Confused about the difference between HD and digital? So are consumers


As the number of high-definition television sets sitting in cable homes continues to rise, a point of confusion remains about the difference between digital cable service and high-definition service.

The confusion stems from fast-and-loose use of terms like “digital television” and “HDTV.” A customer often is left wondering the following: If high-definition TV is digital, and I have digital cable, don’t I have HDTV? A variant: If I just bought a digital TV, and I have digital cable, don’t I have HDTV?

Part of what is missing is the realization that digital as the language of computers has become a very efficient way to transmit information such as video, data and voice. High-definition television contains digitally transmitted information displayed with great picture quality.

Indeed, HDTV is digital – but not all digital is HDTV. Some digital video, like the entirety of the channels in cable’s digital lineups, are digitized and compressed versions of how they began life, i.e., as analog signals – the stuff that’s been around since the first television was introduced 60-plus years ago.

But the digital cable vs. HDTV conundrum is just a ridge in the cavern of confusion about HDTV. Four industries in the critical path to make HDTV a consumer reality – cable, broadcast, consumer electronics and movie studios – must improve their explanations of what is going on.

For every month that these industries don’t work collaboratively to attract consumers, more R&D happens in each sector. Just look at display techniques: There’s plasma (of which not all is HD), tube and projection (front and rear). There are integrated digital sets, or people can buy HD components one piece at a time.

Walk through any retail store, unarmed with information about HDTV, and it gets confusing fast. Even as an industry participant, it’s confusing.

HDTV, as a subset of digital TV, also isolates and magnifies the differences in available high-definition content. There’s cable (which, for now, needs a special set-top box), broadcast (which needs an antenna, or a cable carriage agreement) and DVDs.

Then there are the vast nomenclature issues. At a minimum, there’s standard-definition television (SDTV), which is synonymous with digital cable. There’s enhanced-definition television (EDTV), which is essentially what you see when you watch a DVD on an HDTV.

Then there’s the new beauty on the block, HDTV. With five times more picture information in the signal, we can see the individual threads on the ropes around a boxing ring, the veins on the leaves of a distant tree and even the pockmarks on Charlie Sheen’s face, to paraphrase an HDTV customer speaking to Newsday in March 2003.

To bring clarity to this mess, we, as industry people, need to become conversant about HDTV in its entirety. That means knowing the rudiments of display technologies, connectors, copyright, distribution mechanisms and the conversational walk-through of each. If every member of the four participant industries became an expert in HDTV, that’s several villages worth of explainers and helpers all telling the story.

Put another way, if each of us were able to help the people in our direct sphere of influence – friends, friends of friends, family members – choose which sort of HDTV is best for them this Christmas and what the options of true HDTV programming are, that adds up to a lot more information than was available last Christmas. This is one of those cases where every little bit really does help.

How to do that is the hard part. It takes time, concentration and access to useful instructional materials. It just so happens that the NCTA’s communications department put together a terrific (and thick) handout with information on HDTV. The NCTA also created a website chock-full of consumer-oriented information on HD.

The language we use with regard to digital and HDTV is critical. Having consistency in message and meaning is what can help remove the confusion. Of course, expressing the need for cross-industry collaboration is one thing. We’re all good at saying we need to do a better job of working together. We’ve been saying it for years. But recently there has been some very positive movement between cable and the consumer electronics community. That’s a positive sign.

Doing it is another thing, and it’s the doing that needs to advance. That’s not to say the intent isn’t there already: In many cases, intent is becoming action. But helping our customers and potential customers sort through the confusion and get a better understanding of HDTV starts with each one of us.

Mike Schwartz is SVP, communications, for CableLabs. He is also a member of the board of directors for the Cable Television Public Affairs Association.


COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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