Do You Know What You’re Watching?…
It’s been some time now since -- willingly or not -- we all went through the conversion to digital TV. This changeover coincided nicely with the rapid growth of flat-panel televisions and the correspondingly rapid demise of the CRT. So the end result should be that now when we turn on our new large-screen flat- panel televisions we should be presented with gorgeous digital High-Definition images.
We should be! And we certainly wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less. Right? Oh, what optimists we engineers turn out to be! We see the world through our technologically capable eyes – not business reality and the reality of what consumers are willing to accept as “good enough”. Just because broadcast and cable signals are now “digital” and presumably high-definition – at least somewhere along their paths to our televisions -- apparently doesn’t mean that these signals also have to end up that way for our viewing pleasure.
When it comes to watching television, I may not be the perfect example of a typical consumer, but bear with me anyway.
In our house, we have two flat-panel TVs and one venerable CRT that still produces excellent video images with its built-in line-doubler. We have cable outlets in almost every room and Comcast is our designated provider. When the conversion was being made to digital transmission, an installer was sent to our home and he added a “converter box” to each of the three televisions. These converter boxes were apparently needed whether it was the old-style analog CRT TV or the newer flat-panel digital sets. Soon after, I noticed that the two flat-panel sets had less impressive (smaller) converter boxes and did not seem to be displaying HDTV images even when the programs were supposedly being sent out in HDTV. A call to Comcast confirmed that indeed this was the case. In order to have HDTV capability on all three televisions, I would have to pay an extra $9.95 per month for each converter box capable of HDTV conversion. Really? How could it cost more to directly send a signal to a TV in its native format than to convert it to an older analog format? Did I ask Comcast for a technical explanation? I think you can guess the answer.
Not wishing to pay $20.00 per month more for high-definition capability on televisions that get very limited use, I told Comcast what I thought of their policy and proceeded with “Plan B”. By adding an indoor “rabbit ears” antenna and a simple mechanical switch, these less-used televisions can now receive high-definition signals off the air as well as the lesser quality signals from the Comcast cable converter boxes.
However, the limits imposed by cable providers are not the only ones that keep the typical consumer from getting high-definition signals for all their viewing experiences. Not all programs are broadcast or produced in high-definition to begin with. Or the cable providers simply decide on which programs to send out at full bandwidth and which ones to compress down to lower quality. The end result is that we are experiencing a range of image qualities that someone else has decided are “good enough” for our viewing enjoyment.
How can this be? How can cable companies get away with providing an inferior quality product? The simple answer is that for most of our viewing, we don’t care. Unless it’s a special sports event or some other program that has unusual significance to us, we simply don’t care if it’s high-definition or not. The old analog television signals were apparently already “good enough”. An image with roughly 400 - 500 lines of resolution and reasonably accurate color rendition is “just fine”. If the format is wrong, and the people all look like they have gained weight – no big deal, we’re too lazy, or don’t know how, to change the picture.
What we do seem to appreciate is the larger sizes of the new flat-panel TVs and the fact that they are thinner and not as difficult to move around as the old CRT sets. But all that extra engineering effort that has gone into higher resolution, faster LC response for reduced motion blur, and now LED backlighting for improved color rendition has, in my opinion, by-and-large been unappreciated and wasted. It may matter in the showroom, when the purchase decision is being made, but once installed in a typical home all that wonderful image quality is frequently unavailable from the television signals that come off the air, from a cable connection, or even from the typical DVD player. For most of our television viewing, we as consumers are quite satisfied with images that are “good enough” – just “good enough” for us to become engrossed in an interesting story line, sporting event, or news program.
And now along comes 3D TV. It’s a great novelty and for many consumers over the next year or two it will be the “must have” feature when making the next flat-panel purchase. But how long will it be before the polarizing or shutter glasses are relegated to the pile of other junk items on the family room coffee table – as one more example of a gadget-driven culture that does not appreciate the capabilities that already exist?
Have we become like spoiled children with too many toys? We must have the latest one, but we quickly tire of it and need to move on to yet another one. Flat panel displays with 3D capability may be the next big sellers – for at least a year or two – but it may be for reasons other than an enhanced viewing experience. Will those viewing glasses be found in that pile of other junk on the coffee table or will they become a part of our daily television viewing experience?
I think you can see that I have some serious doubts about the later. I would be interested to hear about your experiences in the conversion from analog to digital TV. Are you appreciating the improved image quality, or are you happy with whatever comes over the signal paths into your home? To respond to this column you may contact me directly from this site, by e-mail at email@example.com, or by telephone at 425-898-9117.