Pix Are Pretty, But HD Delay Bugs Viewers

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As NBC viewers Thursday afternoon watched a flag-draped Mia Hamm and the U.S. women’s soccer team celebrate their gold-medal victory over Brazil at the Summer Olympics, those watching NBC’s dedicated HDTV feed from Athens got to see a quarterfinal track and field event that had been recorded a day earlier.

U.S. viewers never got a chance to see the soccer match — one of the highlights of the 2004 games — in high-definition, as NBC said it was only able to broadcast in HD from a handful of venues, including track and field, gymnastics, swimming and basketball.

Even if the soccer game had been shot in HDTV, viewers of that channel wouldn’t have been able to see the game live, since NBC’s high-definition channel has carried events from Athens on delays ranging from five to more than 24 hours after the competitions took place.

Complaints about the delayed coverage on the HDTV channels and problems with the picture breaking up during such fast-paced sports as track and field were the two main criticisms from several cable, satellite and over-the-air HDTV owners last week.

“My main disappointment in the Olympics coverage has been the 24-hour plus delay. It’s very obvious that NBC is not producing this HD coverage for the benefit of those who can watch it now,” said Albuquerque, N.M., resident Walter Howerton, who receives the NBC HD feed via an over-the-air signal from local NBC affiliate KOB-TV.

Howerton said NBC runs regular announcements on the HD feed that direct viewers to “be sure to watch your local NBC station for today’s coverage.”

NBC and its cable networks have posted big ratings increases during their coverage of the games, but Nielsen Media Research does not rate the HD channel, distributed by 124 HDTV NBC affiliates, cable operators and satellite providers.

AFFILIATE TIES?

Three industry executives who asked not to be identified said the reason NBC is running limited events on such a long delay from Athens was because of complaints from its stations and affiliates, who said they were concerned that viewership of the HD channel might erode local-station ratings.

NBC spokeswoman Cameron Blanchard declined to comment on whether NBC affiliates pressured the network to run limited events a day late on the HD channel in a bid to protect stations. She said NBC Universal Television Group president Randy Falco was unavailable.

But Blanchard said NBC plans improvements for the HD feed that it will supply from the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.

“We recognize that those people with HDTV want more, and we expect to be able to provide our primetime coverage from Italy in 2006 in all HD, using the same feed and same announcers [as the standard-definition channel],” Blanchard said.

With HDTV sales on the rise as costs continue to fall, some observers were looking at the Athens Games as a watershed event for HDTV programming.

DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. cut deals with NBC earlier this year to offer the games to direct-broadcast satellite customers in markets with NBC-owned stations, and the cable industry, through its “Only Cable Can” campaign, ran a promotion with Panasonic Consumer Electronics this summer, encouraging consumers to buy an HDTV and order an HDTV programming package in time for NBC’s Olympics.

LIKE 'SURVIVOR’ RERUN

But several cable, satellite and over-the-air viewers said they were with disappointed with NBC’s coverage.

“It’s kind of like watching a rerun of Survivor — a tape delay you can live with, but a one-day delay is tough,” said Gene Berkery, a Garden City, N.Y., Cablevision Systems Corp. subscriber who, like many people interviewed for this story, complained that they often knew the results of competitions a day before the HD broadcasts, prompting them to spend more time watching coverage on NBC’s cable networks and standard-definition broadcast.

Berkery and others were contacted after posting on HDTV, cable and satellite message boards on various Web sites.

Berkery said his 10-year-old son enjoys the delayed NBC HD feed, though. “He loves it — he thinks it’s going on right now.”

Bronx, N.Y., resident Sean Mota said his biggest complaint about the NBC’s HD feed from Athens was pixelation, or a breakup in the digital picture.

Mota, an HDTV buff that receives the signal via EchoStar Communications Corp., an over-the-air antenna and Voom, explained that the picture tends to break up during fast-paced sports.

“Swimming competition, diving competition — the water always pixelates, and on track and field there [are] always pixelation problems,” Mota said.

Cablevision subscriber Gareth Bannister said his picture has also broken up during fast-paced sports. “The pictures are good when there are still pictures or a slow pan, but if there are any fast movements, it pixelates to the point that it’s unwatchable,” said Bannister, of Island Park, N.Y.

CHECKING ON BUGS

Blanchard said she did not know what was causing the pixelation problems. “By and large, all of the reports have been very positive. We’ve had a few reports with some issues, and we’re investigating it.”

Chris Hewson, CEO of Manhattan Crewing Company, which helped wire the International Broadcast Center in Athens for NBC, said last Wednesday that the company was working to help resolve some pixelation problems.

“You’re going to see that more with fast-moving sports,” Hewson said. “Anything that is moving is going to be a little more noticeable than something that’s still.”

Not all viewers complained about the picture quality. Los Angeles resident and DirecTV subscriber Fred Farra said his HD picture has broken up occasionally, but said he thought “the pictures are spectacular.”

While Farra praised the picture quality on NBC’s HD feed, he said the programming delay on the HD channel was frustrating at times. As a result, Farra said he and his family have spent most of their Olympic viewing time watching NBC’s standard-definition coverage.

But he said occasionally — such as after Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj won gold in the 1,500 meter race Wednesday night — he tuned in to the HD channel the next day to see the same event in high-definition.

DISH BLACKOUT?

Not all HDTV owners had access to NBC’s HDTV feed. Bradford, Vt., resident Walt Mather said he has subscribed to EchoStar’s high-definition package for six months, but that the only broadcast HD channel available in his market is the local CBS station.

Spokesman Marc Lumpkin said EchoStar’s Dish Network offers the NBC Olympics HD feed in 90 DMAs. He said an agreement the company cut with NBC allowed it to offer the HD feed to subscribers in markets with NBC owned-and-operated stations, and in markets where cable operators have HD-carriage agreements with local NBC affiliates.

Sean Badding, an analyst at The Carmel Group, said he expects NBC will improve its HD capabilities in time for the 2006 Olympics.

“This Olympics is the watershed year for HDTV, and it’s not perfect to say the least,” Badding said. “I think most consumers are willing to put up with a few minor problems, knowing they will be worked out in the near future.”

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