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SCOTT KIRSNER | ENTERTAINMENT 2.0

HD ready*

*High-definition DVR, Camcorder, PlayStation, converter box, and Blu-ray discs not included. Are consumers ready to be complete converts? 28.6 million US households have high-definition TV sets...but only 9.4 million receive HD programming

If technology companies weren't so mercilessly persistent about introducing higher-quality recording and broadcast formats, we'd be listening to wax cylinders of Christina Aguilera and watching "Deal or No Deal" on a black-and-white screen the size of a Saltine.

But our high-tech economy is built upon rendering old stuff obsolete, and if it weren't, then what would we offer at our yearly yard sales, if not old eight-track tapes, cassettes, LPs, Betamax players, and laserdiscs?

The latest improvement being peddled by production studios and consumer electronics companies is high definition. Making the leap to a high-def TV will make your neighbors feel embarrassed about the severe shortage of pixels in their homes, and installing an HD radio in your car will give you more stations -- for free -- at higher fidelity (but still no Howard Stern).

Actresses are one constituency that is not happy about the march of progress. Blythe Danner, who appears on Showtime's "Huff," complained to the movie site Dark Horizons about "this dreadful high-definition, which makes anybody over 50 look as if they are 80." (Danner is 63.) And consumers, once they realize they're about to be sold not just a high-def TV, but a whole new arsenal of high-def gear, may have some gripes of their own.

The problem with high-def, if you're a consumer, and the magical profit opportunity, if you're a studio, cable firm, or electronics company, is what Jim Denney, vice president of product marketing at TiVo, calls "the cascading effect."

Buy a high-def TV set ($1,000 for a Samsung 32-incher), and you'll suddenly realize you need a new box from the cable company ($9.20 a month from Comcast). Then you notice that the shows you record on your old TiVo, even if transmitted in high-def, aren't being recorded that way ($799 for a new TiVo Series 3 HD digital video recorder.).

Home movies look better when shot with a high-def video recorder ($1,400 for a Sony HD model.). And let's not forget watching Hollywood blockbusters ($718 for a Blu-ray player from Samsung, or $549 for an HD DVD player from Toshiba) and playing videogames ($499 for Sony's new PlayStation 3, available next month ).

A cascade of expenditures for you; a cascade of profits for the manufacturers -- not to mention the movie studios eager to resell you your favorite movies on the new high-def discs.

By year-end, about 30 million Americans will have purchased their first high-def TV set and become familiar with the cascading effect, according to In-Stat analyst Gerry Kaufhold. By the end of 2009, he expects the number of HD initiates to hit 50 million.

Do consumers realize what they're in for when they make that first purchase? "Absolutely not," says Phillip Swann, president of TVPredictions.com, an Arlington, Va. website that tracks the television industry. "You don't have a wave of people saying, 'What's the next high-def thing I can get?' A lot of people are still very confused by the high-def process."

Part of the confusion comes from different quality levels and media formats. Consumers might sometimes mistake "enhanced definition" sets, which deliver 480 horizontal lines of resolution, for true "high-definition sets" delivering at least 720 lines. Blu-ray DVDs won't play on HD DVD players, and vice versa. Consumers are told that HD Radio offers more channels and better sound than terrestrial radio, but at the same time they're told that the Sirius and XM Radio satellite systems do, too.

Perhaps as a result of the multiple choices, Frank Roshinski, general merchandising manager for the video buying division at Tweeter, says sales of HD equipment at the Canton retailer this year have been "modestly higher than 2005" but "not dramatically higher."

Roshinski describes HD purchasers so far as Tweeter's "more affluent customers. The modest-income customer hasn't started investing yet," he says.

And consumers who responded to a survey conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association ranked a high-def TV near the bottom of their 10-most-wanted list for the holidays; at the top was a portable music player.

In-Stat analyst Kaufhold says "we're still in the product emergence phase" for high-def equipment. He recalls that it took about 10 years from the time the first color television was introduced before half of the sets Americans bought were color, and seven years for DVD sales to outpace VCR sales.

"The time for the uptake of a new technology to occur is getting shorter, but it's still not overnight," Kaufhold observes.

Unlike high-definition video, high-definition radio doesn't subject the buyer to the cascading effect, since it is a stand-alone device. (Tweeter sells a Boston Acoustics home radio for $299, and a car receiver for $349.)

Bob Struble, chief executive of the company that introduced HD Radio, iBiquity Digital, says he expects about a half million of the radios to be sold this year.

In Boston, 13 radio stations are now broadcasting in the all-digital format, including all five owned by Greater Media. But there aren't yet audience figures for HD Radio, so no one knows how many people are listening. Phil Rado, general manager for Greater Media's Boston stations, says that the radio industry hasn't yet perfected its pitch to consumers. "Nobody has ever complained about the fidelity of FM radio," he says.

"That's what makes HD a tough putt. It's not really about fidelity, it's about more choices and options." Boston's Magic 106.7, for instance, operates a smooth jazz station that can only be heard with an HD receiver.

But in order for high-definition to break into the mainstream, three things need to happen. Standards clashes, such as the one involving the incompatible Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, need to be resolved. Prices need to drop. And consumers need to show off their shiny new technology to everyone they know.

"We could spend millions advertising Blu-ray," says Andy Parsons, senior vice president of advanced product development at Pioneer Electronics USA in Long Beach, Calif. "But you talk to one friend, and that's a hundred times more credible than anything we could say in an ad. Word-of-mouth is absolutely essential for this adoption curve to take off."

Scott Kirsner is a freelance writer in San Francisco who maintains a blog on entertainment and technology, cinematech.blogspot. com. He can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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