By Jeffrey Krauss,
President of Telecommunications
and Technology Policy
I bought an HDTV set. I really hadn't planned to do this for another year, but my 32-inch NTSC set started having intermittent problems, the kind that a technician was not likely to track down. After a few weeks of use, here are my personal observations on HDTV.

First, on this receiver, HDTV movies are spectacular. But you know what? So are the SD (standard definition) movies on the digital tier. And so are the DVDs.

I bought a 36-inch 4:3 CRT HD receiver. I didn't want to spend the big bucks for a thin LCD display, and I've heard that the projection displays are constantly going out of convergence. My receiver provides great picture quality on all of the digital movie channels. Heavy-duty quality. About 230 pounds of quality, actually. I needed a stronger cabinet to set it on.

I decided to get a 36-inch 4:3 display, selling for about the same price as a 34-inch 16:9 display, after doing a little trigonometry. The 4:3 set adds black letterbox borders to the top and bottom of a widescreen picture. Letterboxed widescreen pictures come out about the same size on a 36-inch 4:3 display as on a 34-inch 16:9 display. But 4:3 pictures come out much bigger. And guess what–there is hardly any widescreen programming on cable compared to 4:3 programming. That may change, but most of the SD movies on the digital tier today are transmitted as 4:3 using pan-and-scan editing.

Installation was a snap. The TV installers brought it on Saturday, and hooked it to the SD digital cable box. They were out the door in 10 minutes. The cable installer brought the HD box on Monday morning, and there was about a half-hour delay in getting the headend to set up the account properly so that the box could be authorized, or he could have been out in 10 minutes, too. All in all, both installations were a positive experience.

The cable technician connected the YPrPb component analog video terminals on the TV to the set-top box. Both the TV and set-top box have DVI connectors, but I understand that the DVI connector on the box won't be activated until a firmware download later in the year. I thought it was very important to get a set with a DVI connector, because of the continuing controversies over copy protection and the broadcast flag. HD receivers that have only the component video connectors are at risk of losing access to some programming, in my opinion. Anyway, I don't know whether a DVI cable will improve the picture quality or not. For movies, it's pretty good already.

But for sports, there could be some improvement. Closeups of football players are great. But as the camera pulls back to a wide angle display of the field, the picture gets perceptibly muddy. I don't know if this is a shortcoming of the current generation of cameras, or due to low light levels, or maybe I'm too critical. Also, wide angle shots of football games on Fox seem to be muddier than the other networks. Or maybe I'm just imagining it, after reading that Fox uses 480p rather than 720p or 1080i for its broadcasts. On the other hand, hockey on the Comcast Sports Network is magnificent.

The sports programming from ESPN-HD is exceptionally ugly. Most of it isn't HD, and it is shot with a 4:3 aspect ratio, but ESPN then stretches the picture to 16:9. Everybody looks really fat. I couldn't figure out how to turn that "feature" off.

Off-air programming, on the other hand, often has a postage stamp appearance. The cable system carries off-air digital broadcasts from the four commercial networks and a PBS station. Much of the programming is shot as 4:3 but is then transmitted by the TV station as a 16:9 picture with black side panels. My TV set takes the 16:9 transmission and adds letterboxing to the top and bottom. So my 36-inch diagonal display is now showing a 4:3 picture with a 30-inch diagonal, enclosed in a black frame several inches wide. The Consumer Electronics Association adopted a standard to deal with this issue, but it's too new to be implemented in current products.

The cable channel numbering for the digital stations bears no relationship to the analog numbering. It's easy to remember that the analog feed of WRC (branded as NBC4 and broadcast on channel 4) is carried on cable as channel 24, but hard to remember that the digital feed is carried on channel 181. This is likely to become an area of friction between cable MSOs and broadcasters.

One local TV station, WRC, has a serious lip synch problem on its digital broadcast. It is now well understood that it takes longer to compress the video information than the audio, and most broadcasters have figured out how to pre-correct for this. The other off-air digital stations don't have this problem.

The biggest problem, however, is the scarcity of HD programming. I get the HBO and Showtime movies, ESPN, Comcast Sports and the five off-airs. Frankly, it would not have been enough to make me buy an HD receiver, if my analog receiver still worked properly. On the other hand, the digital SD movies are better than I expected. The bottom line is that it's safe to buy an HD set now, so long as it has a DVI connector, but waiting a year is OK, too. And as they say, your mileage may vary.

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