The New Television: Touchdown for HDTV

Jan 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Who was the biggest winner in Sunday’s Super Bowl?
The consumer electronics industry.
Several newspapers reported last week that consumers were sprinting into stores like Jerry Rice to buy high-definition televisions and other big-screen TVs. The Oakland Tribune reported that two Raiders fans who were considering attending the game instead ended up buying a 65-inch HDTV-ready digital set priced at $3,000.
Baka Ebadi, a Circuit City manager in Emeryville, Calif., sounded almost frightened as he described the frenzied scene at his store. “Customers are coming in and they don’t want to shop around,” Ebadi said.
It looks as though the consumer electronics industry has finally found a way to sell HDTV.
Just hold a Super Bowl every week.
Well, not quite. But there are lessons the CE industry can learn from last week’s sales blitz.
Keep your eye on the ball: Who is most likely to buy an expensive, bulky, big-screen HDTV? Well, the male sports fan, of course, as has been the case with many other recent TV-based technologies, such as small satellite dishes. Networks such as CBS, NBC and Mark Cuban’s HDNet are now broadcasting big games in HDTV, and ESPN is scheduled to start this spring. The CE industry needs to do a better job of getting the word out.
Promote all big events: Many consumers bit the bullet last week because ABC was broadcasting the game in HDTV, a fact that was heavily publicized in the media. Fox, which had the Super Bowl last year, showed it in standard definition because network owner Rupert Murdoch apparently believes that HDTV is a waste of money. Fox does not broadcast a single program in high def, including sports and specials.
Pity the poor salesman who had to peddle digital TVs during last year’s Super Bowl week.
The Super Bowl is the most-watched TV program of the year, with viewership in more than 80 million U.S. homes. For many people, the lure of watching the Raiders battle the Buccaneers on a 65-inch screen with exquisite detail was irresistible.
But the CE industry needs to encourage the networks to broadcast more special events in high def. And by “encourage” I mean they need to pony up their advertising and sponsorship dollars. It’s more expensive to produce a show in HDTV. The networks can’t do it alone.
And when a big event is broadcast in high def, the CE industry should heavily promote that fact. CBS will, for instance, air next month’s Grammys in HDTV, which could help attract female buyers as well as males. (Although the prospect of watching Keith Richards in high definition could turn off some buyers.)
Don’t let Murdoch off the hook: The CE industry has been sharply critical of the cable TV industry for being slow to deliver HDTV signals. (Several cable operators rolled out HDTV channels late last year, 12 to 18 months after the two major satellite providers did.) However, the Consumer Electronics Association, the industry’s trade group, and other HDTV advocates, such as the Federal Communications Commission, have been oddly quiet about Murdoch.
But the Fox Network, as I stated before, does not broadcast anything in high def. Nothing. That policy has had an enormous negative impact on HDTV sales, particularly during last year’s big game.
“When I invested in this [HDTV set] I was looking forward to the big Super Bowl party at the house with the wide-screen HDTV, and understanding that wasn’t the case was a big letdown,” HDTV owner Trevor Stout told TechTV, the TV technology channel.
Fox airs everything from the NFL to highly rated shows and specials such as “American Idol” and “The Simpsons.” Consumers who are thinking about buying a new digital TV might think twice when they learn that one of the four major networks has turned its back on the technology.
If the CE industry and the FCC are going to be consistent, they must put greater public pressure on Murdoch and Fox to begin broadcasting in high definition. If it doesn’t, the other networks could justifiably argue that they shouldn’t broadcast in high def either.
In fact, CBS’s Viacom recently threatened to pull its high-def feeds unless the FCC approves a plan that would let the studios block Internet redistribution of broadcast signals. Why not just add Murdoch’s refusal to broadcast shows in HDTV to its list of complaints?
The CE industry should be pleased by last week’s increase in HDTV sales. But like many football teams, including Sunday’s big loser, the industry had better learn from its successes as well as its mistakes.
Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. He can be reached at Swann@TVPredictions.com.