Comcast Enters HD Quality Dispute

May 2, 2007  •  Post A Comment

This week Comcast launched a major ad campaign that opened a new battlefront in the HD service provider war: comparative picture quality.
Touting a study by Frank N. Magid Associates, Comcast took out full-page newspaper ads in 15 markets claiming its HD picture quality is superior to satellite competitors DirecTV and Dish.
“We always knew we offered more HD choices, and we always thought we had more convenient HD service and better HD picture quality, but now we can prove it by a fairly overwhelming margin,” said Page Thompson, senior VP and general manager of video services at Comcast.
Though Comcast said the study has been long planned, the ads could be seen as a response to DirecTV’s ongoing television campaign featuring celebrities touting the satellite provider’s HD service as better than cable. Cable operator Time Warner has filed lawsuits over the DirecTV ads, claiming they’re false advertising.
“They’re talking about service they’ll have in the future because the product they have today doesn’t compare,” Mr. Thompson said.
When DirecTV’s campaign started late last year, the satellite provider initially claimed to have a superior HD picture quality. But a New York federal judge upheld Time Warner’s objection to the seemingly unverifiable claim in February and the ad was changed. Current DirecTV ads claim the satcaster will “soon” have more HD channels than cable, a boast that has withstood a legal challenge.
But while Time Warner was busy filing lawsuits, Comcast commissioned a study to try to prove, once and for all, who has the best picture.
The study was conducted in March, with 309 subjects showed side-by-side images from DirecTV, Dish and Comcast on identical TV sets. To eliminate set bias, the HD signals were rotated among the sets. Subjects were shown various genres of programming from different networks.
To help protect the study from legal challenges, Comcast tapped Magid to conduct the test; Accenture, a technology consulting company, to oversee the technical aspects; and Loeb & Loeb, a national law firm, for legal guidance on the survey process.
The result: 66 percent preferred Comcast to DirecTV, and 70 percent preferred Comcast to Dish.
A DirecTV spokesman questioned the validity of the results, noting there are several ways picture quality could be skewed: the equipment used, instructions given to subjects, the content chosen and whether the Comcast signal at the test location was representative of the cable operator’s markets as whole.
“There’s not much substance here,” spokesman Robert Mercer said. “While they’re making claims about their signal clarity, the methodology of the survey seems questionable at best.”
Mr. Mercer added that an independent company surveyed home theater installers last year, who said, by a 4-to-1 margin, that DirecTV had the best signal quality.
As for whether DirecTV will take the Time Warner route and file a lawsuit to halt the picture-quality claim, Mr. Mercer said, “We’re evaluating our options.”
A Dish Network representative had no comment.
In addition to the newspaper ads, Comcast plans a radio and online ad campaign to tout the results of its study.
The Comcast ads were greeted with cheers from HD online fan communities—even from satellite subscribers—who are pleased that top-notch HD picture quality is becoming a point of contention among service providers.
For years HD fans have debated the picture quality of HD providers. As bandwidth-strapped providers have added more HD networks to remain competitive, some sharp-eyed viewers claim signal compression is causing visible quality degradation.
Though fans definitely want more HD channels, some say they do not want content at the expense of what made them fall in love with HD in the first place: its startling, lifelike images. Dismissive statements by service providers that all HD is the same, or that, as one DirecTV executive once put it, “Viewers don’t watch the back of their TVs,” have further frustrated fans.
With Comcast, the country’s largest cable operator, making picture quality a battleground issue, fans hope its competitors will soon follow suit.
“I think it’s outstanding Comcast did this,” said one poster on AVS Forum.
“As a DirecTV customer, this makes me very happy,” enthused another.
Comcast still must contend with DirecTV’s planned barrage of 100 HD channels by the end of the year, though Mr. Thompson reiterated that quality matters more than quantity.
“Our plan is to launch every HD channel that really matters to our customers,” he said. “To put out an arbitrary number of HD channels without regard for the quality of the channels seems like a strange strategy.
“In addition to the channels, we have 100 HD video-on-demand hours. We’ll double that by the end of the year and double again by the end of next year.”
(Editor: Horowitz)

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