By Walter S. Ciciora,
Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on
Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues
The hot topic in cable at the NCTA (National Cable and Telecommunications Association) appears to be HDTV. HDTV is very good for cable. It appeals to the high-end subscriber who has the interest in video and the money to pay for it. There is an opportunity for additional fees for optional services. Also, HDTV gives cable back the bandwidth advantage that standard definition television (SDTV) tends to take away. While analog signals prevented Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) from being interesting, digital compression allowed DBS to be a contender, even with its limited bandwidth. But if HDTV became pervasive, the selection on DBS would be materially reduced. While cable would lose some of its program capacity, it has so much bandwidth that the "lost" channels would not be missed. Pervasive HDTV might even prevent video over twisted pairs from starting. The hope of that limited bandwidth was more efficient compression of NTSC. HDTV goes in the wrong direction for twisted pair service.

HDTV has important political benefits. The FCC and Congress are frustrated with the slow progress in digital broadcast and consumer electronics. Before long, more HDTV will be available on cable than broadcast or satellite. And more viewers will enjoy HDTV via cable. That's because cable has the video-oriented audience, those who love TV. Cable also tends to attract the higher end of the economic spectrum, while also including those at the other end. Basic cable is a good value, while having optional extras for those who want more.

Technically, HDTV works on cable. The same is harder to say about over-the-air. There are several efforts to improve the 8-VSB modulation scheme used in broadcast, while remaining somewhat compatible with the "legacy" product already installed in consumer's homes. Fortunately, cable's more controlled signal environment avoids these problems.

There are some issues with HDTV. Probably the most troublesome are the copy protection issues which I've written about before and won't repeat here. Next on the list is the problem of the display. The subscriber is likely to want to watch analog channels, SDTV and HDTV on the same display and with the same audio equipment. That presents a problem. While the HDTV will look terrific (assuming we don't get too aggressive with compression and try to squeeze three and four HDTV signals in 6 MHz!), the SDTV and the analog signals may be disappointing. Go to a high-end television store and watch some HDTV. Then ask to see something like CNN in analog or an SDTV signal. The results may be an unpleasant surprise. If that happens to you, think what the subscriber reaction will be. You are not likely to hear thanks for the great HDTV pictures. You are more likely to be accosted with complaints about the analog and SDTV pictures!

The sound is yet another problem. The HDTV signal will likely have 5.1 channel surround sound. There are even 6.1 and 7.1 versions! The SDTV and especially the analog programming will be rather anemic in comparison.

A recent experience drove this problem home rather forcefully for me. One of the programs we watch (via TiVo, of course) is "Malcolm in the Middle." This is a very clever and creative comedy with a lot of strange twists. My son got a DVD version of the complete first season. We watched and listened to it and came away with some surprising observations. One observation is how nice it is to not have to skip over the commercials–there aren't any on the DVD. Another is that the picture quality on the DVD is rather nice–not a major step over SDTV or analog–but a little bit of an improvement.

The shocker was the sound. The surround sound was markedly better and added a lot to the enjoyment of the show. In fact, the introduction of each episode includes a theme song. I couldn't understand the last word of the theme song, even though I've heard it dozens of times from the cable programming. But I got it the very first time it came through via digital surround sound. I was surprised.

So here is the "more." Technology for compatibly adding surround sound digital audio to NTSC exists. Because we are likely to have analog channels around for some time to come, surround sound digital audio would help reduce the gap between analog programming and HDTV on the big screen home theater. The burden is less than it may seem because the audio is present at the signal source for most new programming. The set-top box which drives the big high-resolution display can include decoding for the digital surround signal and a very modest cost increment. Since nearly all HDTV displays are monitors requiring a separate set-top box for signal detection, the HDTV displays are not rendered obsolete by the addition of digital surround sound. Ordinary television receivers would happily put out the analog sound, while the big screen would have big sound.

Viewers are having their ears recalibrated with DVDs played on large screens and surround sound systems. They will want this quality of sound on most, if not all, channels. Anything less will bring complaints. Sound will become even more important.

The DVD set had "bonus features" which I found very enjoyable. A separate audio track included comments from the writers and director. They explained why they wrote the script as they did and called attention to subtleties that might have been otherwise missed. This feature added a great deal to the enjoyment of the program. It was true "interactive television" (iTV). I'm not sure how it could be added to live programming since the best way to enjoy the bonus was to first watch the program without it, then watch it with the bonus turned on. Maybe that's the role for the Personal Video Recorder.

The day may even come when the consumer electronics industry realizes that cable is the best motivation for new television product purchases.

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