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Brendan Christie on HD naiveté

There was a time when I labored under the mistaken belief that I understood broadcasting technology, and all was well in creation. That was before September's Jackson Hole technology symposium. I have only one thing to say now:...
October 1, 1998

There was a time when I labored under the mistaken belief that I understood broadcasting technology, and all was well in creation. That was before September’s Jackson Hole technology symposium. I have only one thing to say now:

Huh?

To the great unwashed masses, high definition is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Every question gets ten answers and even industry experts can’t agree on what’s pending.

U.S. broadcasters have plans in place for the broadcasting landscape of the future, but they’re all different. NBC is planning for 1080i. ABC wants 720i. PBS will do both. Discovery has no plans for either, but prefers 1080p.

Lines of resolution I understand, but I’m also fairly familiar with the concept of money. That’s where the whole thing falls apart.

While U.S. broadcasters have a digital mandate for 2006, insiders suspect that only 25% of them will meet the deadline. The reason is simple: It’s too expensive. Switch over and increased production costs are a mammoth investment, particularly when consumer demand is still unproven.

Paul Liao, president of Panasonic Technologies, proposed the altruistic notion that technology advances naturally when the changes ‘improve the quality of life’ for consumers. The example he used was the conversion from LPs to CDs. His argument: people bought CDs simply because they offered better quality – and they’ll do the same with HD.

Having worked as a buyer in the music industry during the switch, let me offer this: LPs cost $5 to manufacture and sell for $8. CDs cost $3 and sell for $20. LPs didn’t pull a dinosaur impersonation due to the customer’s discerning ear (or asteroids). Manufacturers made sure lp selection dried up overnight, and customers switched. The importance of quality is relative to economics. That was what the Beta vs. VHS dogfight was all about, and money won, hands down.

The economic model doesn’t translate for HD. Broadcasters are not in a position to force it on consumers. They can’t stop broadcasting in analog or they lose viewers who can’t afford the new technology.

The only incentive they can offer is content. Charles Jablonski, VP of engineering at NBC, said The Tonight Show and Law and Order will be broadcast in HD next season. Will this entice viewers to run out and buy a $25,000 HDTV?

Nope.

It seems to me that the networks are in a bit of a bind. They’re the ones with the money for forays into HD, but the content they’ve been offering recently has driven many viewers to cable. Which viewers will switch to HD first? It’s not likely to be the Melrose Place crowd.

In all likelihood, if HD is forced on consumers it will quickly become unprofitable. If it’s given time to grow naturally and gradually, it will be accepted. Once you’ve seen the images an HD system produces, you’ve seen the future.

It’s just not going to happen by 2006.

Brendan Christie, Assistant Editor

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