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HDTV vs. HD Radio – a cautionary tale

HDTV is not HD radio any more than regular TV is regular radio. At the very least, the price of an HDTV is many times the price of an HD radio (although how the moving pictures work into that cost/benefit equation cannot be underestimated).

Still, the letters “HD” signify an affiliation from a product, marketing, and benefit perspective that is undeniable (unless, that is, the name of HD radio were to be changed).

Nevertheless, this article serves as a cautionary tale:

Some tech toys such as iPods and digital cameras have swept into American households with breathtaking speed. But despite a yearly spike in interest around the Super Bowl, high-definition televisions (HDTVs) just haven’t had the same impact. While nearly everyone has heard of HDTV, only 15 percent of American families have bought one since their introduction in the late 1990s, according to Ipsos Insight, a market research firm. Worse yet, only 15 percent more are seriously considering buying one in the near future.

The article goes on to say that prospects for HD long-term are much brighter as prices fall and the legal transition to HDTV kicks in in 2009 (Hey, radio, just get Congress to mandate HD and your troubles are over).

For now, however,

…HDTV’s stunning picture quality just isn’t “revolutionary enough” to sell to a large number of people right now, says Todd Board, who tracks technology trends at Ipsos Insight. And switching to HDTV is a big commitment, he says. “You can’t easily bring it home and try it for a month.”

And more…

Unlike iPods, HDTV isn’t getting much favorable word-of-mouth because “it’s not simple,” says Phillip Swann, an author and speaker whose website covers TV technology. “Television is supposed to be simple, so the complication [of HDTV] seems more dramatic,” says Mr. Swann. Receiving an HDTV signal is a function of your TV’s capabilities as well as how you receive the signal and the services to which you subscribe.

Simplicity, indeed. This is a key benefit of radio, as it is for TV. And there’s no doubt that early models of HD radio are invariably more complicated than their traditional kin. Nested channels? One station representing multiple things at the same time? An unclear selection of diverse, niche-oriented channels? Digital quality as a selling point for a market which has trouble appreciating such qualitative distinctions because what they have now is “good enough”? Strange and unfamiliar channel nomenclature reminiscent of HAM radio?

More proof:

And here’s the most bizarre HDTV statistic: More than half of current HDTV owners aren’t really watching shows in HDTV – because they haven’t taken the steps [required to get HDTV and they may not even know it].

And this from the retail side:

“The analog signal is going away,” says George DeSesso, a spokesman for Best Buy, the consumer electronics retailer. Then people will move quickly to HDTV, he predicts. “It’s like when we switched from cassettes to CDs,” he says. “It’s just going to become the accepted technology.”

Actually, Mr. DeSesso, it’s not like that at all. Since Congress never mandated that we should all scrap our cassettes in favor of CD’s. We switched because the benefits were true and meaningful and valuable. Is that the case for HDTV? Thanks to Congress, we’ll never know.

The trouble HDTV is having is a problem of complexity and value. The value problem will eventually sort itself out. But the complexity problem shows no signs of evaporating.

Nobody wants their lives to be made more complicated.

Keep that in mind as you design the next generation of radio.

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