By Andrew Humphrey, CBM
Founder & Co-Chair, NABJ’s Digital Journalism Task Force
Meteorologist & Station Scientist, WDIV-TV | ClickOnDetroit.com
When investing in a new high-definition television (HDTV), it is not only important to research brands for the latest and greatest features but also research your available channels to make sure they transmit the latest and greatest signal. Many modern tubes are ready to receive the best transmissions, but most media companies do not crank them out.
One family recently purchased a flat-screen HDTV for the first time. The main features they needed were long-lasting high picture quality and sound. They decided on an LED set with 1080p resolution, which is widely considered to be the best, most enduring technology with the best picture quality when compared to plasma and LCD sets.
A second picture quality feature is motion rate. Motion rate is the frequency at which individual video frames are captured and displayed to HDTV viewers. 60 Hz, 120 Hz and 240 Hz motion rates are some common examples in the marketplace. The higher the number, the crisper and less blurry fast actions like sports, fight scenes, car chases and animals running appear.
This particular family’s HDTV has a 120 Hz motion rate. With more and more news, weather, sports and entertainment being shot in or converted to 1080p resolution (or at least 720p), picture quality was not an issue. A 1080p show can be seen at 1080p resolution, and their television displayed the 1080p signal they were receiving when they hooked up their TV set.
However, their TV also told them they were watching programs at 60 Hz motion rate, not the 120 Hz it was capable of and only half of its potential. It may seem like a trivial difference because the picture is still visible. To an extent this is true, but many recall the emergence of HDTV being the wave of the future. At first, when it was just talk, many critics railed against the technology by highlighting the then exorbitant price of the first HDTV sets in the five-figures range. Opponents pointed to the then bulky box sets (cathode ray televisions, CRTs) and said they show a picture that is just fine and did not see the big deal about high def. Then when the public got to view and experience the eye-popping difference, seeing was believing, and HDTVs eventually sold like hotcakes. Now, just like mobile phones and computers, many cannot imagine living without them so they can look for the tiniest wrinkles on their favorite reporter’s face or leftover lint on their favorite anchor’s suit.
In addition to perceiving the seemingly unperceivable, there is the noticeable impact on the pocketbook. Doubling the motion rate once or twice can increase the price by a few hundred to a thousand bucks. So this family’s frustrations are compounded when they learned that they cannot max out all features of their “wave of the future” set and may have paid hundreds of dollars more than they needed, and it was all out of their hands.
So who’s hands was their situation in? As cable subscribers, they thought the cable company had control over the content pushed to them through their cable wire. When the family called the company, a representative named “Eric” was on the line but did not have the answer the family wanted. Eric informed them that the cable company was not in control and that each individual channel (from their local broadcaster to HBO) is in charge of transmitting its programs at the motion rate the channel desires, and currently “most stations send their signal out at 60 Hz.” For the family, calling over 500 channels seems out of the question, so until TV stations upgrade their signals, the family is stuck and out of luck (including some cash).
We are living in an age where the equipment audiences use to watch and hear their favorite show outpaces that of the media company providing programming. Thus, many current and future consumers will shell out more dollars and be more advanced, but will have to wait for cable and satellite companies to catch up. This means they will waste their hard-earned money and pay their service provider more money to boot. And if they do their research to buy a telly that matches the output it will receive, they risk the new obsolescence cycle where the item they spent a month’s salary or more on for what they believe is the biggest and baddest on the block quickly seems like the meekest and weakest within a few months.
There may not be a win-win solution now, but there can be one on the horizon where viewers and corporations adapt and adjust their respective technologies with modernization so everyone feels they have spent their money and time wisely. If this happens, all familes can gather around the television and feel satisfied.