HDTV Education for Consumers Should Be As Clear As the Pictures They Offer


I recently received a phone call from neighbors who had purchased a plasma TV for their living room. Actually, they were now on their second unit, as they had returned the first after about a month because they felt the picture quality was poor for the money they had spent. When the picture on the second plasma TV appeared just as poor, they asked me to give them some advice. They had ordered digital cable and the installer had hooked everything up for them. After a brief examination, I discovered that they were not getting any high-definition (HD) channels with their cable service and, besides, the set-top box was connected only through the S-video cable. Changing the connection was easy, but when they found out they needed to pay another $20 per month to actually receive HD channels, and no one had explained any of this to them during the purchase or the cable installation, they were ready to just bring the second TV back to the store and walk away. The extra $20 per month wasn't the issue; it was the confusion, hassle, time invested, etc., that made them upset.

For me, this has been a recurring theme, getting numerous questions from people who have been inundated with advertising but still have little understanding of what "HDTV" really is. I think a large number of consumers still equate the idea of HD more with having a big screen than with having a full digital high-resolution experience. They may have an abstract concept of "more pixels," but don't generally appreciate how totally revolutionary the new technology is. This also means that when they go shopping, they are shopping for the TV screen, not the whole system. They make a very large investment in the screen and then discover they don't actually have the right source or other system components to complete it. Solving that problem involves buying or leasing even more equipment, or maybe just returning the product when the experience is lacking.

In reality, to get a truly exciting HDTV experience, you need to have a suitable system all the way from the source to your eyes and ears. HDTV is not just about the pixels, or the screen size, or the digital-image quality. It's about the total immersion into the scene or event. The combination of Dolby 5.1 surround sound and stunning video quality is what makes your investment come to life as a fulfilling entertainment experience. But none of this happens unless you have a good HD source, suitable sound system, high-quality TV receiver, and properly arranged viewing environment, all configured correctly, including myriad cables, menu settings, and (often-redundant) remotes. My guess is that many people have spent a lot of money and are not getting a suitable reward for their efforts because they do not understand the nuances of setting up the system correctly. I also suspect that there are many more consumers who are holding back on an HDTV purchase because they do not understand or appreciate the virtues of this technology.

A major part of the problem is that the marketing and advertising developed to explain to consumers how HDTV really works and why it is that much better than traditional sets fails to educate the public as intended. Most of the advertising focuses on the virtues of the new TVs and sometimes the price/value statement being presented. Some advertising doesn't even do this and is so abstract I can't imagine it being understood by those who are not already familiar with the technology. If the industry did make a real effort to explain and market the whole HD experience, both sound and picture, maybe they could get more consumers to appreciate the difference in value and also get everyone thinking more about the system.

However, the TV industry seems to be relying in large part on the major retailers and internet forums to teach consumers about HDTV. As an analogy, when developing new features such as anti-lock brakes, airbags, traction control, navigation, etc., the automotive industry spends many millions of dollars to demonstrate the virtues of these innovations in their commercials and, therefore, generates a good cost/reward equation in the minds of consumers. I do not see the same investment in consumer education coming from the TV manufacturers. The major retailers certainly have a vested interest in educating consumers and some do a great job training their staffs and providing information, but unfortunately, the results are inconsistent. This system also represents what seems to be a conflict of interest. The retailer is understandably motivated to sell as much equipment as they can, which means that the in-store experience can be a challenge for shoppers, who must distinguish between balanced, knowledgeable technical advice on their new HDTV system and the impetus for retailers to oversell.

I would challenge the manufacturers to invest in advertising that addresses this problem through a balanced perspective of system education and product promotion. One example for brand X would be to start off by showing a typical living room arranged for an optimum viewing experience. The announcer could explain how many picture heights away the sofa should be, where the speakers should go, how to arrange the lighting, how important a good HD source is, and then describe how brand X sells a wide variety of different TVs and other components to optimize almost any viewing situation. If done well, the message would connect the circumstances to particular features of the Brand X product line, and consumers would feel more empowered to make their choices with brand X as the beneficiary.

There is a real hazard to not investing in such consumer education, with slower-than-expected sales of TVs just one potential problem. Consumer dissatisfaction with the products they do buy and harsh negative reaction to retailers, content providers, and government officials could be more-volatile results. With the shutdown of analog over the air TV in the United States coming just 2 years from now, I think it is in everyone's best interest to make the transition to digital TV and HDTV appear as positive and beneficial as we possibly can. Almost every American TV consumer will be facing at least some out-of-pocket expense to maintain basic television reception, and literally everyone with a content service such as cable or Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) has and will continue to see an increase in service fees. Television has become a very basic part of life for people everywhere in the world, and raising the price and complexity of TV will get the attention of consumers and directly affect the fortunes of the TV industry worldwide.

Incidentally, after they upgraded their cable service and had a chance to experience some well-produced HD broadcasts, my neighbors are now very enthusiastic HDTV fans.