Why HDTV is getting a fuzzy reception

Some tech toys such as iPods and digital cameras have swept into American households with breathtaking speed. But despite a yearly spike in interest around the Super Bowl, high-definition televisions (HDTVs) just haven't had the same impact.

While nearly everyone has heard of HDTV, only 15 percent of American families have bought one since their introduction in the late 1990s, according to Ipsos Insight, a market research firm. Worse yet, only 15 percent more are seriously considering buying one in the near future.

What's holding back the other 70 percent? Prices that can soar well into the four digits and suspicion that they are going to drop sharply are big factors. So are hidden hassles. For instance, getting an HDTV set to actually display a high-definition picture involves a process that a surprisingly large number of people either don't know about or don't bother with.

And for many, the value of a fantastic picture that's available on just a few special HDTV channels hasn't outweighed the cost and frustrations.

But in the long term, the outlook for HDTV is brighter. Prices will continue to fall, say industry watchers, and more programs will be broadcast in HDTV format.

The next generation of DVD players, due out later this year, will work best with high-definition TV. And looming in February 2009 is a nationwide switch to digital-only TV broadcasts, which is likely to send millions of people to stores looking to upgrade their sets. (Analog televisions will still work, but only with a digital converter box.)

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) forecasts that 2006 will be the first year that HDTVs will outsell old-fashioned analog TVs. Twelve million digital TVs were sold in 2005, the CEA reports, an increase of 60 percent over 2004. HDTVs made up 85 percent of those sales. (Some TVs are digital, but not high-definition.)

But HDTV's stunning picture quality just isn't "revolutionary enough" to sell to a large number of people right now, says Todd Board, who tracks technology trends at Ipsos Insight. And switching to HDTV is a big commitment, he says. "You can't easily bring it home and try it for a month."

A television was once a simple appliance: Plug it in, yank up the rabbit ears, and start watching. HDTV is a lot more complicated. Though HD signals can be received over the airwaves, in the future nearly everyone will watch HDTV using a cable or satellite TV hookup. In most cases that means having a special HDTV-compatible converter box (your old one won't do) and signing up for HDTV service.

Today only a few special HDTV channels are being broadcast in high-definition. And that "broadcast in HDTV" logo in the corner of the screen won't mean anything for most people unless they've signed up for HDTV service.

Unlike iPods, HDTV isn't getting much favorable word-of-mouth because "it's not simple," says Phillip Swann, an author and speaker whose website TVPredictions.com covers TV technology.

"Television is supposed to be simple, so the complication [of HDTV] seems more dramatic," says Mr. Swann. Receiving an HDTV signal is a function of your TV's capabilities as well as how you receive the signal and the services to which you subscribe.

And here's the most bizarre HDTV statistic: More than half of current HDTV owners aren't really watching shows in HDTV - because they haven't taken the steps outlined above.

"About 40 percent of HDTV owners know that they aren't watching HDTV," says Bruce Leichtman, president of the Leichtman Research Group in Durham, N.H., whose company polled them. "About 17 percent ... believe they are watching HDTV but are actually not."

Some owners have convinced themselves that if they bought an HDTV, that must be what they're seeing. Some 80 percent of HDTV buyers are men, who may be reluctant to admit they made a mistake, Mr. Leichtman says.

"It's kind a male mentality of 'I bought it, I love it,' " he says. And there are "a lot of people who just don't care," Swann says.

They use their HDTVs to watch DVDs, which look much better than on an old analog TV, and when they're asked about not watching TV shows in high definition "they go, 'Aw, so what?' " he says.

In fact, if someone upgrades to, say, a 50-inch HDTV and receives an old analog signal, they can actually have worse picture quality "because it's blown up to a larger proportion," Leichtman says.

Manufacturers and retailers have little incentive to make sure that HDTVs are properly installed, he adds. "It's the job of satellite and cable TV to get those [HDTV] boxes out there into those homes."

But other factors are starting to push more consumers toward HDTV. For example, they will need an HDTV to take full advantage of the next generation of DVD players.

Two incompatible high-definition DVD technologies - reminiscent of the struggle between VHS and Betamax in the 1980s - are about to hit the market: HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Toshiba will have an HD-DVD player on store shelves next month that will sell for $499, Swann says. Netflix has reportedly said it will stock HD-DVD titles right away.

"That's the kind of thing that might help with word-of-mouth" to sell HDTV, he says.

So will the fact that videogames are starting to be produced in high-definition. And don't forget the Winter Olympics: NBC will broadcast hours and hours of live coverage in HDTV beginning this weekend.

Last week, Congress passed and sent to President Bush legislation that would end all analog TV broadcasts by February 2009, meaning that today's analog TVs will go black.

To receive the new digital signal, consumers will either need to buy a new digital TV or buy a converter for their analog set (the bill provides subsidies to help with the expected $40 to $80 cost). Many may decide to upgrade to HDTV then.

"The analog signal is going away," says George DeSesso, a spokesman for Best Buy, the consumer electronics retailer. Then people will move quickly to HDTV, he predicts. "It's like when we switched from cassettes to CDs," he says. "It's just going to become the accepted technology."

Until then, the best selling point for HDTV is the clear, lifelike picture itself, seen either at a friend's house or at a store, these experts say.

Recently, Mr. Board of Ipsos Insight went to Costco to buy a DVD player - and came back with an HDTV, too. "We didn't really need one," he says. "Our TVs were good enough ... [but] all I had to do was experience that quality of picture, and I said, 'Yep, I knew this day would come - and here it is.' "

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