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Thursday, August 26, 2004
Glitches fail to dull growing appetite for HDTV

Fred Mattocks, the executive director of English television production and services for CBC-TV, remembers the day he got hooked on high-definition television.

He was attending a demonstration of HDTV during a technical conference in Fort Worth, Tex., in 1999.

?They were showing a Japanese nature program,? Mr. Mattocks recalls. ?I had this odd sense that I was watching reality. There was an incredible sense of transparency to the picture. The colours were like those in nature.?

At that time, only a handful of American TV stations were broadcasting digital HDTV signals. Five years later, hundreds of stations in the United States have gone digital and the major U.S. TV networks present most of their prime-time schedules in high-definition.

In Canada, CTV, CITY-TV, TSN, Discovery Channel Canada, Rogers Sportsnet, the Movie Network and Movie Central all have HDTV services available by satellite and cable. CBC-TV will start digital HDTV broadcasts in Toronto this fall and is seeking regulatory approval for HDTV stations in other cities.

CBC's first foray into actually producing HDTV content was last November, when it used HDTV cameras to capture the Heritage Classic hockey game between alumni of the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers in high-def. To provide more, CBC has a new mobile system and is working on programming such as a five-part documentary on the Arctic for its The Nature of Things program, which it is co-producing with the National Film Board.

Virtually all the large-screen TVs now sold in Canada are high-definition-ready, and sales of these sets are growing. According to the Consumer Electronics Marketers of Canada (CEMC), 212,000 big-screen rear-projection TVs were shipped to retailers in 2003. CEMC expects projection TV sales to grow to 226,000 in 2004 and 240,000 in 2005.

CEMC says an additional 44,800 HD-capable LCD and plasma televisions were shipped to Canadian retailers in 2003, up from 10,000 in 2002. For 2004, CEMC projects sales of 100,000 sets in Canada, growing to 200,000 in 2005.

HDTV is gaining ground because it has some big advantages over regular analogue TV. Most high-definition televisions have wide screens with an aspect ratio of 16:9, compared with 4:3 for regular TV. Almost all HDTV programs are shot in widescreen, and it is digital technology like DVD, allowing for wonderfully vibrant and clear pictures. However, the resolution of HDTV is up to six times higher than DVD, so HDTV can display much finer details.

?HDTV is the future of the television viewing experience,? Mr. Mattocks says. ?People say the difference between HDTV and analogue television is comparable to the difference between colour and black-and-white, but I think it goes farther than that.?

But HDTV doesn't always look fabulous, cautions Joel Silver, president and founder of the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF). Based in Boca Raton, Fla., ISF consults with TV manufacturers about product development and trains retailers to calibrate televisions.

?Like every other music and video format, HDTV quality varies tremendously,? Mr. Silver says.

The problem is that the programs on HDTV stations have different origins. Some, such as live sports, are captured on HDTV cameras. Others are shot on film and converted to HDTV. But a large chunk of all HDTV station schedules are filled with regular analogue TV programs that have been ?upconverted? to high-definition, and which don't look as good as original HD content.

New high-definition-ready TVs also won't improve regular channels that aren't broadcast in HD.

?This is the primary reason people return digital TVs,? Mr. Silver says. ?They watch regular TV channels, and say, ?this looked better on my old 27-inch set.'?

That's because the extra resolution and larger screen of high-definition TVs can make flaws in old analogue programming all too apparent. And while HDTV programming fills the screen on HDTVs, regular TV programs on a widescreen TV have to be watched in the centre with bars on either side, or have the image stretched to fill the available widescreen space.

?There is a quagmire of confusion around aspect ratio,? Mr. Silver laments.

?This could be handled automatically, but it's not; and it's not explained properly. And this problem will last for the next 10 to 25 years, because we'll still be watching regular TV programs for that long,? he said.

Despite these transitional challenges, Mr. Silver is an enthusiastic proponent of HDTV. He says there are scores of HDTV programs and live broadcasts that look ?downright captivating.?

Mr. Mattocks says as HDTV hardware becomes more common in homes, there's an eager audience for made-in-Canada HDTV programming, too.

?We want to give Canadians a new opportunity to see their country portrayed in a way that really has impact.

?People are buying big-screen TV in droves,? he adds. ?Just go to any big-box retailer on any Saturday, and watch what's being loaded into minivans.

?This isn't about technologists saying, ?Here's the latest and greatest.' This is about consumers who are voting with their wallets.?

From The Globe and Mail

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