Television

I WANT MY HDTV

You’ve bought the high-priced set—now where are those high-definition shows?

MICHAEL SNIDER March 7 2005
Television

I WANT MY HDTV

You’ve bought the high-priced set—now where are those high-definition shows?

MICHAEL SNIDER March 7 2005

I WANT MY HDTV

Television

You’ve bought the high-priced set—now where are those high-definition shows?

MICHAEL SNIDER

KIRK LESLIE HAS TO FINISH HIS BASEMENT. Until then, his brand-spanking-new, $2,000, 43-inch, rear-projection, high-definition-ready beauty of a television just sits on a makeshift stand in his living room, looking completely out of place. A self-confessed TV junkie, the Toronto management consultant is eager to make the set the centrepiece of his home theatre. But like a guy who’s bought a souped-up hot rod only to discover he’s restricted to revving it in the driveway, Leslie quickly realized his image of HDTV heaven had been a little fuzzy. “If someone wants to see my TV, I turn to the preview channel because it’s the only station with high-definition content 24 hours a day,” he says. “I thought I was getting

six or seven channels that had HD programming around the clock, not just a few shows. The hype kind of suckered me.” Leslie’s not the only one. Thanks to steadily dropping prices on high-end sets and store clerks’ promises of life-altering viewing experiences, Canadians have been snapping up HD-ready TVs that promise a sharper, more vivid picture, plus high-quality digital sound. There are already more than a million such units in households across the country, and that number is expected to double this year. The problem: there’s not much to watch. High-definition shows, movies and sports events are coming to air

much more slowly than the technology is selling. “When people see an HD broadcast on my TV, they say, ‘I have to have one of those,”’ says Heinz Ecker, owner of a 61inch rear-projection set and moderator of several Web forums dedicated to everything high-definition. “But I always tell them, ‘Listen, right now you’ll only get so much.’ ” These days, what you get depends largely on where you live. In Toronto, digital cable and satellite subscribers, or those who spring for a special tuner that picks up overthe-air HD signals, can watch around two dozen high-definition stations, including Canadian and U.S. networks and specialty

channels like TSN. Elsewhere, it’s a different story. In Calgary, for example, Shaw Cable offers only five HD stations, while EastLink subscribers in Halifax get six.

Even those with access to more HD stations find much of what’s on them is the same standard-definition fare (which looks dreadful on a widescreen display because the image doesn’t cover the whole screen, leaving black bars on the sides). That’s because to give viewers a true high-def experience, a TV program must be both produced and aired in high definition—and TV producers are only slowly making the shift. What’s more, most HD channels run high-definition programming only in prime time, and sports—a major draw for HDTV fans—is usually restricted to live events.

Canada’s limited spectrum of HD offerings— especially homegrown content—stands in sharp contrast to the U.S. Most urban areas south of the border have access to about 30 HD stations. Specialty channels such as ESPN and HBO together add more than

LOWDOWN ON HOMEGROWN HIGH-DEF

Most HD programming currently available on Canadian TV are shows imported from the U.S. networks. But homemade high-definition content is growingslowly. Here’s what national broadcasters are producing or planning to offer soon.

CBC

Series The Newsroom and some episodes of The Nature of Things; plans weekly HD Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts

when NHL resumes (Don Cherry’s suits in high definition!).

GLOBAL

TELEVISION

No original programs-the only HD content are American shows like Joey; plans to air the Santa Claus Parade in HD.

From left: Instant Star, The Newsroom, Joey, 2004 Junos, CFL

CTV

Series Degrassi: the Next Generation, Instant Star, Corner Gas and The Eleventh Hour; plans HD broadcasts of special events such as the Juno Awards in April.

100 daily hours of available HD fare. Seventy per cent of network prime-time shows and many local newscasts also air in HD.

The difference lies partly in regulatory approaches. The U.S. government has mandated that all the networks and their affiliates must be broadcasting digital signals by 2006. (Most observers agree that deadline now looks unrealistic, and 2010 is a more likely target for a full switch to digital.) Canada has opted to hold off on legislation. Instead, the CRTC has left the pace of transition to market forces: as consumers buy HD-ready TVs, networks add HD content, which drives more consumers to buy TVs. But that strategy has fostered delays on both sides: consumers want to wait till there is more HD programming before upgrading to expensive sets, while broadcasters hold off on investing in pricey digital transmitters until more viewers are equipped to watch digital shows.

This chicken-or-egg game has put the pace of HDTV adoption in Canada more than two years behind our southern neighbour. The odd thing is, the delay is by design—at least on the part of the broadcast industry. “Our strategy has always been to lag behind the American market,” says Michael McEwen of Canadian Digital Television, an industrysponsored group that promotes HD adoption, “and let them work out the kinks in HD standards, the high cost of broadcast transmissions and consumer electronics.”

But Canadian consumers and regulators

are getting impatient. Three months ago, CRTC chairman Charles Dalfen urged networks and producers to reduce the growing gap between Canada and the U.S., pointing out that few of the 15 digital stations licensed more than a year ago were operational. “At the end of the day, it’s about content,” Dalfen told Maclean’s. “We began to see that we were falling behind.”

Some critics now go so far as to wonder whether Canadians will ever see enough HD programming to justify their outlays on high-end gear. CTV Inc. president Rick

‘I THOUGHT i was

getting several channels with HD around the clock, not a few shows. The hype kind of suckered me’

Brace’s response: absolutely. “There is a real perception gulf,” he says. “Canadians have as much or more HD content than what they have in the U.S.” He points out that viewers here can see digital broadcasts not only of American prime-time shows but a growing number of original Canadian productions.

And things are progressing fast, says Brace. CTV, which a year ago was the only conventional national broadcaster airing in high definition, now has two HD feeds— one each in the East and West—plus plans

to set up over-the-air transmitters in Vancouver and Toronto for viewers who don’t subscribe to digital cable or satellite. CBC, which delayed its rollout of HD service because of the NHL lockout, is launching HD channels this week on cable and satellite, plus over-the-air options in Toronto and Montreal (the broadcaster hopes to set up over-the-air HD transmitters in Vancouver, Ottawa and Quebec City as well). Both networks are also producing HD programming, such as CTV’s Corner Gas and CBC’s The Nature of Things, as well as movies of the week, miniseries and special events like Juno broadcasts. The sports and specialty channels are ramping up as well. TSN will add 20 CFL games to the 25 NFL games it broadcasts in high definition, as well as coverage of the Masters, NASCAR and a handful of NBA games. Rogers SportsNet, meanwhile, will be airing home Toronto Blue Jays games in HD this year.

That said, Canadians are still years away from the vaunted 24-hour cycle of crystalclear television. Reaching that goal will require other players—namely, advertisers— to apply pressure. “How you’ll know that HD has tipped the scales is when most ads are in widescreen,” says BMO Nesbitt Burns tech analyst Brian Piccioni. “That will be the signal from God that the majority of the viewing community is watching HD.” I?1

michael.snider@macleans.rogers.com

SPECIALTY CHANNELS: TSN will air 20 CFL games in FID this year, plus NHL games when available. Rogers SportsNet will offer Toronto Blue Jays home games plus some Raptors basketball games. Discovery has HD series Sex Files, Miracle Planet and Daily Planet Goes to Japan. OMNI 1 and 2, meanwhile, air five ethnic evening newscasts and series Metropia! and Bollywood Boulevard 's HD.