Media Magazine

by Steve Smith

Even though nobody seems to know exactly what “high-definition” actually means, American gadgeteers and marketers apparently lust for turning that technology “one louder” in every pursuit. The cult of high definition is upon us. Everywhere we look (indoor or out), and everywhere we listen, hd is the new “all new and improved,” the new “digital,” the new sticker applied to all products to define that next level of inevitable technical perfection –
the new “11.”

Obviously, hdtv is the standard bearer for the concept of high-resolution – one that’s fuzzy at best and empty hype at worst. Point of fact, the hd appellation is experiencing patchy success throughout the media ecosystem. We now have hd Radio, hd Audio (Super Audio cd), Blu-ray dvds, Xbox and ps3 hd Gaming, hd camcorders, and now outdoor hd digital billboards and building wraparounds all struggling for limited mindshare. There is even high-definition makeup and eyewear that purports to bring that home-theater sharpness to our view of the world, and the world’s view of us. The bandwagon has rolled out, but consumers’ mixed response to the prospect of an hd Nation may end up telling us something new about how much technology Americans really need, and what they do and don’t value about their own media experiences.

Defining Definition
Like the “digital” tag that preceded it, “high definition” is just shorthand for higher functionality and quality, admits Tim Herbert, senior director of market research for the Consumer Electronics Association. There are no real standards or specs to define “hd” across its many technological iterations. “In the consumer’s mind, it doesn’t mean much,” he says. “It’s a code word to help the consumer understand how it is better.” How it is, well, 11.

But every media technology “code word” has a defining technology. Arguably, cds and mp3 players helped consumers best understand the transition from analog to digital in all its forms. In hd, television is that one technology that informs our expectations of the term elsewhere. “The tv is where high definition so far is the most honest,” says cnet editor-at-large Brian Cooley, who lives and breathes new gadgetry. While there still is a lot of confusion in the market among “digital,” “standard-def” and “hd,” “hdtv is night and day in terms of how the user enjoys the fidelity of the image and will stick with it,” he says.

HDTV also enjoys a rare sense of market inevitability other technologies lack. As most cable and network providers add hd channels, and the switchover to digital progresses, new tv buyers are future-proofing their purchases and buying into the hype. Leichtman Research found that by late 2008, 34 percent of u.s. households (about 40 million) had an HDTV, which it estimates will double in four years. And the image just looks better. “We see in adoption a very steady increase, and the purchase motivation is picture quality,” says Scott Susskind, director of technology and innovation of the ipg Emerging Media Lab. “Consumers can recognize the difference.”

The real question is whether hd technology actually changes media experiences and habit, and here the evidence is scant. In the first large-scale study of 320,000 digital cable customers, tns found that average daily time spent rose from 6.11 hours a day in standard-def households to 7.23 hours in hd homes. The technology also encouraged broader viewing – 43.7 different channels vs. 35.3 for sd. And the big winner among content genres, is, not surprisingly, sports, which indexes very high among hd owners, who watch on average one more game a week on tv than sd-viewing fans, says tns. cea research found that 40 percent of hd owners base some programming choices on whether a show is in hd, and a Motorola survey showed some viewers found themselves watching shows they didn’t even like.

But don’t count on the seductive hd experience to save tv from multiplatform fragmentation, warns Mike Bloxham, director of insight and research at the Center for Media Design at Ball State University. After the “wow” factor fades, will hd even be a marketable feature? “Will it mirror the advent of color tv and just become the norm?” he wonders. “We are complacent animals. We adapt very quickly.” And with only 56 percent of HDTV owners actually watching high-def programming on their sets, according to Leichtman Research, it’s still unclear how many of us know the difference.

The Price Is Higher, Too
HD actually raises the game and the cost structure for everyone, and introduces new chinks in the media value chain. In one recent study, the cea found a significant number of consumers preferred watching an nfl game in HD at home to going to a cold, expensive stadium. When images in the home get this immersive, then tv really does start competing with reality. And virtual reality, in the form of video games, incurs higher costs that are anything but virtual. The production budget for many A-list titles that meet the HD specs of the Xbox 360 and ps3 is up to $20 million, double and triple the costs of games for previous generations of hardware. Margins get pressured and the ecosystem changes. “It means that every game a company releases has to be a blockbuster,” says critic Kyle Orland.

HD may help legitimize nascent formats like downloadable iTunes (now in HD) and high-res Netflix video streams into Xbox 360 systems. New HD versions of both YouTube and Hulu further blur the distinction between Web-based tv viewing and the living room experience.

Where will the revenue models and ads go? “The business models are in flux,” says Lori Schwartz, senior vice president and director of the ipg Emerging Media Lab. “We are seeing ads attached to iTunes and you will see them follow into the HD space. Content opens the door and the ad model follows.” And the ads better look as good as the programming, warns Scott Susskind. A low-res sd spot amidst 16:9 1080p content is “very jarring” to viewers and perhaps damaging to brands, he argues. “You can liken it to watching a black-and-white spot in a color tv-era broadcast.” ipg Lab recommends all clients match their marketing to the new venue. “If the consumer has purchased an HD device, they are expecting a certain level of visual information,” Susskind says. The bar just got higher, and pricier, for everyone.

The expectation of HD has extended to out-of-home, which raises new challenges – both of technology and content. Times Square now has mtv’s HD Screen and the Spec HD screen, which jvc claims is the first 720p digital billboard. This spring, digital signage firm A2aMedia will construct a 3,400-square-foot transparent digital led motion graphics display on the facade of the American Airlines Arena in Miami. These new high-res wraps bring HD-like visuals into the very architecture, recalling Blade Runner cityscapes.

Thin stainless-steel meshes interwoven with leds make such HD signage 70 percent transparent, creating an eerie, opaque wrap that literally turns any building into an instant-on HD display. A2aMedia’s chief technology officer Kevin Beaulieu admits the indoor HD experience raises the game for digital signage. “There is pressure now that people are used to looking at higher-resolution screens and they equate them with higher quality.” HD is a tougher calculation at several stories high. Beaulieu has to optimize pixel density, contrast and color gamut to accommodate the likely viewing distance, and even the position of the sun throughout the day. And reproducing that indoor hyper-realistic feel out-of-home raises curious new questions about content. “This is a large capture experience,” says Beaulieu. “You lose some of the [indoor] intimacy between you and the display. How do we modify the message so it strikes the most number of people?” What manner of E*TRADE talking-baby ad might work on an HD Flatiron building?

Marketing allure aside, however, the “HD” moniker actually is not hitting “11” on many devices beyond the tv screen itself. High-res may feed the sports jones for affluent males, but “we haven’t gotten a soccer mom to say how great the program on the HD Cleaning Channel is,” quips a longtime researcher of media technology adoption, Leo Kivijarv, vice president of research at pq Media. Historically, the sluggish growth of video-on-demand, Blu-ray players, satellite radio and even dvrs, outside of the early adopter demos, suggests that consumers are smarter than the marketing hype. We want tv, cell phones, radio, but don’t necessarily crave 3G, on-demand, or thousands of channels.

In the panoply of new media thrown at consumers in the last decade, Kivijarv reminds us that the transition from dial-up to broadband was the most comprehensive upgrade the majority of Americans made, because its value was clear. Otherwise, “the average person says, just give me the content. It needs to have value added.”

In truth, HD Everything is not making its case for added value very broadly. For instance, HD camcorders seem like overkill for media that most of us record once and consign to a drawer forever. “It is throwing pearls before swine,” complains cnet’s Cooley. “We never learned how to make or edit video in low-def.” Blu-ray discs, too, only represent $750 million in a $22 billion dvd market, perhaps because most consumers can barely distinguish a high-def disc from a standard dvd on a good player. Price points and the market may push us all toward high-def discs, but “will it get to the point where people make that decision based on quality?” asks the cea’s Herbert. “I am not convinced.”

Nor are many of us convinced that the perennially promoted, generally ignored “HD Radio” merits an upgrade. Only 600,000 units are installed in the United States. Oddly enough, audio is one area where consumers seem to tolerate ever-lessening quality: from vinyl’s rich dynamic range to cold cds, to low bit-rate mp3 and now even patchier Web radio streams. In this medium we trade quality for convenience. HD radio may be the murkiest use of the code word, ostensibly a marketing device tagged onto “a really good audio codec that is being used to transmit a signal over a fairly limited data bandwidth,” says David Maxson of Broadcast Signal Lab and author of The iboc Handbook: Understanding HD Radio Technology.

Throwing better audio at talk radio or background music seems to have been a non-starter in the market. Even audiophiles failed to embrace recent attempts at high-res dvd-Audio and sacd disc formats. So HD Radio now argues its real value add is the expansion of choice. Broadcasters can fit many more niche “channels” into their own small slice of allotted spectrum. Of course, that pitch hasn’t worked too well for satellite radio. Maxson thinks lower pricing and Detroit’s adoption of HD Radio as standard car equipment will move us past this flat part of the adoption curve. But the failure of HD formats in audio may suggest that Americans’ relationships to different media vary. Maybe we just don’t crave high presentation quality in our music. “[HD Radio] solves a need I don’t think exists,” says Cooley. When audio reaches a certain threshold, it is good-enough media, and consumers start looking at other qualities, namely storage and convenience.

While engineers and marketers target high resolution, anywhere and everywhere, as an end in itself, consumer behavior suggests that the industry’s aim is too narrow. Are we forgetting why we engage with media in the first place? The resilience of low-def, high-value entertainment with the great mass of Americans is no clearer than in the undisputed dominance of the Nintendo Wii in the latest round of game-console wars. Both Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 aimed for and generally grabbed the high-end gamer market with their 1080p, wide-screen virtual worlds. But on most standard screens, even a devoted player like CripsyGamer’s Kyle Orland admits, “The difference isn’t that pronounced.”

By the end of 2008, and despite all of the hype surrounding the immersive power of HD gaming, the 480p Wii buried the competition with 17.5 million units sold, compared to 13.8 million Xbox 360s and 6.4 million ps3s. The Wii is about the value-add of engagement, not resolution. “They have more approachable games and people don’t see the value proposition for HDTV support,” says Orland. Motion-sensitive controls and whimsical game content define the platform, not the same old game play with more pixels.

Mike Bloxham thinks the Wii raises an interesting point about the calculation consumers make concerning the technical quality of a medium and its value. “The Wii is more experiential and participatory than tv viewing,” Bloxham says. “There are more dimensions to be taken into account. The resolution issue diminishes.” Instead of aiming for high-definition versions of the same old media, we should be inventing wide-definition media that engages and involves us.

As the marketers seem to push us into HD everything, turning our imagery up to 11, they may be taking us away from a pleasurable experience and driving us towards uncanny valley. A2aMedia’s Beaulieu has worked with ultra-high-res imagery of 8K x 8K pixels and says there is a point where resolution creates “a sense of uneasiness … something clearer than life. Is that an apple or a hyper-realistic version of an apple? There is a disquiet there.” Bloxham agrees that HD material of all sorts “sometimes looks like a Pixar movie. It is beyond reality. It is almost perfectly lit, and the post-production effects are not real.”

For all of its initial richness, HD media could also compromise media experience, or at least distract us from impoverished creativity. Digitization tends to reduce all technology to a battle of quantifiable specs. Camera technology, for instance, now distinguishes itself by megapixel counts and lines of measurable resolution rather than the once-familiar distinctions among images produced by Canon, Nikon or Leica lenses. “There is a difference between perfection and satisfaction,” warns Cooley. HD can reward sterility and starkness. “The most perfect is not necessarily the most evocative and satisfying,” he says. We advertise HD as a kind of truer window on reality, but are the ultra-sharp imagery, perfectly lit scenes, and unreal detail actually creating an ultra-real standard that is more like reality enhanced? Do we really want to hit “11” on the reality dial?