HD Today: Long Live the King
Posted Jul 11, 2005

I've been watching a lot of HDTV recently. Those who look longingly at $100/month-plus HDTV offerings from satellite providers or their local cable service might not know that almost all broadcast TV in the U.S. is now digital.

And this is free digital programming I'm talking about. In Philadelphia, I choose from among 12 stations, each broadcasting at least one signal. Many broadcast more than one; some as many as three or four. While most of it is not HDTV, there is a surprisingly good percentage that is. Not just primetime programming, movies, and specials, but baseball, football, and basketball—including 39 NCAA tournament games—and an enjoyable amount of PBS programming. All of it is free.

My window to this world comes through JVC's new HM-DT100U, which receives both NTSC and ATSC and has a built-in VCR that will tape, well, anything! Aside from the ability to time-shift digital TV just like I did with NTSC and a VHS VCR, this deck is also handy because it records and plays back D-VHS, SVHS, SVHS-ET, and VHS. Now, if a client comes in with a cassette of that size, I know I can handle it.

I was also pleased to find out that broadcast digital TV offers a program guide similar to satellite and cable offerings. Programming is easy, and the HDTV picture is superb. No more ghosts or fuzzy images. Playback from D-VHS tape is identical to the original because it merely writes down the bits off the air—there's no recompression unless I choose a long-play mode to cram a ton of material onto one tape.

Using the JVC DT100U for HD as well as SD reminds me of when I first got satellite: it's addictive. I find myself hunting down the HDTV programming. There's always something else to watch, and I find myself tuning in to things I might not normally watch, like NASCAR.

I will admit that auto racing and golf are at the bottom of my TV viewing list. But I've now watched some auto racing solely because it was in HD. Moreover, in the particular race I watched, there were lots of crashes; seeing the tiny little car bits trickle down the track in HD was very cool. It was then that I started to realize something: content is still king.

Many say they like the excitement of car racing. However, I suspect that if the cars just drove around the track, and there were no accidents, it'd be far less popular. I think that's why the solo qualifying heats for starting position are not televised, nor as heavily attended. The drama comes with cars rubbing against each other, jockeying for position, and spinning off the track. People watch for crashes, flames, and the driver getting out and waving to the crowd like a gladiator who survived the fight with the lion. Drama makes good TV. HDTV just makes it prettier to look at.

Part of this realization came during the race because of the technologies they use to televise it. Despite the HDTV broadcast, all the in-car video is still SD. It was very easy to see the difference between SD and HD when watching the HDTV broadcast, while the difference on the SD broadcast between the two sources looked minimal.

I used the same JVC deck and the same video projector to switch between broadcast NTSC and broadcast DTV. This provided a pretty good test, because the only difference was the signal standard.

When watching the HDTV broadcast, I found that I was able to overlook the differences in image resolution and quality between SD and HD and quality because the drama "drives" the program. Some of the images from the car cameras were relatively poor, even for SD, but they take us places we can't otherwise go. They let us sit with the driver.

The crashes (no one was hurt, thankfully) made good TV because, during the frequent yellow flags, they showed us every angle of every bump and nudge. The spray of the oil on the camera dome. Flames spitting out from under the tires. Head-on crashes as seen from inside the car. Even though this was all in SD from the in-car cameras, it was undeniably exciting.

The big cameras that followed the cars from a distance were HD. When they slow that footage down, a collision looks like a Hollywood movie. Then we go into the pit as the crews look at the mangled mess and work on getting the cars back out on the track. HD shows all this in incredible detail, too.

Would all this have been just as exciting in SD? For those who like auto racing, it probably would have. They have the genuine interest in the people and the drama behind the visuals. For me it was a reminder that the drama is what we need to focus on. Content is king. If the drama isn't there, if the interest in the subject isn't there, then HD is just a technology.

To put it another way, a bride's father's tears will still sell in SD. You just have to zoom in a little closer.