellion.

So they just said “convert to digital.” When stations balked at even that, congress reminded them that they were actually getting more room in their little piece of the spectrum. What to convert your signal to HD? Go right ahead, you’ve got the overhead now. Want to keep all your standard definition equipment and just broadcast it digitally? Be our guest. Want to keep all your standard definition equipment and then split your new digital pipeline four ways, creating three new channels, and therefore quadrupling your advertising revenue? By all means.

It wasn’t hard to get them on board after that.

It makes more business sense for a station to keep their standard definition signal. Spend millions converting a whole studio to HDTV and then essentially keep producing the same content, but at a higher quality? Will that really gain you a bigger viewing audience… especially with the current slow consumer HDTV adoption rate? How will you pay for all that equipment?

On the other hand, if you keep using your old equipment to capture and produce your shows, all you need to buy is one analog-to-digital converter. Slap that in the path just before your signal leaves the station and you’re done. Not much to pay for and the viewers you have won’t notice any real difference. (Well, except for a few pixelization artifacts replacing the old vertical roll and static snow).

With the easy retrofit complete, the station is left to contemplate the rest of their unused spectrum. Most opt to create new channels out of that space… if they can find content for them. Of course, the professionals they’d hired to produce shows on their original channel are already working at capacity, so they need to look elsewhere. Maybe hire some aspiring amateurs…

500 channels and nothing on.

That’s the state of television today, and it sucks for the consumer. It’s my opinion that congress has unwittingly encouraged our television content producers to quadruple their output, thereby lowering their overall quality. What’s worse, any station that’s gone down this not-so-hypothetical path has painted themselves into a standard definition corner. How can they ever move up to HDTV now? Not only would they still have to find a way to buy all new equipment, but they’d also have to ditch three-out-of-four of their ad-money-generating channels to free up enough room to broadcast just one HDTV signal.

Oh, well. Maybe it’s time to give up on broadcast TV. Blockbuster Online is doing alright by us with their Blu Ray rentals, and when you have a PC hooked up to your living room entertainment system, the Internet offers plenty of HD viewing options, too.

And just for the record, despite congress’s best efforts, our new HDTV is worth every bit of that $2000!