The New Television: HDTV owner confesses

Nov 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Almost every day someone asks me, “Should I buy a high-definition TV?”
I wish I had a simple answer, but it’s a “Yes, but … ” question. You know a “Yes, but …” question, don’t you? For instance, “Do you like beans with your chili?” The answer is always, “Yes, but …”
Since buying a 38-inch wide-screen high-definition TV a year ago, I’m still not sure if I did the right thing. The television, which cost nearly $3,000, plus several hundred more for accessories, is the most exciting consumer electronics product I have ever owned. However, at times it’s also the most frustrating, leading me to question my initial purchase. Being on the cutting edge can sometimes leave you bleeding.
To date HDTV sales have been somewhat disappointing, though they are improving. Strategy Analytics, a research firm, forecasts that 4.8 million U.S. homes will own a high-def set by year-end. But I believe that sales would soar if so many current owners didn’t have to answer, “Yes, but …”
However, I thought I would share my experiences as an HDTV owner and let you decide.
So, should you buy a high-definition television?
The high-definition picture is truly remarkable. For instance, during an HDTV broadcast of a baseball game, you can clearly read the words, “Louisville Slugger,” on a hitter’s bat. In fact, the picture is so precise that actors hire special makeup artists to cover up imperfections before they appear in a HDTV broadcast, such as “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Sometimes, the extra treatment is not enough. A top actress, considered one of America’s sexiest stars, has had a skin problem dating back to high school. In HDTV, you can actually see the pockmarks in her cheeks. (Some Hollywood officials believe that HDTV could eventually change our perception of who’s beautiful and who’s not.) For an HDTV owner, it’s like being a member of an exclusive club; you can see things that few others can.
But …
There are fewer than a dozen channels now broadcasting in HDTV. CBS and ABC air most of their prime-time lineups in HDTV, but NBC offers just a handful of shows, and Fox doesn’t broadcast anything in true high-def. The programming is so skimpy that you find yourself watching shows in HDTV that you otherwise would ignore to justify your investment. Plus, to get the HDTV signals of the local channels, you need to install a rooftop antenna that costs anywhere from $100 to $300. And there’s no guarantee that your antenna will pick up each station’s digital signal; it depends on the strength of the antenna and your location. In Santa Monica, Calif., where I live, I haven’t seen PBS’s HDTV feed for months, and my NBC feed goes out more often than the Barbie Twins.
Prices of HDTV sets have dropped approximately 50 percent over the past two years. In some stores you can now purchase a high-def TV for less than $2,000, which was once the price of a big-screen projection TV.
But …
The price is still not right, particularly in a down economy. The price barrier gets higher, too, when you add the cost of the rooftop antenna and perhaps a satellite dish. (DirecTV and EchoStar offer HDTV feeds of HBO and Showtime, while some cable operators have yet to add any HDTV channels.) In addition, cable and satellite operators have not been “HDTV-friendly.” For instance, DirecTV this year added a Showtime HDTV channel, but you could only get the signal if you added a third feed horn to your dish (at an additional cost). AT&T Broadband recently killed plans to charge Seattle customers a $75 access fee for just signing up for HDTV. Although the plan was shelved, several other cable operators charge a monthly fee for HDTV service.
For the HDTV owner, life should get better. More channels, including ESPN, have said they will add HDTV programming in the next year or so. Sony has announced that it will soon launch a new digital video recorder that permits owners to record shows in HDTV, a feature not currently available.
But …
Hollywood is lobbying Congress to adopt anti-copying regulations that could make current HDTV sets obsolete. The studios are concerned that consumers will sell illegal copies of HDTV shows on the black market. Proposed legislation could make it impossible for a current HDTV owner to record certain programs.
So there you have it: no ifs, but plenty of buts. HDTV is the most remarkable advance in TV technology since color. But whether consumers will buy it depends on humans, not technology. The industry must offer more programming, fewer restrictions and lower prices. When that happens HDTV will indeed become a reality.
Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. He can be reached at swann@TVPredictions .com.