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Why Don't They...

Broadcasters are getting serious about HDTV, and for that we're all grateful. But some of them, and their sponsors, still don't get it.

If our local PBS station, KCET on Los Angeles, is any indication, PBS seems to be happy with standard definition widescreen DTV, with only one or two programs a night in full high definition. Perhaps a grant from one of those ubiquitous promotional ads that open virtually every show (PBS now has more advertising then Discovery HD) will do the trick. Or else more donations from "viewers like you."

While I'm picking on PBS, why does KCET state, on its website's high definition page, "For HD set owners whose cable providers aren't yet offering digital cable…" Listen up PBS, HDTV is digital, but digital cable, as it is generally defined by cable companies, is not the same thing as DTV or HDTV. With most cable providers, you must specifically request (and usually pay separately for) their DTV and HDTV service; you do not automatically get it if you sign up for "digital cable." That also applies to their premium stations. Just because you subscribe to HBO, for example, does not mean you will get HBO in high definition. You must specifically request the HD version—and generally pay extra for it, depending on the cable company.

Hey, TNT HD, your high def stuff looks great, but most of the time you're giving us standard definition, 4:3 programming stretched to a 16:9 aspect ratio (and not too artfully, either). Stretchy, standard def commercials, too! X-Files fans, in particular, take note. The X-Files DVDs (not among the best-look looking transfers) look better than TNT's fake high definition versions.

We're still well short of the day when all major sporting events are broadcast in high definition. And has anyone else noticed that most of those HD football broadcasts we do get are using edge enhancement on the long shots of the field from the press box? Medium shots and close-ups look great, but the custom of cranking up the sharpness on the full-field camera," a holdover from standard definition days, has got to go.

And you, over there, from ESPN. The HD you do looks great, but your attempt at decorative proscenium window boxes to dress up the still too-frequent standard definition broadcasts on your "high definition" channel merely reminds us that you need to invest in more HD equipment before you'll really deserve the name ESPN HD.

Please, HBO, it's time to stop panning and scanning your cablecasts of 2.35:1 films to 1.78:1 so they fill the screen. That nasty habit began when TV shops didn't want to deal with those nasty black bars. But your audience is, we hope, a bit more sophisticated than that. You have carried a few true widescreen presentations of such films recently. Start doing it all the time.

And to the major networks who are also doing this Pan & Scam trick. Your audience is perhaps more interested in a full screen than an accurate representation of the movie, but give it a try.

When are some of you smaller channels going to give HDTV a shot? In particular, the Sci-Fi channel, which currently broadcasts many widescreen series (my current fav Battlestar Galactica among them) that look embarrassingly worse on cable than on their DVDs.

Finally, when are advertisers going to realize that some products demand HD commercials. Toilet bowl cleaners and denture adhesives, maybe not. But cars, cruises, and any manner of visually arresting products, definitely yes. And the only excuse for a standard definition ad for a high definition television is that the intended audience probably doesn't have an HD set yet! Thankfully, some advertisers have smartened-up, and for the upcoming Super Bowl, at least, we're promised more HD commercials than ever. I predict that far fewer toilets will be flushed in those four premium hours than ever before.

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