17 January 2008

The Mixed Messages of HDTV

So, in a decision influenced by the HDTV manufacturers, the FCC decreed that come February next year, analog TV's will be paperweights (unless they're connected to something that receives a digital signal, such as a cable box, satellite receiver or HD antenna converter tuner thingie). Oh, sure, there's something about using those broadcast frequencies to improve emergency responders and security, blah, blah, blah. Like the FOP lobbyists have devoted their resources to clearing up frequencies for communication. Anyway, the TV manufacturers decided that all HDTV's would be widescreen.

Now, this move to widescreen favors three things: movies, newer TV shows and video games. Except, of course, that somehow or other, the studios continue to crank out full screen and widescreen versions of major releases. Why? Well, simply put, statistics say up to half of all American homes (or more) don't have even one HDTV, meaning that most people don't have their DVD player hooked up to a widescreen TV. Even in homes that have one HDTV, most other rooms that have a TV still have an old school 4:3 TV. I know ours is no different; the upstairs TV and the one in our bedroom are old ones, but the Philips HDTV is our primary TV.

Here's the problem with studios continuing to crank out full screen (or pan & scan, if you prefer) versions of titles on DVD: they discourage the masses from adapting to the 21st century. It's not a major change, like accepting that there are gay people in the country who want to get married to one another. It's a simple change. Granted, it's not necessarily an inexpensive change, but HDTV's have come down considerably just in the last few years, and will continue to do so. Besides, if you didn't use Christmas as an excuse to buy one (and God knows Best Buy and Circuit City did everything in their power to get you to do it), then how about that tax refund you're about to get? That $500 you're getting back just for having procreated pays the bulk of a new HDTV.

Once you have your HDTV, you'll discover that those full screen DVD's you shelled out for look odd; you'll also discover that widescreen versions look much better, and, as the debate has raged for a decade now, you'll actually get to see the entirety of what was shot. I was once a full screen holdout, myself, until a coworker of mine pointed out that in the full screen version of that movie where Antonia Banderas pulls out a gun in each hand and shoots a guy standing on either side of him, you don't actually see either of the guys; just Antonio. In the widescreen version, though, you see two guys take a bullet simultaneously, and if that's not enough to convince you to join the rest of us in this new millennium, I don't know what else to say.

It goes beyond the studios, though, trying to milk the 4:3 TV owners until they're compelled into abandoning their outdated preference. Consider that one out of every four or five DVD's sold in the world is sold by Wal-Mart. Ever shopped for a DVD at Wal-Mart? (Of course you have, that's how come that statistic is so high.) Ever try finding the widescreen version of something that didn't come out this week? It's impossible. Why? Simple. Wal-Mart orders both versions upon a title's initial release, but only restocks whichever sold the best. Since the average Wal-Mart shopper is, stereotypically speaking, lacking in the artistic appreciation that the widescreen crowd has, it comes as no surprise that the full screen versions outsell the widescreen versions of films at the world's largest retailer.

Conversely, of course finding a full screen version of a film at, say, Best Buy, Borders or Circuit City can be like finding a virgin in a maternity ward. These are places where the average consumer is much more artistry savvy and therefore the stores can forego the pandering that Wal-Mart does. It's not entirely Wal-Mart's fault; from an economics perspective, it makes perfect sense. If the studios are going to continue to produce a version favored by their consumers, it's their job to make it available.

The problem, though, is that Wal-Mart's high sales statistics are proof enough that the majority of DVD consumers have built their libraries from titles bought at their store. In some areas, it may not be unreasonable to suspect that the entirety of a family's DVD library was bought at a Wal-Mart, or at least the overwhelming majority of it. There are two important, negative consequences of this full screen pandering.

The first is that the pro-widescreen segment of the population is forced to either purchase their DVD from Wal-Mart during the title's first week of release or to buy somewhere other than in their local Wal-Mart store. Of course, it goes without saying that anyone looking for anything other than a mainstream release has no use for Wal-Mart in the first place. This, however, pales next to the principal consequence of the full screen favoritism, which is that a large segment of the population, which is likely uninformed of the forthcoming changes in TV broacasting, will be unprepared for February, 2009.

Sure, you can get a voucher for up to $40 toward an HD tuner adapter for your analog TV from the FCC. You just have to go to ffc.gov to get it, and to do that you had to have been aware of the change in the first place. This is the biggest revolution in TV technology since color supplanted black & white. Could you imagine a TV series still broadcasting in black & white several years after color TV's hit the market?It goes beyond the TV set, though. Seventy percent of movie studios have signed agreements to distribute Blu-ray Disc versions of their high definition titles exclusively, leaving only thirty percent of the market in league with HD-DVD. By the time the FCC requirements are met next year, HD-DVD may be sitting beside Beta in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Technology. Netflix and LG are producing a new console through which you will be able to watch rented titles from their online library straight onto your TV; the capability is also being incorporated into forthcoming cable and satellite receivers. By February, 2009, even owning a DVD player may be superfluous for some segments of the population. And yet, studios and Wal-Mart will have done little to move the majority of Americans into the 21st century.

For the record, I actually opposed the FCC's intervention in the first place and condemned it as government acting as a strongman for the TV manufacturers to ensure their products would have a market. But, you know what? They did it anyway and once a decision like this has been made the only thing left to do about it is accept it and adapt. That's why I'm so frustrated that the studios who produce full screen DVD's and Wal-Mart, who sells them, have retarded that adaptation process.

I realized after I posted this blog that I missed two key culprits in my critique of the actors involved in the HDTV transition debacle: television studios and television networks. Studios include the companies that produce commercials, because they, too, are broadcast across your TV (HD or other). Cheers to Conan O'Brien because while he may have put his Late Night back on air without an agreement with the writers (an ordeal not to be gone into in this blog), he was among the first (if not the first) of the late night shows to go to a widescreen format.

Many primetime series are now produced in widescreen, which is good, but many others are not. I understand that the cost of widescreen cameras is higher than the traditional 4:3 cameras employed by shows with smaller budgets. I can appreciate the difficulty of documentarians, especially those who go out into nature, of employing such technology. But every new show and commercial that air in full screen format give that much more credence to the average viewer that his reluctance to accept widescreen is validated. Were HDTV's produced in 4:3 format, the widescreen debate would not be coupled with the HDTV issue; unfortunately, since there are no 4:3 HDTV's, everything that has been produced for broadcast since the FCC ruling went into effect has been counterproductive.

It is almost ironic that, given the nature of this issue, television networks (charged with selecting TV programming) have the least measure of guilt in this debacle. Why? Simply put, they can only air what has been produced. A lot of the programming consists of syndicated re-runs, and those shows may have been produced before terms like "widescreen" and "HD" existed. Out of five live action Star Trek TV series (or six overall series, if you want to include the animated series), only one (Enterprise) was produced in widescreen. Obviously, Star Trek re-runs, even in times when interest in the franchise as a whole is down, are good TV filler because they're guaranteed an audience. Maybe it won't be C.S.I.-sized, but it'll be there.

However, the networks ought not be given a free pass entirely. They could exert influence and demand that newer produced materials be in widescreen, which many have done, but that may not be the best way to handle the situation. Instead, where the networks have failed miserably is in their sports coverage and the broadcast airing of motion pictures. ESPN's HD broadcasts are in widescreen. So why aren't ESPN's regular channel broadcasts? If you can shoot a ballgame in widescreen for HD, then you can also do it in non-HD digitial. One of the most compelling arguments for both the widescreen format and HDTV is sports programming. Once you've seen a ball hit up the infield and you could see the shortstop and the third baseman respond, the debate is over.

Then there are the movies. It wasn't until USA aired Collateral Damage over the weekend in widescreen that I realized how few network broadcasts of movies are in the proper format. This is where the networks earn their greatest share of the blame for this issue, because people may choose not to spend their money on a widescreen DVD, given a choice of full screen. But if networks had been airing movies on TV in widescreen for the last several years (and it's been at least ten years since widescreen home video emerged as a viewing format option with the tail end of the VHS era), viewers would have had the last few years to acclimate. They might have started to notice things in movies they've seen repeatedly that they never noticed before, and that's what the widescreen debate needed all along.

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