My One-Month Review of HDTV

I finally joined the twenty-first century earlier this year: our household finally got HDTV. Specifically, we got it the day before the Super Bowl, but couldn’t get actual HD service until the day after, meaning there was a period of less than 48 hours where we had to watch TV in pixellated stretch-o-vision, a period that just so happened to include, oh yeah, the single biggest reason to get HD in the first place. Oops.

I have to say I was never as swept off my feet by HD before as some people might have claimed. I was impressed at how certain graphics looked in HD when I happened upon various public displays of it, but I never felt the picture quality was such an improvement that I couldn’t bear to watch in SD, though as more and more channels (especially those showing sports) have gone letterboxed in recent years I could tell the writing was on the wall. To me, HD is just another way of saying “big”, as in, it keeps the effective picture quality of a big TV about the same, maybe a little sharper, as my old SDTV of half the size. If anything, I can say that I would never want to watch SD on an HD set.

But even though graphics were the thing that most impressed me about HD before, now that I’ve had a month of up-close-and-personal experience with it, I’ve gotta say… I’m not that impressed with the state of HD graphics.

Part of it is that a lot of graphics on a lot of channels are still designed for SD. They leave a lot of awkwardly-used space on the sides of the screen if their channel isn’t letterboxed, and they make the type too big if it is (which can affect even SD viewers). But a potentially bigger issue is that a lot of times, text in HD is just too sharp. It creates an odd air of artificiality that can come off as jarring, especially when it’s against raw video as a background.

Maybe I just need to get used to it, but I’m not sure that I totally agree with xkcd that we only see higher-quality video as somehow more fake only because of what it’s been used for. I think there definitely comes a point at which higher quality starts to become oddly artificial, perhaps even falls into an uncanny valley. At the very least, I would think any use of Helvetica on television should probably die pretty quickly.

Not that the opposite problem doesn’t exist; it’s one of my beefs with the March Madness graphics, but I’ll get to that at a later date. Also, while my own mockups of my own sports graphics concepts have often used black-on-white only because of my lack of creativity with colors, I now find it a rather stark contrast when I see it on ESPN and TNT’s basketball coverage. I’d say any use of solid blocks of color should probably be re-examined.

Finally, I have long bemoaned the lack of respect broadcast television receives, and how cable’s unfair advantages threaten the usefulness of free over-the-air television. When I grew up, there were broadcast channels and cable channels (and premium channels and pay-per-view channels), and they were all very well defined. But now… now I get the sense that HD really dissolves the distinction between broadcast and cable for the uninformed viewer, to a greater extent than before, even considering the effect of local stations and how iffy their graphics can be. Part of it may be that broadcast channels can have odd differences in quality from any cable channel on my cable system in SD, which disappears in HD. But if nothing else, it helps me realize how someone might not care so much for the declining state of broadcast.

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