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HDTV Forum 2004

I attended the second annual HDTV Forum at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, August 24-26. There were about 338 attendees. This conference is primarily about the display business, but it touched on many of the other aspects of television.

Shifting Standards

FCC wants to complete the transition to all-digital broadcasting so that it can recycle the analog channels, auctioning them off for new wireless services. It was suggested that the money obtained from those licenses could be used to purchase converter boxes for consumers, so that they would be able to view DTV on their old TV sets. However, it has also been suggested that that money be used to pay down the National Debt, to reduce taxes, and to save the Social Security System.

Europe does not yet have a Broadcast Flag. The Studios have much less political power over there. NAB has been attempting to put pressure on the Europeans to conform to the US policy, and have been getting a negative reaction.

During the conference there were many suggestions that the DTV standards will change again. There was a lot of interest in adopting 1080p, and a more aggressive compression encoding (such as MPEG 4 part 10 or WMV). There was even talk of higher resolutions, such as 1600p (seen on the Apple 30in Cinema HD Display).

There was also talk about allowing upgrading of software in tuners with new codecs from the head end or transmitter. This would allow running changes to the television infrastructure in a computer style. I think this would be a very bad thing, based on the horrible record that the computer industry has (particularly Microsoft) in securely managing software updates.

All of these changes will be bad for consumers who buy the current generation of ATSC and DCR DTV sets. I continue to recommend to consumers that they should limit their exposure to new incompatibilities by purchasing displays without tuners. I think it may still be some years before things stabilize enough to justify integrated sets.

From the point of view of the Broadcasters, HDTV only becomes a business when the Advertisers buy in. On some networks, there is no extra charge for commercials in HD. With the exception of special-interest advertisers like Sony, advertisers are not interested in HD commercials. Their research tells them that the extra production expense is not justified.

Tsunami

The most popular metaphor of the conference was tsunami. It first appeared in the presentation of ESPN-HD, and was echoed by many speakers. It is an attractive metaphor for people who have never experienced a real tsunami.

The idea is that the HDTV adoption will be like a powerful wave that will force everyone to replace their TV equipment.

Confusion

Another common theme was confusion. There was a lot of concern that consumers will not get comfortable with this confusing technology. Everyone saw the problems and called for solutions. It is not clear who is in a position to solve the problems.

Most of the people who think that they have an HDTV set do not have an HDTV set.

There were many calls for Consumer Education, in which the Industry will teach Consumers about the new technology. I think instead we need Industry Education, in which we teach Industry how to design systems for Consumers. There is too much jargon. Too many conflicting standards and conventions. There is too much self-interest and bad design.

One speaker said that he is editing a book called HDTV for Dummies. He isn't sure that it will be published because the book is much too complicated.

I have written before about some of this complexity. Here is another example: scaling. The Grand Alliance and the FCC made a big mistake when they failed to specify the resolution of HDTV. The computer industry wanted progressive scan, because that is how computer monitors work. CE wanted interlace, because that is how analog TV worked. They failed to reach a compromise (such as 960p). Instead, they chose two resolutions: 720p and 1080i. A significant amount of the programs received by any set will be at the wrong resolution and will need to be scaled. But the signal path can be long. Scaling is done more accurately at some points than others. Bad scaling policy can lead to bad quality. It is a system problem that can be very difficult for the consumer to correct.

The signal path stretches all the way back to the programmer. A programmer may capture material at 1080p, and downrez it to 720p for distribution. The program may end up on a network that prefers 1080i, so they uprez and interlace it. It then ends up on a 720 display, which will downrez it again. Every digital transformation reduces the quality of the program.

In the analog world they called this generation loss. Digital technology, because it can copy without degradation, was supposed to eliminate generation loss. But now we have digital generation loss that occurs every time there is a compression or scaling operation.

It was said that there is a big difference in quality of programs coming off of HD-CAM compared to the programs people see at home. I think this is a big problem. In this case, it is the industry that is deeply confused. There are things that can be done to improve this. See Technology below.

Creative

There was a panel on HD Content Creation. They talked about the difficulties in getting the Studios to work with HD. Many directors and cinematographers are skeptical of the new technology, and are resisting it. Many, however, warm up to it after getting a chance to work with it. The Networks are pressuring the Studios to adopt it because of the reduced production costs compared to film.

Some networks (such as ESPN-HD) use 720p exclusively. They want the high temporal resolution that comes with progressive scan to capture high-speed sporting events. Other networks (such as Discovery-HD) use 1080i for the high spatial resolution for pretty pictures. Some at the conference said that we should stop debating which format is better: Both look good, and the debate only confuses consumers. Others at the conference said that that was wrong: The difference is significant. More confusion. The industry does not know what looks good.

SDTV is low resolution in a narrow field. HDTV is higher resolution in a wider field. The ideal way to shoot HD is with fairly still, long, wide shots. SD needs short, close shots. Shooting once for both formats is difficult. A safe area can be placed at the sides of the HD frame so that a useful subset can be obtained for SD, but the margins are wasted space in HD. The extra width adds little value. It is a bigger problem for dramatic material. If an actor is to appear from a door on the left, the door might not appear in SD, so it can seem that the actor was always in the room. Shooting for both formats at once does not serve either format well. Excellent HD videography will not be commercially feasible until SD becomes commercially unimportant.

Selling

As prices come down and interest goes up, HDTV sets are moving from specialty shops to popular electronics shops to warehouse stores. Warehouse stores (such as Costco and Sam's Club) offer the best prices to consumers, but no sales assistance or support. Instead, they offer a simple return policy: Consumers can return equipment for any reason.

Consumers will take advantage of the return policy. They will return if the equipment is too difficult to install, or if it doesn't fit well in the home, or if there isn't enough HDTV programming available, or reception is poor in their house, or if it doesn't look as good as expected, or if the wife disapproves of the purchase. It is critical that the experience of sale, setup, and use be designed to create customer satisfaction. The design of the experience is at least as important as the design of the product.

Many people think that HDTV means plasma. They go into the store with the idea of buying a plasma set, but they usually buy something else like LCD or Rear Projector.

Consumers are researching television purchases more carefully than car purchases. It is a family purchase decision. Consumers want to buy from brands they trust. Brands must now prove themselves on every sale. A brand loyalty does not transfer across product lines. Often, the retail store brand is more important than the product brand.

Consumers are very worried about the ultimate cost of things. They don't want to hear things like

For a system like this, you shouldn't pay more than $500 for the cables.

Consumers are aware that prices are falling. Many people delay purchases when they see falling prices because the think they will get a better deal if they wait.

Cable Not Ready

DCR (Digital Cable Ready) was a standard that came about as a result of an agreement between CE, Cable, and FCC. DCR was important to manufacturers like Toshiba and Mitsubishi because ATSC tuners by themselves have low value to consumers. Cable Readiness has higher value. These manufacturers feel that they were betrayed by the Cable Industry when they refused to promote DCR. These manufacturers are going ahead with their plans to market DCR anyway. They feel they have no choice but to sell the already obsolete sets.

I made a mistake in my August report when I said that Firewire would be used only for input on TV sets. Some of the DCR DTV sets want to have outputs for connection to VCRs or disc recorders. The receiving device must satisfy the Broadcast Flag rule. DTV sets used in this mode will probably not work well with DVRs.

CableCard has no value for consumers. It exists only to protect the proprietary technologies of companies like Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta. They were unwilling to agree on a common cable standard, so they agreed instead to encapsulate their incompatibilities in a CableCard, which increases the overall cost of the system, while creating no benefit for the consumer.

Cuban

The best presentation at the conference was by Mark Cuban. Cuban co-founded MicroSolutions, a leading National Systems Integrator, in 1983, and later sold it to CompuServe. Cuban co-founded Broadcast.com, the leading provider of multimedia and streaming on the Internet, in 1995, selling it to Yahoo! in July of 1999. This made him a billionaire. He is the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, a professional basketball team.

He is one of the owners of 2929 Entertainment, which owns Landmark Theatre Corp., a chain of movie theatres; Magnolia Pictures; Rysher Entertainment; Lions Gate Films; and HDNet, the first 24 hour HDTV network. He is a computer software guy who has bought his way into the movie business.

He believes that entertainment should be a consumer driven business. He thinks that the protectionism of the Studios is the wrong business model. I believe he is correct in this. He believes that the very large size of high-quality HD programs will be sufficient to prevent abusive copying over the Internet.

He wants better quality in HDTV through better codecs and better delivery media. He believes that the BluRay vs HD-DVD war is a non-issue, that high density computer media will better serve consumers. He made this appeal to the Consumer Electronics industry:

You are the last bastion uncorrupted by the media companies. Ignore Hollywood

He said that Hollywood will have no choice but to follow along with the new business model. My sense was that the CE companies there liked what he was saying, but are too afraid to change their direction.

Displays

For about 50 years, there was only one television display technology: CRT. There are many display technologies in the market now in a highly competitive environment. The conference provided a lot of data on the relative merits of each category of technology. I think the important conclusions are

Technology

I saw impressed by two technical presentations.

The first was from Silicon Optix. They are an image processing technology company. They have very good processes for scaling, deinterlacing, and image correction. Technology such as theirs can significantly improve the quality of the HDTV image. I think this is important since most of the material shown on an HDTV screen will have come from a different HDTV resolution, or from 480i or 480p.

The second was Jack Chaney's presentation on CEA-2027, a proposed User Interface Specification for Home Networks. This is the best solution I have seen so far to the Remote Control problem. It uses IEEE 1394 as the system interconnect bus, HTML as the display layer, with JavaScript at the interactive layer. I think that JavaScript is a much better choice than Java (which is used in OCAP and BluRay).