Friday, December 09, 2005

HD is in the Eye of the Beholder

Scientific-Atlanta recently released the results of a telephone survey that found that 49% of owners of HD-capable televisions or monitors aren’t using them to watch HD programming because they don’t have a cable or satellite set-top box, CableCARD or antenna capable of receiving HD. (A study by Forrester Research confirms this number; in fact, they say that by the end of the year, less than 44% of HD-capable sets will be used to watch HD programming.) What’s even more interesting is that 41% of owners of HD-capable sets think that they’re already watching HD when they’re not.

There’s undoubtedly a variety of reasons why these viewers think that they’re watching HD when they’re not. Some viewers thought that they could watch HD without any additional equipment, while others thought that they were automatically watching HD when they saw the “Broadcast in HDTV” bugs at the beginning of some TV shows and sporting events. My personal belief is that these viewers have never actually seen a HD show in HD, so they have no standard of comparison. Or, it may also indicate that some of them can’t tell the difference between HD and conventional programming.

In 2004, I attended a DVD industry conference where Blu-Ray and HD DVD advocates pitched their formats to senior industry execs. (The heads of all the major studios’ home video divisions were in attendance.) The Blu-Ray team showed a scene from Lawrence of Arabia in which one side of the screen was in HD, and the other was in standard definition. The difference was so subtle as to be almost invisible. (And I’m hardly a HD newbie; I saw my first HD pictures in Japan in 1989.) The same thing happened at the Consumer Electronics Show last year; I saw Blu-Ray movies that were virtually indistinguishable from the DVD versions.

To give the Blu-Ray forces the benefit of the doubt, the most recent demo was almost a year ago, so improvements have probably been made by both their and the HD DVD team. However, if a significant percentage of the audience either can’t see or don’t know the difference between HD and SD, are they going to bother to buy a HD blue-laser player? DVDs look a lot better than conventional SD broadcasts, so the difference between DVD and blue-laser discs is likely to be much more subtle than the difference between HD and SD broadcasts. Even in an in-store comparison (which is where most consumers will see HD discs,) will there be enough of a difference to get them to trade up?

I haven’t seen any results of independent side-by-side consumer comparisons between blue-laser discs and DVDs, but my suspicion is that they’re not going to be very favorable to the HD disc crowd. Could this turn into a repeat of the DVD Audio vs. Super Audio CD (SACD) battle, where consumers didn’t buy either one? Stay tuned.

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