Hi Defamation: the Suppression and Exploitation of HDTV
by Skip Pulley
Some people who watch television would tell you that it is their main recreational activity. As TV would have high priority and importance in this situation, most advertising seems to focus on the actual quality of the picture programming, i.e. “high definition”.
There has been a constant theme among advertisers of this breakthrough technology that “more” and “bigger” is definitely better. The question no one seems to want to explore is the better for whom? A specific advertising campaign by Dish Network encourages television watchers to abandon their current system, whatever it may be; in favor of one that has more channels, more “on demand” choices and better picture & sound. I understand that entertainment will always play a big role in the structure of society, but is this the best use of available technology? If so, what purpose does it really serve?
HDTV is short for high-definition television, which offers clear, precise images with rich colors and contrasts. A traditional standard-definition television uses up to 480 lines per picture. In comparison, HDTV can deliver lifelike picture quality with either 720 or 1080 lines per picture, plus digital sound and wide-screen viewing. More lines per picture results in crystal-clear, true-to-life images (Twombly). The featured advertisement does not explain this to the viewer in any detail whatsoever other than to loudly exclaim that the digital service is broadcast at “1080i”. As both a marketing tactic and an advertising ploy, having a celebrity talk confidently about arbitrary number and letter sequences or made-up phrases is very successful in terms of sales. In another commercial for the same product from a different company female pop singer Jessica Simpson states: "You're not going to get the best picture out of some fancy big-screen TV without DIRECTV. It's broadcast in 1080i. I totally don't know what that means but I want it” (Swann).
This was the same strategy Chrysler used in 1976 when they had Ricardo Montalban describe the soft “Corinthian” leather that came standard in their new luxury automobile called the “Cordoba”. Of course there is no such thing as Corinthian leather (wikipedia) and it was later rumored that Chrysler executives flipped through a Bible and pointed to the first marketable word they read. The difference is that 1080i and 1080p are real, but if we don’t know what it does or how it works we have no other choice but to take their word for it. The elements of race, gender and economic class are combined in a very clever yet sometimes annoying way in this ad with the portrayal of caricatures by a celebrity impersonator. This adds the element of comedy and entertainment into the advertising strategy and increases the size and depth of the target market. This also sells the product by having the product “sell itself” by providing entertainment as a distraction (Caliendo). By combining relevant pop culture topics with recognizable celebrities, the message reaches the subconscious mind at different levels.
There is really no ethical issue raised by the ad, other than possibly excess due to the cost, which is no longer even seen as a negative by most sociologists. But the appeal is very strong in relation to peer pressure and sense of belonging such as a “keeping up with the Jones” type mentality. Our fear of not being equal to our neighbors, co-workers and friends is played upon by promoting the product and service as the greatest innovation in the history of television and not owning it will make us seem like an outsider. Our sense of belonging is greatly manipulated by limiting the options of non participation in lobbying to making the alternative illegal. On February 18, 2009 “full power” television stations will stop analog broadcasting and transition to digital broadcasting. This decision was made by The National Telecommunications and Information Administration – or NTIA of the U.S. Department of Commerce (hidef-tv.com).
This administration is controlled indirectly by lobbyists who work for the telecommunications industry. They report only to the regulatory agencies of the US Government who receive a portion of the fees assessed to the consumer in the sale of HD products such as digital-to-analog TV converter boxes. After the transition, those who do not subscribe to cable or satellite services will need either a television set capable of receiving DTV programming, or a digital-to-analog converter box. The administration is developing an application for households to obtain coupons that can be applied toward the purchase of converter boxes, but even that has guidelines. The overall impact of buying into the technology through the advertising is that the ultimate goal may never be realized completely without total commitment. It would be like eating one potato chip and closing the bag. If you buy hi def TV, you have to get hi def cable or satellite service, hi def DVD player, hi def video game, hi def camcorder and so on to get the same effect, not to mention equipment compatibility. The viewer is already spending all of their disposable income on commercial items seen on their crystal clear HDTV, now they are pressured to overhaul their entire system.
So why should the consumers not want to buy the best products and services available if they can afford it? They should. That’s not the problem. Those consumers, who want the technology and can afford it, are informed and understand the process. They rationalize the commitment regardless of advertising. The problem is the viewers who are bombarded by the ads in every media format with no knowledge of what these things are, how they work or why they should have them. The ads don’t explain that you may have to upgrade your entire home entertainment system and neither do the salesmen who sell them. If the average consumer is disappointed at their $300 desktop computer becoming obsolete in 1½ years, how are they going to react to their $2000 television set not being up to specs when the next technological breakthrough is authorized by a congressional committee?
So why shouldn’t the government regulate the sale, distribution and development of HD technology? A better question is why should they? - At least in terms of profit through lobbyists and corporate subsidies. The most obvious reason given by the government is supposed anti-terror. It is true that cell phones can be used in the creation of explosive devices, but so can coffee makers and digital alarm clocks. Why would a potential bomber buy a traceable Hi def TV or video game to make a bomb when they could rig a radio transistor or processor chip from a laptop that could never be traced? This raises suspicion that all of the taxes and fees on an HD subscriber’s bill add up to more than a concern about terror. By regulating communications, the government could conceivably move the industry in the direction of a monopoly. There are only a handful of cable and satellite TV providers in this country. By making analog broadcasting illegal, they are forcing independent media outlets, who can’t afford the government broadcasting license, to collapse. This could be easily interpreted as intentional, but there would be no way to prove it under the present system of trade and commerce.
Not to mention that this business seems to be thriving in the midst of a full blown recession. But that is probably more of a reflection of the developing market than the product itself. There is the point that because of the weak economy, home entertainment is taking the place of traditional family outings. It is therefore not unreasonable to expect to spend more for quality home theater experiences. Cable programmers for instance, are opting to show rather than tell when it comes to marketing their high-definition channels. That’s because industry experts believe hi def television sells best by word of mouth: someone checking out the game on a neighbor’s new HDTV set for the first time or doing a double-take when James Bond orders a dry vodka martini on a big screen in a Planet Hollywood restaurant. However, consumer confusion still exists about hi def programming. Some consumers buy hi def TV’s but don’t sign up for programming. Tammy Timmons, senior programming manager for EchoStar says, “the focus of marketing on the notion that hi-def is part of a package and not a separate or add-on service is more of a positioning statement, there is still a lot of confusion in the marketplace. Customers often still assume they are getting HD even if they aren’t” (Whitney).
In any case, as with all electronics, the supply will eventually exceed the demand. This will hopefully bring prices down to the point of making the advertisers actually make an effort to sell the product rather than make the consumer feel guilty for not buying it. If held economically accountable, they may actually have to start explaining what these products do and how they compare in relation to others like it. Broadcast systems will actually have to give incentives and provide information other than celebrity impersonations and pop diva endorsements. It is unclear as to an alternate use of the technology, so for now we will have to assign it to enhancing “Spiderman” and the “Fiesta Bowl”. If consumers can afford this HD phenomenon, they should spend time researching it on their own, with no influence other than their desire to see clearly.
Link to commercial: http://www.dishnetwork.com/dishstudio/frank.html
Caliendo, Frank. “Dish Network presents Turbo HD” dishnetwork.com <http://www.dishnetwork.com/dishstudio/frank.html>
High Definition Television Resource and Production Guide hidef-tv.com < http://www.hidef-tv.com/faq.asp>
Leichtman, Bruce. “HDTV sets now in over one-third of US Households” Leichtman Research Group, Inc. 12 November 2008 <http://www.leichtmanresearch.com/press/111208release.html>
Swann, Philip. “Time warner sues DIRECTV over HDTV commercial” TVPredictions.com
8 December 2006 <http://www.tvpredictions.com/timewarnersuit120806.htm>
Twombly, Susan. “Your definitive guide to hi-def TV” hp.com January 2007 <http://www.hp.com/hpinfo/newsroom/feature_stories/2007/07guidehdtv.html>
Wikipedia Corinthian Leather 12 October 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corinthian_leather>
Wikipedia High Definition Television 4 December 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-definition_television>
Whitney, Daisy. “HDTV Marketing: Taking Hi Def to the Street” tvweek.com 17 July 2006 <http://www.tvweek.com/news/2006/07/hdtv_marketing_taking_hidef_to.php>