Bit Rate

HD: Quantity First

5/10/2008 1:47 AM

Got a new HDTV set. It’s sharpened my thinking about the quality-vs.-quantity debate. I’m now squarely in the camp of HD tonnage being the priority, rather than picture quality per se.

A few months back, the inexpensive, off-brand flat-panel (Maxent) I’d bought at Costco two years ago fried itself. Screen just turned a nauseating shade of putting-green green. Of course, I hadn’t bought extended warranty coverage.

Figured I could hold out for a bit using our 15-year-old JVC analog set. Yeah, the thing has a 19-inch screen. Looks good enough, though, right?

Well, our 2-year-old didn’t seem to care — Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! still isn’t in HD, for some reason. (Although Wubbzy’s blocky-style animation looks pretty good on the big screen.)

Somehow I watched the Giants mount the most amazing Super Bowl comeback ever, without feeling too annoyed. Then I was watching a Mets game about a month ago and thought, "This could be soooo much better."

Went to Best Buy, picked out a nice 32-inch Toshiba LCD in about 10 minutes. (On sale; think they were trying to clear inventory.)

Plugged it in at home and… it’s like discovering HD all over again. What I’ve noticed this time around is: I don’t really watch any of the SD channels anymore. (Except for the Disney, Nick and Noggin shows favored by the under-5 demo here.)

Cablevision offers about 40 HD channels, but, 15 of those are the VOOM networks. OK, VOOM’s Monsters HD had The Lair of the White Worm on the other day — starring a young Hugh Grant! – but I couldn’t tell you the channel number. (Just checked - 777… good mnemonic.)

Now, does relative HD picture quality – which Verizon pushes hard in marketing FiOS TV — affect my viewing choices?

Not really. What I mean is, any one of the HD channels looks better than any of the SDs. The most important thing is whether it’s in 16:9 HD format in the first place.

Take CNN HD. Not all the video on CNN HD is in high-def, particularly many of the field reports. But the studio programs (i.e., Anderson Cooper 360º, Election Center) are in HD. And even if the video in the center of the screen is SD, CNN makes use of the 16:9 screen real estate with tickers, election returns and other infographics.

The bottom line? 

“People are going to expect everything to be in high-definition,” Massillon Cable TV president Bob Gessner told me this week. “The only way to meet that expectation is to start now.”

He’s right. And Massillon, a midsize operator in northeast Ohio, is starting now — with an analog-reclamation project using relatively low-cost digital-to-analog converters. Shutting off 75 analogs will let Massillon offer at least 150 new HD channels. If I were one of Gessner’s customers, I’d be sticking with him.