By Stephen H. Wildstrom It's a truism in the computer world that hardware is always ahead of the software. The Jan. 6-9 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas made it abundantly clear that the same is now true in the world of entertainment products, especially TVs. The capabilities of today's high-definition sets vastly outstrip the software, better known as content, available for them.
The very best HD displays, such as Sony's (SNE) superhigh-end Qualia line, are capable of images that rival a high-quality film print. But except for demonstrations run using specially mastered content taken from Sony's own film vaults, it's almost impossible to find content that can put these sets to their best advantage.
Some numbers tell the story. The highest resolution supported by the best displays is a standard called 1080p, but essentially no content -- broadcast, cable, satellite, or prerecorded -- is available in that format. Most HD broadcasts are done at the inferior 1080i standard or the alternative 720p, which provides lower resolution but is smoother in high-speed action scenes than 1080i is.
DISPLAYING DISCOVERY. DVDs, the only widely available source of prerecorded content, come in the 480p format. This offers the same vertical resolution as standard analog TV, though the picture is significantly clearer, and DVDs can handle a widescreen display.
Within a given resolution, the quality of images can vary considerably depending on just how good a job the engineers do in preparing the content. It's no accident that most of the displays at CES that were showing commercially available content chose Discovery HD, a cable network that consistently delivers stunning image quality.
Otherwise, the HD content broadcast stations offer is all over the lot. The networks generally save their best for sports events, which are broadcast in high-quality widescreen HD, usually 720p. Many shows are shot in HD or converted to it from film, but are broadcast in the standard TV-screen 4:3 aspect ratio, which needs vertical black bands to fill the extra width on a 16:9 screen. Sets and cinematography are designed for one aspect ratio or the other.
PRETTIER PIGSKINS. Sometimes the stations seem to take standard analog content and "upconvert" to HD, a process that produces a very pale and fuzzy imitation of real HD. And sometimes they take a 4:3 image and stretch it horizontally to fill the wide screen, a process that can make even a supermodel look short and fat.
Even the cable-sports network ESPN HD, which often does an exemplary job with HD, sometimes cheats, offering 720p images, but on a 4:3 screen. The reason, according to an ESPN (DIS) official, is a shortage of mobile HD production facilities. Broadcasting an event in both standard and HD formats requires parallel production operations because the HD shot shows a much larger chunk of the field.
The number of HD production trucks is limited and so, of course, are budgets. Pro football seems to get top priority for the good stuff, followed by the National Basketball Assn., then college basketball and everything else.
FORMAT WAR. The programming situation will gradually improve as broadcasters and independent production studios find it more attractive to do HDTV well as the number of HD sets in use soars. The outlook for prerecorded media is bleaker. With current technology, DVDs simply don't have enough capacity to hold an HD movie.
The industry's answer has been to come up with two different, and incompatible, high-capacity formats called Blu-ray and HD DVD. Consumers will probably wisely avoid both formats until until it becomes clear which one will prevail (see BW Online, 12/9/04, "The Arms Race over High-Def DVDs").
And with few DVD players that can handle either format in consumer's hands, studios have little incentive to release movies in HD. This impasse is unlikely to be resolved until peace can be reached in the format wars.
BETTER DAYS COMING. A company called DiVX is promoting a third approach. It has a compression technology that it says allows an HD feature film to fit on a conventional DVD. But although DiVX is in talks with content owners, none of the studios has committed to make content available in the format, as many have in either Blu-ray or HD DVD.
HD TVs are likely to have a big year in 2005, and just enough content is out there, especially if you're a sports fan, to make it worthwhile. But things will get a lot better once the software catches up with the hardware. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek