High Definition and the future of viewing

Disk and broadcast systems battle it out

Screen resolution: is it true HD? Does it matter?

The general line from several studios is that an HD disc format will be mainly competing with the delivery of HD movies by pay-TV operators and broadcasters, who are by and large delivering HD programming in 1920x1080i (or its progressive scan equivalent 1280x720p). Therefore, HD packaged media can, and should, deliver as good a visual experience if not better (just as DVD offered a better quality experience than standard definition digital TV). This is the unifying ‘true HD’ resolution referred to as 1920x1080p.

Technically, this is not an issue as far as the individual formats are concerned as both are capable of storing HD movies at full resolution. Admittedly, BD has a theoretical advantage in that its dual layer 50 Gb disc - once proven - can also provide a great deal of extras in HD. However, the real concern is that none of the HDTV displays currently in people’s homes in the territories that have HD broadcasting, such as the US and Japan, are able to show this true high-end HD.

According to Screen Digest’s analysis of data compiled by the US Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), there were nearly 9m US digital TV (DTV) households in 2003. Screen Digest predicts that this will rise to 48m by 2008. Of these, most can be categorised as HD-enabled - that is, homes with an HD-display able to resolve 720p/1080i or better. In 2003, there were around 8m such homes, predicted to rise to 45m by 2008.

However, of the 500+ digital TV sets listed by the CEA as being on the market in Winter 2004, only two can display the true 1080p HD resolution, retailing at $8,999 and $20,999 respectively, with another 16 offering ‘virtual 1080p’.

Therefore, not only are around 10 per cent of US digital TV households not HD-enabled at all, but those sets that are HD capable actually provide a native display resolution fractionally better than required by HDTV broadcasting.

But does this matter when selling a new packaged media format?

Some studios have suggested that it does. The argument runs that, if the consumer is not able to appreciate the visual difference between an HD disc and a current DVD version on their new display, then he or she will become disillusioned with the format, and such a scenario could be a disaster. If anything, the drastically improved resolution is one of the major selling points for an HD optical disc. If the consumer cannot view that difference, then it could generate not only bad press, but result in poor sales (with consumers choosing to stick to the current DVD format).

Such a line of argument might logically support the delaying of the full-scale launch of HD packaged media on any format until sometime post 2007, when hardware prices have come down and true HDTV sets become more widely available (at lower prices).

Another aspect of this argument is that one of the reasons why DVD has been so successful in the US market is that it represented such a quantum leap in picture quality over the NTSC broadcast pictures they were used to viewing. (It is widely recognised that NTSC is significantly inferior to the signals that viewers in Europe are used to with the PAL and SECAM transmissions systems.) Indeed, many Americans have upgraded their TV sets just to appreciate the quality of current generation DVD.

Moreover, we calculate that 63 per cent of US households that have purchased an HDTV display do not currently have a source of HDTV programming. In other words, they do not own either a set with anintegrated HDTV tuner, or a separate HDTV tuner or a cable or satellite HDTV set-top box. This amounts to in excess of 8m households whom one assumes have so far justified their purchases to get the maximum enjoyment out of their existing DVDs.

This is a figure predicted to rise beyond 9m by 2008. Indeed, the lacklustre performance of pay HDTV services in the US to date reflects this. By end 2003, despite a pay TV market of 96m subscribers, there were fewer than 1m homes subscribed to specific HDTV packages from the pay TV operators. The reality is that on most of these HDTV displays purchased to date, it will be tough to discern a significant improvement in picture quality with a high definition DVD over current DVDs.

Others, however, have taken a different view. The argument goes that, from a marketing approach, it doesn’t really matter whether the HD displays on the market or in consumers’ homes are able to do full justice to the next generation DVDs. In the US then, 12m consumer households are currently equipped with HD displays, and as such have already bought into the technology at enormous expense.

According to this line of thinking, if the consumer has already paid upwards of $1,500 for an HD entertainment system, they are going to want HD content that goes with it, rather than just a conventional DVD. This is predicated on the belief that these consumers will have already ‘bought into’ the concept of HDTV and will therefore demand an ‘HD’ label on their DVD entertainment.

In support of this position, it should be noted that, for example, none of the US pay TV services in operation by end 2004 were offering anything more than 720p or 1080i, the minimum resolution required to be called HD. So arguably, the consumer is already being given something less than ‘true’ HD, but is still buying into it. However, it is again worth pointing out that picture quality gap between these services and legacy NTSC broadcasts is greater than it will be over PAL broadcasts.

Most of the major studios have the capabilities to master the HD content as required, with many already having mastered their last 10 years’ libraries in HD. With the majority of the major studios now considering 1920x1080p (true HD) as the de facto resolution for HD video disc content, it is fairly evident that the more true HDTVs there are in the market, the more likely the consumer is to recognise the superiority of HD packaged content over other modes of HD content delivery (such as pay TV and the internet).