This post is embarrassing to write because I have to admit to having been something less than a rocket scientist when it comes to HDTV. It’s true that HDTV is a quagmire of formats, conflicting opinions, hype, and commercial madness. No mere mortal can be expected to understand it without doing an awful lot of reading. But still, what I’m about to describe is just lame and stupid, but I’m not sure if I was the lame and stupid one. (Read on, then you decide.)
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I first saw HDTV in 1997, at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) annual trade show in Las Vegas. It was playing on a 32-inch, 16:9 ratio CRT television. The video showed a Japanese woman in a little boat drifting through a pond full of waterlilies. I was blown away by the clarity (plus I had never seen a 16:9 television before). It was billed as a technology “in development,” soon to be available in Japan, and then it would conquer the world.
That was 12 years ago, and the conquest has finally begun.
Late last year, Martine and I decided to splurge on a high definition television for our house. We don’t watch a lot of TV, but when we do watch, we like to be fully immersed. There’s no reason why watching TV shouldn’t be like going to the movies. And speaking of movies, we had grown tired of watching DVDs in low resolution, on a 3:2 boxy screen. Forget that; the prices of HDTVs has been steadily declining, and the new generation of “Full HD” (1080p) TVs had been on the market long enough to also see some drops in price. 1080p was a pretty big leap, and it will be some time before the next standard comes along to replace it, so, we figured, now is the time.
We did the research. Oh, did we read. We read about resolution, refresh rates, progressive scanning, HDMI cables, Blu-ray vs. HD DVD, and anything else we could get our hands on. I signed up for user forums and posted questions and got answers. By early January we had pretty much decided on the model we wanted, and we even found a good price on a TV and disk player (fortunately, we went with Blu-ray).
Before the month was out we had the thing set up and running in our living room. To take advantage of the TV, we also upgraded our Videotron Illico digital TV terminal to the HD version. Everything looked and sounded great.
Well, not everything. Whereas DVDs (whether Blu-ray or regular DVDs) looked spectacularly stunning and cinematic, regular television just didn’t seem that great. It usually wasn’t bad, it just didn’t seem as good as it should, and didn’t look anything like television looked in the TV show rooms.
We called Videotron and made inquiries. They assured us that if we were using the HD Illico terminal, and if we were getting a signal, then we were seeing TV in HD. We called again, on another occasion, and got the same response.
One day a Videotron technician came to the house to replace the Internet modem. Martine took the opportunity to show him the television and to ask him if it looked like HD to him. He looked at the image, shrugged, and said “if you have an HD terminal and you can see the picture, it’s in HD.”
Months passed. The shows we like to watch — many of which are supposed to be in HD — had their season finales. Then, one Saturday in early June, I was in a Dumoulin store, looking at a 42-inch television showing CBC in HD. I noticed that the little watermark in the corner showed the CBC pizza and it had an “HD” next to it. It also showed the five ring Olympics logo, and it was crystal clear.
That evening, we tuned into CBC. The Watermark said just “CBC” and the Olympics logo was fuzzy. Frustrated, Martine picked up the phone and punched in the number for Videotron, again. We got the usual song and dance. The guy even checked something on his end and confirmed that we were getting the HD signal. She asked him why none of the stations had “HD” written on their watermarks, and he did not know why.
Then he said “go to channel 612 and tell me what you see.” Huh? Why channel 612? We’ve been using Videotron digtial TV for years, and we know that the stations start at 2 and run up to around 215 or so. Plus there’s the Video on Demand stuff, and a bunch of radio stations in the 500s, but nothing beyond that (the channels run up to 999). So why the heck is he sending us to 612?
Martine punched in 612. Whoa! (As in, we both went “WHOA!!!”) There was Jay Leno, clearer than in real life. I could count the whiskers on his lip. I could see the flecks in his eyes. WHOA!
That’s when the support guy on the phone said “What? Haven’t you been watching the 600 channels?” [Update: Martine reminded me that the support guy didn’t even know about the 600 channels; he got that information from his supervisor.]
WHAT FRAKING 600 CHANNELS?
Well, it turns out that if you get an Illico HD terminal, and you have an HD television, the HD channels are way up there in the 600s (i.e, channel 603, 604, 605, etc.). We get about 15 of them. But since nobody told us, how were we to know? All along I had assumed that the terminal would simply spit out the HD signal in the old locations we were used to. After all, why give us CBC in both low res and HD? Just give us the HD version where the regular one used to be!
I suppose there are technical reasons why that isn’t possible, or not preferable from Videotron’s perspective. But you’d think they’d at least tell us!
- Nobody at the store where we bought the HD terminal told us about the 600 channels.
- Nothing is written in the HD terminal’s instructions about the 600 channels.
- Nothing obvious on Videotron’s web site mentions the 600 channels (it’s there if you dig, but we shouldn’t have to dig).
- Nobody at Videotron, even after repeated questioning, told us about the 600 channels.
So how the blue blazes were we supposed to know about the damn 600 channels?
As a person who writes instructions for a living, I find Videotron’s lack of information, and lack of insight into their customers’ needs, appalling. Surely we’re not the only ones to experience this problem. In fact, I spoke to my brother in law about it just before he got HDTV, and he too was unaware. He saw nothing in the setup about it, and while on the phone with Videotron they told him nothing. Knowing my story, and out of curiosity, he finally asked “do I have to look somewhere special to find the HD channels?” They replied yes, in the 600s. But that’s only because his question pointed to the answer. Our question was “why doesn’t this look like HD?” It takes a bit of lateral thinking to understand the true nature of that question, but not a lot. And especially not under these circumstances.
(Note that if you get your HD from another provider, you probably have a similar situation. For example, Bell Expressvu puts the HD channels in the 800s.)
Are you a Videotron HDTV subscriber living in Quebec?
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