HDTV: a 'revolution' in search of couch potatoes

'People think they can just plug in the TV and ... get high definition.'– Television salesman

Mary Dean watches television all day, every day. The Army officer from Cranston, R.I. – now in the middle of a pregnancy – lies horizontal on her couch, morning to night, flipping channels.

Looking for a new set recently in a nearby electronics store, however, Dean shows no interest in models that promise crystal-clear pictures and sound.

"I wouldn't pay more for what someone else considers more clear," says Dean. "Look, I can see this fine," she adds, pointing to a standard model.

The average American watches four hours of TV a day. And yet Americans show so little interest in picture quality, one might think they considered TV sets mere accompaniments to evenings spent composing poetry in iambic pentameter.

Three-quarters of the nation's TV stations required to broadcast programs in high-definition (HDTV) format will miss their federally mandated deadline today, largely because consumers are content with plain TVs.

A study by the General Accounting Office, a watchdog congressional group, found that more than 800 stations – 74 percent of those required to meet the new standards – aren't ready to send at least some "high definition" programming.

Congress set the deadline six years ago, calling the high-definition leap the most important consumer-electronic advancement since TVs moved to color.

But less than 1 percent of Americans have bought in. The reasons, experts say, pertain as much to US culture as to consumer economics.

In general, Americans ask little of their televisions. For many, the first and only requirement is that they be on. "It's electronic wallpaper," says Jim Beniger, professor of communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Those who turn on their TVs for ambience are not likely to be moved by a salesman's advocacy of the virtues of better pixilation.

"As long as it doesn't go like this, I'm happy" says TV shopper Ray Sampson, drawing swirly lines in the air.

Televisions labeled "high definition" are equipped with a decoder that reads special digital transmissions from TV stations. The picture features six times the number of pixels on a standard TV. The result is crisp resolution rivaling that of cinema screens.

"You can see the patches of sweat forming underneath Tiger Woods' arms," says Cecil Houston, director of communication, culture, and information technology at the University of Toronto.

Engineers and entertainment gurus have touted the "high-definition revolution" for more than 20 years. In the early days, advocates promoted HDTV with almost messianic fervor, and posed dire warnings that Japanese suppliers would dominate the industry.

In 1988, Ronald Reagan became the first president to be recorded on HDTV, stating that his remarks represented a "historic moment for both the presidency and American broadcasting." Ten years later, the TV sets were not even available in stores.

HDTV's stay on the shelves

Through last fall, Americans had only bought about 1.7 million HDTV sets – less than 900,000 in 2001. Consumers bought more than 21 million standard-color TVs last year alone.

Even so, high-end HDTV retailers report growing sales. And more than 100 stations in major markets have begun broadcasting shows in high-definition format.

Overall, however, programs are sparse. The major networks only transmit a few marquee shows – like NBC's Tonight Show – in high definition. The same is true of nearly all cable operators. Broadcasts sent in the normal format look the same on both HDTV sets and regular models.

Gregory Sanders, a salesman at Ultimate Electronics in Albuquerque, says his sales pitch for HDTVs is hindered by the lack of programs broadcast digitally.

"Customers don't understand that stations aren't broadcasting yet," says Mr. Sanders. "They think they can just plug in the TV and instantly get high definition."

The biggest consumer turnoff: HDTV sets cost about twice as much as standard models. Americans are not likely to pay premium price for visual perks. While it's true that, last year, US consumers bought more than 14 million DVD players – which offer better pictures than VCRs – they were prompted by low prices. Quality DVD players only cost $150 – slightly more than VCRs.

A revolution stalled?

Now, Regulators are worried. Federal Communication Commissions chairman Michael Powell recently encouraged broadcasters, TV-set makers, and cable operators to mount a voluntary effort to spark the HDTV revolution. Enthusiasm is not boiling over. According to the GAO report, a third of the stations that have adopted HDTV would not have done so without a government mandate.

They cite a number of disincentives. Among them: the high cost of upgrading transmitters and the scant number of televisions on the market that can accommodate the signals. Both stem from a lack of consumer interest, experts say.

They may be less wowed by innovation than consumers in Western Europe and Japan. While baby boomers experienced the first TVs and then the onset of color, new technology seems to have lost its luster according to Paul Witt, a professor of communication at the University of Texas at Arlington. "The innovations are coming faster at a greater volume, they're just not as novel anymore," says Witt.

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