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The HDTV Effect

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Phillip Swann
President and CEO, TVPredictions.com
Monday, March 27, 2006; 12:00 PM

The advancement of HDTV is having a direct effect on how newscasts and other programs are broadcasted. In Saturday's story, Ready for Their Close-Up? , by Post staff writer Steven Levingston, Phillip Swann calls HDTV "the ultimate reality television" because of the amazing details it can air.

Swann was online Monday, March 27 at Noon ET for a discussion on how HDTV and technology is changing the way television is viewed and produced.

A transcript follows .

Swann runs the Web site, TVPredictions.com , which explores how television technologies are changing our culture. He is also the author of "TV dot Com: The Future of Interactive Teleivision."

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Will this ruin movie star careers: or just make us peons feel better about ourselves?

I saw a movie in HDTV recently with a star that used to be an icon of beauty. Now I don't feel so ugly anymore.

Phillip Swann: Stars who look beautiful in real-life look even better in HDTV. But stars who have skin problems, etc. will have a problem in high-def.

So I think HDTV will level the playing field. No longer will Hollywood be able to decide who's beautiful and who's not.

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Arlington, Va.: Am I correct in thinking that the intensely intimate detail of HDTV is going to pose serious issues for the adult video industry? Blemishes and imperfections are bad enough, but when they start showing up in high detail on parts of the body that can barely stand a close-up anyway, even the hard-core audience may be turned off.

I'm asking this question semi-humorously, but I'm genuinely interested to hear whether the adult film productions consider HDTV to require serious adaptation.

Phillip Swann: I once interviewed the president of Playboy TV who said he feared that "some of the girls" would not be pretty enough for HDTV! He left Playboy soon after the interview. Hmm, wonder why. :)

I think HDTV will generate even more interest in adult films because they will add even more realism.

The adult industry is investing heavily to get ready. There's a director named Nicholas Steels who has been doing his adult movies in HD for three years.

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Winter Springs, Fla.: When will HDTV sets be priced for the average consumer? They are still too expensive for us.

Phillip Swann: This is one of my favorite questions. I often ask people how much they think a high-def set costs. Their response: $3,000. $5,000. Maybe $2,000.

However, you can buy a 52-inch HDTV ready set from a name company such as RCA now for less than $1,000!

The retailers have purposely promoted the higher priced HD sets, but there are relatively inexpensive sets out there now.

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Princeton, N.J.: I'm in the market for a 50" plasma and I see most top out at 1080i for the specs. Do you think it is worth it to wait for such plasmas to be bumped up to 1080p so that the set can be future proofed? Or should I just go ahead and purchase one today? Thanks.

Phillip Swann: If you have the money, get one now. It will be years before 1080p becomes the standard for programmers and producers.

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Anonymous: Mr. Swann,

Thank you for doing this chat. I'm currently a DirecTV subscriber and am interested in upgrading to their HD service with DVR; however, I hear the current DirecTV HD DVR uses MPEG2 technology instead of the MPEG4 format that DirecTV is moving into. Do you know of any plans by DirecTV to upgrade their HD DVR to MPEG4 format?

Thank you.

Phillip Swann: Yes, DIRECTV will upgrade to MPEG4 this year, but they haven't announced any launch dates.

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Anonymous: when will Dish network get HDTV?

Phillip Swann: Dish Network now offer more national HDTV channels than any other cable or satellite provider.

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Mount Airy, Md.: I'm in the market for a 50" plasma HDTV. My early research has lead me to either Pioneer or Panasonic. What advice would you give me as I begin shopping? Thanks!

Phillip Swann: I never recommend one brand over another, but I will say that Panasonic's Plasma sets have received better reviews from objective sources such as Consumer Reports than any other set maker.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What are the current limits of networks broadcasting in HD? For example, for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, only half the games were broadcast in HD. Does CBS have a lack of HD cameras, or why do you think this was the case?

Phillip Swann: Sort of. It's more expensive to produced a live event in HDTV. Plus, some arenas are not wired for HD. So, that's why you see the network produce some sports in HD but not all.

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Vancouver, B.C.: Who has the upper hand in the new HD DVD technology - Sony or Toshiba?

I now have an HD TV and an HD capable cable box. The pictures are tremendous and I wouldn't have made the purchase if it weren't for P. Swann's articles.

Education is paramount in all decision-making and being guided in relatively plain-english by PSwann is what the TV mfg's should do more off. Keep up the great work!

Phillip Swann: Sony has more support among the studios, but Toshiba's initial players will be cheaper. So, the battle is on.

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Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: Why can't i get local HD Chanels over DirecTV satellite without a waiver from stations (which they constantly deny) and have to resort to Over the Air for them?

Peter

Phillip Swann: DIRECTV this year is adding local HDTV channels in dozens of markets. Ft. Lauderdale will likely be on the list.

As for the waiver, the local stations want you to watch their channels so they do not want you to get national HD feeds from out of market cities.

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Reston, Va.: How much longer before we start seeing more channels offering HD content?

Phillip Swann: Good question. Short answer: When more people buy HDTVs, more networks will launch HD channels. And that's coming soon.

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Cleveland, Ohio: Is there a guru who has emerged for helping on-air folks get ready for their close-ups?

Phillip Swann: A guru? I know some companies are specializing in high-def makeup.

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Falls Church, Va.: This question shows how oblivious I've been to the whole HDTV issue: How can I tell if a TV set I bought last year is HDTV-compatible? Should the more rectangular shape of the screen be sufficient to clue me in or do I need to do other research here?

Thanks for helping me clear this up (and cross it off my "to do" list).

Phillip Swann: Look at your manual. If the set is "HDTV-ready" or has a HDTV tuner inside, it can receive high-def signals. The HDTV-ready set, though, will need a connecting high-def tuner.

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Silver Spring, Md.: One real leap with HDTV is that it puts visual interest back into TV. Beautifully filmed TV shows or great locations where really of secondary interest to the actors/story. Now though, the visual elements are of equal interest. I'm not much of a reality TV guy, but I love the watch the Amazing Race with its locations all over the world on my big HD. Nature shows - amazing.

Phillip Swann: Hate to tell you: The Amazing Race is not in HDTV.

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Washington, D.C.: My roomate and I just got HDTV, and have been watching the college tournment. It's amazing! That said, CBS's HDTV technology doesn't seem as good as Fox's. Are there different types?

Phillip Swann: There are different ways to transmit HD pictures, but it's even more complicated than that. The picture can vary depending upon several reasons, such as the original network feed, the delivery method used by your cable or satellite provider, even how your local network affiliate transmits the signal.

Confusing? Yes.

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Ashburn, Va.: I love TIVO and can't imagine watching TV without one (I own 3 of them). But I've been holding out on buying an HDTV TIVO because I don't want to waste my money being an early adopter. If I needed HDTV TIVO-like features, what would you suggest? HDTV TIVO? Media-Center PC? XBox 360? Wait for PS3? Is this a good year to buy such a device (with respect to price)? What would you choose?

Phillip Swann: If your local cable operator has a HD DVD, get it. I have one and it's great.

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Reston, Va.: The article highlights the blemishes in, for example, Keira Knightly and Brad Pitt's complexions when seen on HDTV. How do they handle close ups on movies? Wouldn't these be obvious on a 40 feet high movie screen? The resolution there is greater than HDTV surely?

Phillip Swann: It's easier to hide the flaws in movies for several reasons. One, in the theater, you don't get the same detail as HDTV because the picture is blown up onto the large screen. Two, digital effects artists often remove the blemishes before the movie is released. That's why Brad Pitt's acne may not be noticeable when you see him in a movie theater.

However, if Pitt shows up on the red carpet of a high-def broadcast of an awards show, look out. His name may be Pitt, but his face is a crater.

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Atlanta, Ga.: What can be done to regulate the transmission quality of HDTV - what can be done to eliminate "HD Lite"?

Phillip Swann: It's a real problem 'HD Lite' is when a cable or satelite provider purposely reduces the quality of the signal so it can squeeze more channels onto the air. Consequently, the picture is not as crisp and vivid as it should be.

The solution: Complain to the provider.

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Washington DC: I just received a letter from Comcast(my cable TV provider) saying they are going to be switching to HD for their HBO and Showtime channels and that I need to contact them about getting a separate box (presumably for an additional cost) so I can receive the HD broadcasts. In the newspaper article, the newscasts being broadcast in HD were still viewable using analogue TVs. I don't understand why I shouldn't be able to continue to watch HBO and Showtime without the box. Can you help explain this?

Phillip Swann: The box is a high-def tuner. Without a high-def tuner (and a HDTV), you can't receive high-def signals, from HBO or anyone else.

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Laurel, Md.: I was considering buying a 42-inch plasma TV later this year. But after reading about SED TV's, I'm thinking I should hold off till next year and compare. What would you recommend?

Phillip Swann: I wouldn't wait. SED actually has been delayed again. If you buy a 42-inch Plasma set, you will be happy. But make sure it's HD -- not ED (Enhanced Definition.)

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Alexandria, Va.: Is it me, or is OTA HDTV more trouble than it is worth? I usually get my signals via DirecTV with digital quality. Clearly, the picture in general is better with the HDTV.

However, when I switch to my OTA antenna to pull in the local HDTV feeds, it's not worth the effort. Some channels come in better than others - regular fiddling with the antenna, on the local Fox the audio drops and pops. Is this just my setup?

Phillip Swann: It depends on what kind of antenna you have and where you live. Some people wouldn't give up their off-air signals for anything, saying the picture is better than cable or satellite's HD.

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Annapolis, Md.: How much data is required to deliver an HD signal, particularly the 1080 standards? In my opinion, IPTV has a brilliant future, and I'm curious to know how big a pipe the average consumer is going to need to get High Def programmer via their internet provider.

In short, how "big" is a typical hour's worth of HDTV, in bytes?

Phillip Swann: HDTV takes up more room than a "regular" channel, perhaps as much as seven times as much. Which explains, in part, why the cable and satellite operators have not added more HD channels to their lineup. One HDTV channel could take up as much room on their servers as seven basic cable channels.

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McLean, Va.: Have you heard anything about Verizon's FIOS HDTV offerings or seen their programming in HD? It's now available in select markets and cheaper than DirecTV.

Phillip Swann: I'm happy to see Verizon and AT&T enter the business. They should put more pressure on cable and satellite to keep prices down and programming options up. However, I don't give the telcos much chance of surviving in the long run. The cable and satellite ops have too many advantages.

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Orlando, Fla.: The main reason I keep DirecTV is for the NFL Sunday Ticket, which is available in HD. Now that you can get MLB Extra Innings on Cable, will the NFL follow suit?

Phillip Swann: The NFL seems happy with DIRECTV and I believe their contract is good until 2009.

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Arlington, Va.: Where was that 50" HDTV monitor for $1000? I'll but it tonight!

Phillip Swann: Go to Best Buy or Circuit City. I helped my father buy a 52-inch RCA HDTV-ready set for just $999. I've seen it for $899 since.

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Why: I've seen HDTV and I feel compelled to ask...what's the big deal? I don't understand the fuss. If and when I buy a new TV, I'll look at HDTV options, but I really don't care that much and I don't have any impetus to replace the old with the new. Honestly, I've seen the difference in picture quality and I don't think it is much of an upgrade. Much ado about nothing, with apologies to the Bard.

Phillip Swann: It is a big deal. When properly done, the HDTV picture is like looking through a window -- it's that realistic.

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Arlington, Va.: I like to watch a lot of sports. Which is better, 1080 or 720? And will one be phased out eventually, is that something I need to look for?

Phillip Swann: It's a chicken and egg question. I prefer 1080i normally, but ESPN uses 720p for football and it looks sensational.

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Reston, Va.: With a choice between HDTV and season tickets to the Redskins, I went with HD and couldn't be happier (no parking hassles, comfortable seating, no Eagles fans fighting). A few questions ....

Are there additional costs to the cable systems for offering more HD channels? What are the additional costs to the producers and broadcasters for offering an HD feed. What is the process that TNT has used to bump all the Law and Orders to HD?

Phillip Swann: Law and Order is actually filmed in HD by NBC.

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Columbia, Md.: what has the better picture quality/resolution: HDTV or a standard movie theater? When I go to the movies, the picture doesn't appear as sharp as my HDTV. Granted the screen size is a lot smaller than a cinema but is this the case in resolution?

Phillip Swann: Exactly. As I noted before, HDTV's picture is much crisper than a movie screen. Whenever I see a movie in HDTV that I had previously seen in the theater, I'm amazed at how much clearer things look.

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McLean, Va.: I have Verizon FiOS delivering HDTV to a HD-DVR. Wonderful picture quality and a reasonably good DVR. My question is: DVR is nice, but how soon do you guess it might be before the programming providers (Cable, sattelite, FiOS, etc.) start providing HD movies ON DEMAND ?

Phillip Swann: DIRECTV and some of the cable providers now offer HD On Demand. However, the lineups are thin.

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Ithaca, N.Y.: Thanks for doing this chat. Do you have any projections on which cable networks will be next to launch an HD sibling?

Phillip Swann: Projections? You mean Predictions! Like TV Predictions! :)

I think you'll soon see a new HD channel from Fox. Maybe CNN, too.

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Georgetown: You're right that The Amazing Race isn't in HD, but it is in a better standard (enhanced TV?) via my HD tuner than normal over the air -- the picture is slightly more rectangular and is definitely higher quality, although not the lush HD we'd see on Lost.

My question: can anything be done about the delay in transmitting HD signals? During the NCAA's, there was as much as a 3-second lag on HD from goold old Channel 9.

Phillip Swann: The delay is necessary at this point to keep the audio and picture in sync. Maybe later.

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Arlington, Va.: If the price and size were equal, and you watched a lot of sports (not so many movies), would you go with LCD, CRT, Plasma, Rear Projection, DLP, or something else?

Phillip Swann: Depends on your wallet. If you have the bucks, I would get Plasma. But LCD and DLP are great, too.

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Ashburn, Va.: Hi Phillip,

Along with my Directv High-Def dish, I have a Free-to-Air dish to pick up unencrypted national and international channels from various KU satellites (unfortunately only in 480i).

Do you know if there is there a similar interest in going high-def in other countries? As I would love to catch some of the rugby and soccer matches in the same quality as NFL games

Phillip Swann: The United Kingdom is launching high-def this spring. Interestingly, they seem fascinated with the angle that you can see celebs as they look in real life.

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Washington, D.C.: Phillip, thanks for taking questions.

We have an older, small television in our bedroom which is only ever used for broadcast TV. I'd like to replace it with a flat-screen HDTV but have been dismayed to find that smaller sets do not come equipped with built-in HDTV tuners. Stand-alone tuners are outrageously expensive.

Will small sets with built-in HDTV tuners appear any time soon? I want to upgrade that TV but hate the idea of buying an analog TV in 2006. It just doesn't seem right.

Phillip Swann: Absolutely. There will be smaller TVs with HD tuners. Depending upon the size you're talking about, there are some now, in fact.

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burn-in question: How concerned do I have to be about "burn-in" (i.e. uneven pixel wear) on my Panasonic high def plasma TV? I turned the brightness down to 50%, but I dislike watching 4:3 images stretched into widescreen to eliminate the grey bars at the side. Should I do this for the first hours of use, or permanently? Thanks!

Phillip Swann: Burn in -- the ghosting of images when you turned the TV off -- was a problem with early Plasma sets. But no more.

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Arlington, Va.: Can the human eye tell the difference between 720p, 1080i or 1080p?

Phillip Swann: Good question. Probably not. But some people swear they can.

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America: Why must HDTV require getting rid of our old sets or converting them? Why must we pay extra for something we already paid for? Why can't we watch on our old sets if you don't want to convert? Also, have we planned on land filling all the TV sets in America?

Phillip Swann: Another good question. Yes, why is the federal government mandating that we get new TVs (or a converter box) to watch these new signals.

Well, it's a long story, but basically the feds want the old analog space so they can auction it off for billions of dollars.

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Cleveland, Ohio: Regarding TV choice, would your answer be the same for a movie fan?

Phillip Swann: Yes, movies look better in HD than they do in the theater. It's remarkable how much more detail you see.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why don't manufacturers start selling smaller-sized HDTVs/digital TVs? After all, when the analog system is turned off in a couple of years, it's the small TVs on the kitchen counter or the garage, which AREN'T hooked up to a cable box, that will be useless.

Phillip Swann: That will come. The economics now dictate that TV makers concentrate on larger sets to generate more profits.

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Columbia, S.C.: Hi and thanx for the chat..always enjoy the tech ones.

Now that plasma and LCD HD sets have been around a while, do you think it's wise to buy the 3 or 5 year warantees, or would you consider that a waste of money these days?

Phillip Swann: I'm not a fan of longterm warranties for TVs. But I will say that today's sets are more technicallly sophisticated so a repair would cost more money than before.

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Arlington, Va.: When are we going to see HDTVs with two way cable cards that will make a set top box unnecessary even if you want on demand movies?

Phillip Swann: I don't think you'll see them soon. The set-top makers have significant power in the industry. They would like to keep making those set-tops for awhile (although they make the Cards as well.) The set-tops generate more profit.

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Alexandria, Va.: I read recently that the new specs for HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players will not play full resolution HD through HDTV sets with component inputs, but will only play full resolution HD through HDMI inputs. Does that mean that older HDTV sets without the HDMI inputs will not be able to display full resolution HD content from HD-DVD?

Phillip Swann: Thanks for asking that.

Yes, I have a few articles now at TVPredictions.com that explain that the new HDTV DVD players may not provide true HD pictures on earlier model HDTVs, which number about 12 million. Check out the articles.

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Cleveland, Ohio: Like those in Great Britian, I am facinated by the adjustments the TV folks will have to make to their appearance. Can you give us more TV Predictions of what challenges they will face?

Phillip Swann: Some celebrities are afraid of appearing in high-def now. And, if they do, they are demanding no close-ups and even a filter that can reduce the sharpness of the picture. As time goes by, I'm afraid that you'll see more of that. The big stars will push for more protection on the HD screen.

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Washington, D.C.: A grand for a 50" HDTV? And that's a good deal? I wouldn't spend that kind of money on a TV even if I could fit it in my apartment. Wake me up when I can replace my 27" with an equivalent HD version for under $300.

Phillip Swann: Your alarm clock is about to go off. You can get a 27-inch HD now for less than $500.

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Takoma Park, Md.: The price of plasmas is sort of drifting downward, because, I think, the impact of the coming SED invasion has hit yet. The Panasonic everyone touts is at about $3700. When do you expect prices to take a big dip such that that set is priced $3000?

Phillip Swann: Look out this holiday season. Plasma prices will fall sharply, with some HD sets going under $1,500.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: for the record: 1080P sets look a little more 3 dimensional. That being said, a great plasma beats a great projection every time regaurdless of resolution

Phillip Swann: I can't disagree, although I think projection provides a very good HD picture.

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HDTV DVR: My current plain-old DVR causes some dithering on my screen when I watch recordings. I guess it's to keep file size down. Can I expect an HDTV DVR to be the same?

Phillip Swann: My HDTV DVR from Comcast works fine.

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Vancouver, Wash.: What is the best HDTV out there and is resonabliy priced (meaning between $500-4000)? Where is the best place to buy HDTV's (such as Circuit City or Bestbuy)? What brand is the best to buy?

Phillip Swann: Consumer Reports has given high marks to the 42-inch Panasonic Plasma HD. But I don't personally recommend brands, etc.

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Clifton, Va.: Problem with HDTV is there really isn't any reason to want it yet. There is not a great deal of HDTV programming that is of high quality and most of people dont think the difference is worth it. Maybe the Blue Ray and HD dvd will cahnge this but what really needs to happen is the price needs to drop another 50 to 75% on TVs. And there was a recent survey that showed approx 50% of HDTV users didn't know they were SDTV not HDTV.

Phillip Swann: That's a good point. Although nearly everyone is wowed by the HD picture, there still isn't enough HD programming available. (DIRECTV, for instance, has less than 10 national HD channels.) But that will change over the next year.

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Tampa, Fla.: Will HDTV set back the sci-fi TV industry? I saw the original Star Wars on HDTV and the clarity of the picture made the sets look cheesey, especially the interiors of the fighters. Will HDTV do this to other sci fi shows, forcing producers to improve the sets and computer-generated graphics?

Also, I understand the NHL is banking on HDTV because viewers will finally be able to see the puck clearly. I think the NHL will benefit more than other sports. Any thoughts on this?

Phillip Swann: If the production is well done, the HDTV broadcast will make it even cooler. However, if the producers cut costs on set design, etc., it will be obvious in HD.

Same goes for the digital effects guys. In HD, the digital effects are more obvious.

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Germantown, Md.: For Annapolis: A DTV broadcast channel has about 19.4Mbits/sec of data. But that can be multiplexed into several subchannels (e.g. PBS does 4 standard def during the day and 1 HD and 1 SD during the night). You probably won't be getting an HD stream from your ISP anytime soon.

Phillip Swann: Interestingly, Akimbo, the Broadband-enabled Video on Demand set-top, today announced that it will offer HDNet, a high-def network, over the phone lines.

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Upper Marlboro, Md: I am looking forward to the HD-DVD format, I have heard that the HD-DVD players, that are slated to be released within the next year, will range from 400-799, how many years do we have to wait for the HD-DVD players to drop in around the 200 dollar price range.

Phillip Swann: You can bet that the Toshiba player will be close to the $200 mark within a year. Sony may take longer.

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Fairfax, Va. - Will a projector work???: When comparing the option of a large scale plasma tv at around $5,000 I came upon some great looking HD Projectors. I could spend around $1500 on a high quality HD projector and $1000 on a top of the line wall mounted screen. Is this a good way to go? The picture in the showroom looked great and I do have a dark basement with no windows that I think would be perfect. Your thoughts?

Phillip Swann: You bet. The projector can provide great HD pictures.

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Vancouver, Wash.: Why don't you recommend brands?

Phillip Swann: My recommendation would be based on what I like. Everyone is different and has different wants and needs. So, I simply try to provide the information so people can make their own decisions.

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Nags Head, N.C.: In our beach house, the great room has a lot of windows and light. The TV niche is located above the fireplace, perpendicular to the wall of windows looking to the west. What would you suggest, Plasma, DLP, LED or something else? Note that the tv screen is above eye-level, so not really an ideal location - would this make a difference in what technology is best? Budget is ok up to around $3,000 or so.

Phillip Swann: Many people say DLP offers a better pix than Plasma in daylight.

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Cleveland, Ohio: As a 45 year old female television host, I'm running scared! In addition to the makeup, will a change in attire, gestures and facial expressions be needed for a successful appearance? And are the makeup concerns, as John Harris of WRAL stated, truly the creation of evil consultants?

Phillip Swann: I'm afraid that John is whistling past the graveyard. There's no question that you can see every wrinkle, etc. in high-def.

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Atlanta, Ga.: When I watch anchors in HD (in news and in shows like ESPN Sports Ctr.) the pancake makeup looks absurd - as ridiculous as seeing a man caked in makeup in person. Why don't TV producers realize this?

Phillip Swann: I agree. Steve Young's eyebrows often make him look like Groucho Marx in high-def on ESPN....The industry is learning slowly, but it will learn.

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Phillip Swann: Has anyone here seen JC Hayward in high-def on the Channel 9 news in Washington, DC? You can tell that she's wearing cosmetic contact lenses. Very odd look. Her brown eyes are suddenly blue in high-def.

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Washington, D.C.: At what point will HD programming become part of basic cable/satellite package?

I have a Dish network system, but the only way I could get an HD package is to pay an additional $20/month for more unwanted programs. I'd much prefer to simply buy HD program for the channels I want, like HBO and ESPN.

Phillip Swann: Not for some time. The cable and satellite guys have invested heavily in building systems to broadcast HD. They want to keep the HD package separate to generate more revenue to defray past costs.

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Reston, VA: When will HDTV drop in cost to the prices for conventional analog TV?

Phillip Swann: Prices are falling fast. Again, you can get many HDTVs now for well under $1,000.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Is there a website or link you'd like to offer to direct those of us in engineering to the numbers behind HDTV?

I'm interested in the technology - the competing standards, the problems, solutions, regulatory impacts, et al.

Thanks much. HLB Engineering

Phillip Swann: THe Consumer Electronics Association does a good job of compiling stats, etc.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you very much for joining us today to discuss HDTV. Do you have any closing thoughts on where the technology is headed?

Phillip Swann: I think you'll see more HD channels this year, lower prices and more channels available via cable and satellite. It's a great time to buy a high-def set.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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