Thursday, April 20, 2006

The lowdown on our dodgy high-definition screens | The Australian

Well, Thursday is Media day for the Australian so it kind of makes a little sense I'd find all this good stuff there.

Mark Day has a little (albeit justified) whinge about the state of High Definition in Australia, a bit of the history (and stupidity) of its inception and the ridiculous lengths one needs to go to buy a truly HD ready set.

It highlights an issue that I keep bringing up. Us techo's and media types can rant and rave all we like about the digital revolution, Web 2.0, High Definition, digital television, streaming content, podcasting, but for the majority of the public it seems an analog set, a DVD player (for playing rentals from the local video store) and a VHS recorder work just fine to keep them entertained. This is not an indictment on them but rather a wake-up call to those of us who can get a little too excited and ahead of the pack.

The fact is (a phrase I use advisedly, mainly because I hate "the reality is...") that people will not take up this technology in droves because it's just too difficult to make it work straight off the bat. Have a think about VHS recorders when they first came out. Compared to the existing technology of the time the system was really quite simple to set up, the stations were easy to tune in, and the interface was so similar to the audio tape deck controls already familiar to us all that it didn't take long to get the whole thing up and running and used by all my friends at my 10th birthday party to watch a recording of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."

Peripheral bits? Don't know how to set the clock? Not a problem because the core functionality works without it; record and playback analog video, in particular television broadcasts.

Fast forward to 2006.

"When I plugged it in a panel came up on the screen asking if I would like my new toy to search for signals. I gave it a "Yes" and three minutes later I had 17 analog and digital channels locked in with the digitals giving me excellent choices of picture."

So far so good...

"I flicked between Seven SD and Seven HD. It seemed the same to me. Ditto Nine SD and Nine HD."

Uh oh.

"And then I read a speech delivered at the broadcast summit earlier this month by Patrick Delany, Foxtel's executive director of content, development and delivery."

"At a time when HD screens were expensive and HD broadcast material was scarce, all they talked about was HD," he told the summit. "Subsequently all the press talked about was the high cost of HD TVs."

But while the free-to air networks paid lip service to HD, they allowed the official Australian standard for HD to be set at the lowest point, just above standard definition as defined by analog PAL quality. "

Hmmm, standards being set to appease the lowest common denominator. Sound familiar to anyone?

"My new whiz-bang screen will never be able to show full HD because its native resolution is 768 lines and 1230 pixels. It's not true HD but it can legitimately be labelled and sold as HD because our standard is set ridiculously low.

Even if I had shopped around for the ultimate HDTV unit - and only about 10 per cent of widescreens in homes so far are capable of delivering the full deal - I would still be hard pressed to find true HDTV on the airwaves. "

Because let's face facts. When the FTA stations promoted HD to the government (I can still remember Ray Martin telling us all that the picture was so clear it was like looking out a window) it was basically a blatant power grabbing exercise to hold onto as much digital spectrum as possible to squash an infant multicasting industry. Real high definition was an afterthought to maintaining power when the digital revolution finally came.

I've never had much time for high definition as a concept, basically for the above reason. I saw the whole thing as a sham.

Then I got to see real high definition content on a real high definition set. Now I'm a believer. Which is why it's so frustrating to see what's happening to yet another infant technology.

"Now, all this might be confusing and for many people, a barrier to making the first step towards the electronics shops. My neighbours say they can't understand a word of it and argue that their old analog set is good enough anyway, so why bother?"

Yet again, the "Path of Least Resistance" raises its head.

"The bottom line is: unless you ask about the true capability of your screen, and are prepared to pay more than the headlined models, you will have no guarantee you'll get high definition television even if the box the screen comes in says it is."

And that's the sad conclusion to our tale. An inadequate standard allowing shoddy quality. And with each consumer that gets burnt by retailers you wind up with 10 scared away from the experience.

1 comment:

Colin Smith said...

Slight tangent: Y'know, I really love the term "native resolution". It makes me think of a certain famous theatrical speech. ;)

But your conclusion is very correct. I'm one of the 10 scared consumers.