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HDTV: Is it Time to Buy One Yet?

Part I

October, 2003

Tod DeBie



Introduction

Have you been considering HDTV but need that extra push to get you to make the jump? Herein is the first of a series of articles to help you with your decision and bring you up to speed on TV for the 21st Century. In this initial installment, I will give a brief overview (to refresh your memory) of HDTV vs. NTSC TV and summarize the available HDTV programming.

The color TV standard that we have all been living with for many years is called NTSC, which stands for National Television System Committee. It was adopted in 1953 and is ubiquitous in North America. Your TV, VCR, DVD player, game console and perhaps even your minivan all use this standard. The maximum resolution of NTSC is about 640 x 480 pixels (approximately 307,000 pixels per image). NTSC is interlaced, meaning that each time it paints the screen, it paints only half of the lines (all the odd lines one time, then all of the even lines the next time). Each second, it will paint a full screen 29.97 times. The NTSC standard is sometimes referred to as 480i, because it has 480 lines and is interlaced.

The new HDTV standard for TV that we have today was created by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC). While NTSC is basically one format, ATSC actually has eighteen. The ATSC HDTV standard includes 1080i at 24 and 30 frames per second and 720p at 24, 30 and 60 frames per second. The remainder of the ATSC fomats are considered digital TV (DTV) but are not HDTV.

The 1080i format (“i” is for Interlaced) has a resolution of 1920x1080, or about 2,073,600 pixels per image, and the 720p format (“p” is for Progressive, where all the scan lines are shown sequentially) has 1280x720, or about 921,600 pixels per image. The top HDTV resolution, 1080i, paints a full screen 30 times a second, which gives a rate of about 62.2 million pixels a second. HDTV at 1080i has a pixel rate about 6.7 times greater than NTSC TV. A good HDTV broadcast literally blows away any regular TV image, including DVD. This is a difference that you can immediately see. For example, when you watch football on regular TV, the players look a bit fuzzy in the wide shots, but with HDTV, they will be so clearly defined, you can read the names on the jerseys.

As mentioned above, the 1080i resolution for HDTV has a rate of 60 interlaced fields per second (when the image is interlaced, there are no real frames, since each interlaced image -  called a "field" - is different from the next, and one could combine a field just as easily with the one before it as with the one after it - therefore, the proper terminology is 60 interlaced fields per second, rather than 30 frames per second), and the 720p resolution has a frame rate of 60 progressive frames per second.

While both 1080i and 720p/60 (the 60 is for 60 frames per second) have a temporal resolution of 60 Hz, 1080i is still an interlaced format.  Interlaced display does not work well for a subject in motion, as the alternating fields are not complementary, dramatically reducing the effective vertical resolution. 720p is progressive. A high temporal resolution combined with a high progressive line count, both of which are satisfied by the 720p/60 format, makes for better representation of a subject in motion. Progressive scan lends itself very well to sports, making the action smoother and more detailed than interlaced scan. This is why sports oriented channels like ESPN are using the 720p format.

Of course, 1080p can be fabricated from a 1080i signal which is carrying material with a temporal resolution of 30 Hz or 24 Hz, but that's a topic for another article.  For more information on Interlaced versus Progressive video display, please see the section entitled "The Nature of Interlaced TV, Film-to-Video Conversion, and Other Interesting Gambits" in our DVD Player Benchmark.

The final difference for HDTV is the display format. Regular TV screens are almost square. The exact ratio is of width to height is 1.33, meaning that if the TV is 16 inches tall, it is about 21Ό inches wide. Most HDTV’s have a width to height ratio of 1.78, meaning that if the TV is 16 inches tall it is about 28½ inches wide. So, HDTV is more rectangular than NTSC TV. Remember, it is the shape of the TV that differentiates HDTV from NTSC, not the absolute size.

Considering that most movies are shot in a wider format (“Ben Hur” was shot in a 2.76:1 aspect ratio), the HDTV screen gives a better overall viewing experience. When you watch a widescreen DVD on a normal TV, you see big black bars on the top and bottom. When you watch a widescreen DVD on an HDTV, there are either no black bars at all, or only very small ones (depending on the aspect ratio of the movie or show you are watching). The 1.78 format was chosen for HDTV because it makes the most efficient use of the screen for all of the different formats out there.

That’s great, how do I get it?

HDTV is a whole new ballgame. At a minimum, you need a new TV and a new tuner (cable box, satellite box, or over the air OTA receiver). Your new HDTV will work with your old VCR, DVD player, game console etc., but this will only be showing a standard NTSC signal on your HDTV. To get actual HDTV content, you will need new source components. For example, if you want to record HD content, you will need a new VCR or Personal Video Recorder (i.e., TiVo) that works with HDTV. If you want to play games in HD, you will need to get a game console that outputs an HDTV signal. All of these issues will be covered in this series of articles.

What kind of programming is available in HDTV?

Thankfully, most of the major networks have at least some HDTV content available now. None of the networks broadcast all, or even most shows in HD, but many shows are available in HDTV and the list is growing all the time.

Here is a partial list of Network TV programs broadcast in High Definition, including some that are new for Fall, 2003:

CSI
CSI Miami
Monday Night Football
Everybody Loves Raymond
Threat Matrix
The West Wing
The Handler
Tarzan
Cold Case
The Practice
JAG
The Tonight Show
Law and Order
The Guardian
According to Jim
NAVY NCIS
Alias
Judging Amy
NYPD Blue
Frasier
CBS Sunday Night Movie

These programs are on various nights of the week and on all of the major networks.

Also, many sporting events are available in HDTV (football, baseball, tennis, racing, etc.).

Most stations broadcast on their HDTV channel 24 hours a day, but much of the programming is simply up-converted from NTSC, meaning they take their standard TV content and convert it to one of the HDTV formats. This does not increase the quality of the image. Only content that is shot in an HD format will show the true quality potential of HDTV.

Most of the major broadcast networks have very little information on their websites about what shows are in HDTV. It is surprising that they go to all the trouble of shooting a show in HDTV, but then don’t bother to mention it on their website.

CBS

CBS is currently broadcasting all primetime dramas and entertainment shows plus soap "The Young and the Restless" and several sports specials in HDTV. CBS broadcasts all of their HDTV content in the 1080i format and has a schedule of what shows are in HDTV format here: http://www.cbs.com/info/hdtv/

NBC

NBC is currently broadcasting many shows in HDTV. NBC broadcasts all of their HDTV content in the 1080i format. They do not have an HDTV schedule on their website but do have basic info on HDTV info at http://www.nbc.com/nbc/footer/HDTV.shtml

ABC

ABC is currently broadcasting most of their primetime shows as well as many sporting events in HDTV. ABC broadcasts all of their HDTV content in the 720p format. They do not have an HDTV schedule on their website.

WB

WB is broadcasting a few shows in 1080i HDTV. They do not have an HDTV schedule on their website.

UPN

UPN does not have any shows in HDTV.

FOX

FOX is currently broadcasting digitally in 480p. Most of the content is simply regular NTSC (480i) content sent out as 480p, but some content, such as NASCAR, is shot and broadcast in 480p widescreen (which is a good improvement over the standard NTSC broadcast, but still not as good as HDTV). FOX is not currently broadcasting any HDTV content, but they recently announced that at least 50% of their Fall 2004 primetime lineup will be in 720p HDTV.

PBS

PBS has several shows in HDTV. All of their HDTV content is in 1080i. Their HDTV schedule page is here: http://www.pbs.org/digitaltv/dtvsched.htm

A few cable networks are also going HDTV:

Discovery Channel

Discovery Channel has an HD channel available. All of their HDTV content is in 1080i. Their HDTV schedule page is here:
http://dhd.discovery.com/schedule/upcoming/upcoming.html

ESPN

ESPN has an HD channel available. All of their HDTV content is 720p. Their HDTV info page is here: http://espn.go.com/espnhd/index.html

HBO

HBO has an HD channel available. All of their HDTV content is 1080i. Their HDTV schedule page is here:
http://www.hbo.com/apps/schedule/ScheduleServlet?ACTION_TODAY=TODAY

Showtime
Showtime has an HD channel available. All of their HDTV content is 1080i. Their HDTV schedule page is here: http://sho.com/schedules/

HDNET

HDNet is an all high definition network. It features a variety of HDTV programming, including live sports, sitcoms, documentaries, concerts, and news features. All content is broadcast in 1080i. Their HDTV info page is here: http://www.hd.net/

Many local channels, such as KCAL 9 in Southern California, also broadcast some HDTV programming. Other channels such as NBA TV go HD when there are major events (like the playoffs).

How do I receive all of these channels?

You can get HDTV content through all of the major TV sources (antenna, cable and satellite), but, as of today, there is no one way to receive all HDTV channels. Over the next few years, this situation should change to the point where most of the channels will be available from each of the sources.

Over the Air (OTA)

You may very well be able to connect the antenna on your house to an HDTV receiver and get some HDTV programming. First, you need to determine if any stations are broadcasting HDTV signals in your area. Here are a few good sources:

http://www.antennaweb.org/
http://www.fcc.gov/mb/video/files/dtvonair.html
http://www.nab.org/newsroom/issues/digitaltv/dtvstations.asp

Next, you need an HDTV OTA receiver, and an antenna that works well in the UHF band. Today, some HDTVs come with a receiver, but most do not. Most HDTVs come only with a regular NTSC receiver and back panel inputs for HD sources (receiver, game console, etc.). If your TV does not have a built in HDTV receiver, then you will need to buy one separately to get OTA HDTV broadcasts. Cable boxes and satellite boxes usually have an input jack for an OTA antenna. You then just switch back and forth between cable or satellite programming, and OTA programming.

An important point for readers outside the US is that many other countries have adopted a different standard for over the air broadcasting of HDTV signals. The US, Canada and few other countries use a broadcast system called 8VSB, while much of the rest of the world uses a system called COFDM. In general, HDTVs are compatible from one nation to the next, but the tuner is broadcast system specific (a US 8VSB HDTV tuner will not work in a region that is broadcasting with COFDM).

Cable

Many cable systems offer HDTV channels. Check with your cable company to determine what HDTV channels are available, and what the price of the HDTV cable box will be. TimeWarner, Comcast, Cox and other cable providers are offering HDTV in their major markets, and they all have plans to roll it out nation wide.

Dish Network / DirecTV

Both Dish and DirecTV offer HDTV content. Here are their info pages:

http://www.dishnetwork.com/content/products/hdtv/index.shtml
http://www.directv.com/DTVAPP/imagine/HDTV.jsp

C-Band Satellite

HDTV is available via C-Band satellite dish (these are the big, six foot or more sized dishes). Besides the normal C-Band equipment, you will need a 4DTV receiver and the HDD-200 high definition decoder to get HDTV via your big dish.

Here is an info page: http://www.4dtv.com/HDTV/HDTV.html

What programming is available on which system?

The chart below shows what HDTV programming is available via which delivery system. For this chart, I used my local cable (Time Warner). Other cable systems may have more or less HDTV content available.

 

Cable

Dish Network

DirecTV

C-Band Satellite

OTA

CBS

X

X

 

 

X

NBC

X

 

 

 

X

ABC

X

 

 

 

X

WB

 

 

 

 

X

FOX (480p only)

X

 

 

 

X

PBS

X

 

 

 

X

Discovery Channel

 

X

X

X

 

ESPN

 

X

X

 

 

HBO

X

X

X

X

 

Showtime

X

X

X

X

 

NBA TV

X

X

 

 

 

HD NET

 

X

X

 

 

HDTV in Canada

HDTV is not as far along in Canada as in the US. HDTV is not widely available and there is not as much content as in the US.

Bell ExpressVu, a satellite TV provider in Canada, offers six HDTV channels:

• PBS - East and West
• CBS - East and West
• NBC - East and West
• FOX - East and West
• ABC - East and West
• CITYTV Toronto

Rogers Cable in Canada offers nine HDTV channels:

• HD Sportsnet
• HD Preview Channel
• HD ABC Detroit
• HD CBS Detroit
• HD NBC Detroit
• HD PBS Detroit Desert
• HD FOX Detroit
• CitytvHD
• HD Pay Per View

US and Canadian HDTV equipment are compatible (Canada is currently using the 8VSB broadcasting standard). However, Canadian consumers are not allowed to decode programming from US satellites.

HDTV in Europe

The first HDTV channel in Europe, Euro 1080, is set to launch on 1 January 2004. Euro 1080 is a satellite based channel, but the details on the exact equipment requirements are still a bit sketchy. See http://www.euro1080.tv/

HDTV in Japan

Digital HDTV was launched in Japan in December of 2000. At that time, NHK began offering a seven channel, satellite based HDTV system.

HDTV in Australia

The Australian standard for HDTV is 1920x1080 at 50 Hz (50 fields per second instead of 60 as in the USA). Australia has OTA, Satellite and Cable options for HDTV.

Conclusions

It is clear that we have a long way to go before HDTV programming is as available as NTSC programming in the US, let alone the rest of the world. As the US speeds on ahead in HDTV adoption, costs for HDTV pre- and post-production (cameras, editing equipment, etc.) will drop, which will make it easier for other countries to make the transition.

In the US, it seems that we are about halfway there. All of the delivery systems offer HDTV, and most of the networks have some HDTV programming. Over the next few years, it is very likely that all of the networks will offer HDTV, and the amount of content originated in HDTV should grow substantially. However, there is more than enough content available today to make buying an HDTV worthwhile, and with prices for HDTVs now starting below $1,000, now is the time to buy one. They will still show NTSC programs, and you will quickly be spoiled by the incredible picture quality of HDTV.

Subsequent articles in this series will cover some very interesting things, so stay tuned!

 

- Tod DeBie -

Related to the article above, we recommend the following:

Primer - TVs
   

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