washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tom Shales

More HDTV, but Hold the Commercial

By Tom Shales
Friday, August 20, 2004; Page C01

High-definition TV pictures from the Summer Olympics in Athens this week have been thrilling viewers equipped with HDTV sets. The relentless repetition of one 30-second commercial for Sony HDTV sets, however, has been making some of those same viewers highly and definitively furious.

Fewer than a million homes nationwide are likely to be seeing the sensational HDTV images that NBC is supplying on a channel separate from regular Olympic coverage. The reason is that not that many homes are equipped yet to receive full-fledged HDTV pictures. More than 10 million homes have HDTV-ready sets, but in addition to the sets themselves, viewers need an HDTV tuner and a satellite, cable or antenna connection to get those sumptuous and spectacular wide-screen images.

Sony's Wega line of HDTV home theater packages is spectacular, but NBC viewers have been bombarded by the same commercial over and over again during coverage of the Olympics. (Toshiyuki Aizawa -- Reuters)

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HDTV pictures are much, much sharper and more detailed than regular TV, as well as wider. NBC is not televising all of the Olympics in HDTV but will make dozens of hours available before the Games end on Aug. 29.

But viewers who've been trying to watch the HDTV coverage have had to sit through the same cutesy Sony commercial for its Wega line of HDTV home theater packages over and over and over, sometimes six times in one hour, sometimes even more. It's so far the only commercial from any company to have aired. Veteran viewers shudder every time there's a break, fearful the same spot will pop up to torment them yet again.

And usually it does.

The reason for the multiple exposures is not some sadistic new advertising ploy at Sony. It's the result of a snafu that Sony executives say is not their fault. (NBC spokesmen could not be reached in time for deadline because, a spokesman for the spokesmen said, they were busy working on "ratings stories.")

In the commercial, a dopey-faced dork named Todd is sitting in his apartment with his wife or girlfriend watching a football game when from outside he hears a huge crowd asking in unison what he's doing. He goes to the window and, seeing a mob in the street below, tells them he's watching "the game." The crowd asks whether it's all right to come up and watch with him. Since they brought one bag of chips and one jar of salsa, Todd says it's okay.

This would be mildly amusing once or twice, but to see it repeated mercilessly is driving viewers batty and not making Sony any friends.

Howard Stringer, chairman and CEO of Sony Corp. of America, was aghast when notified of the endlessly recycling commercial yesterday. After looking into the matter, he said the problem came about partly through a lack of -- what else? -- communication.

"We supplied all of the high-def equipment NBC is using for the games," Stringer said. "Then it turned out that NBC was unable to sell any ads on their HDTV channel. So somebody thought it would be a nice way of saying 'thank you' to Sony to drop in Sony commercials during some of the breaks. Unfortunately they didn't notify us and ended up using just that one spot. Our guys didn't know about it, but of course we're very embarrassed."

Stringer said that as of Day 6 of the Games -- meaning last night -- Sony would add to the mix at least one or two more commercials for other of its electronic products, so that viewers would not be subjected to so many visits with Todd, his HDTV-less neighbors and their stupid salsa.

At 6:34 yesterday evening, a commercial for Sony's Walkman products was added to the rotation.

NBC's eye-catching promos are for such fall shows as "LAX" (premiering Sept. 13), "Joey" (Sept. 9) and "Hawaii" (Sept. 1), all of which will air in HDTV. These promos, however, are getting awfully monotonous, too. It appears that NBC really didn't give much thought to its HDTV coverage, but that doesn't make it any less gorgeous to see.

Many hours of HDTV programming are available every week via various satellite, cable and over-the-air sources, but TV's greatest leap forward since color has stumbled because it's so technically complicated and the industry has done a poor job of educating consumers.

Rick Clancy, senior vice president of Sony Electronics Inc., said from San Diego, where that branch of the company is headquartered, that Sony is red-faced about the pesky error and that "we had no idea" one single Sony spot would air over and over again. "NBC actually extended us a courtesy," Clancy said. "We just didn't know that meant the same spot would be the only one on the air and be constantly repeated. We had no idea we'd be the only company with a commercial on their HDTV channel."

Clancy estimated that the audience watching the Olympics in HDTV throughout the country may number only in "the high tens of thousands," but says the number of HDTV-equipped homes is expected to increase substantially in the months ahead.

Predictions were that the HD-Olympics would be a big boost for the popularity of HDTV. And indeed, the pictures of swimming and gymnastic events, and of the heavenly bodies performing them -- and even a mini-travelogue that offers aerial views of Greece and fills up downtime -- have been magnificent. But that inescapable commercial may have annoyed some HDTV owners so much that they're considering returning the sets and going back to plain old low-definition television.

Anything to avoid seeing Todd again.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company