Why are ads still analog if it's so easy to go HD?

Change may have to wait until trend finds its way into marketers' homes

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High-definition TV fans are believers in the crisp colors, realistic scenery and true-to-life action that can bring picture and products into the room. But while believers talk it up on blogs and convert others into HDTV buyers, they are still outnumbered in the ad world. Why are the vast majority of commercials on TV today still shot and shown in standard-definition analog format?

"There still seems to be something standing in the way of moving from film-based ads to HD tape," said Chris Fawcett, director-corporate marketing at Sony Electronics, which shoots all its ads in HD. "For us, to speak to the technology-forward consumer we're looking to sell products to, and use standard definition on HD networks-it's disingenuous."

The typical reasons given for not using HD are a familiar triumvirate of cost, audience and content. It's too expensive, not enough people watch HD broadcasts and broadcasters have been slow to accept HD commercials.

But those reasons are well on their way to being debunked.

Yes, there can be additional expense, but not always. The extra fee for converting an ad to HD supposedly ranges from 10% to 15% of costs; however, some postproduction houses will convert content to HD for a much lower rate-or even for free-to get the business, according to industry insiders. And shooting ads entirely in HD costs nothing extra once the equipment is purchased.

As for viewers, there are some 20 million HD TV sets in the U.S., accounting for about 10% of all households. But there are even more in tech-savvy homes: More than 21% of internet households have one or more high-definition TV sets, according to research firm Parks Associates.

Broadcaster acceptance is more reality than myth, but it too is fading as a plausible reason for why there are so few HD spots. The resistance has been expense-based-broadcasters have to purchase HD decks (they need multiple decks and each costs $70,000 to $80,000) and other equipment. They must also change internal processes and systems, such as tracking, to accommodate HD advertising.

If a broadcaster won't-or can't-accept HD ads, the marketer is stuck having to create two versions of a spot. But most major broadcasters accept ads shot in HD, even if they have to convert them into analog programming. And dedicated HD stations generally will only take HD spots. "We'll only accept them in HD," said HDNet director-advertising Karl Meisenbach. "We won't make someone look bad on our channel. It's cost us some money maybe. But long term, it's what we stand for."

So if expense is incremental, viewership is on the rise and broadcaster resistance is on the wane, what's the holdup?

Blame it on inertia. HD industry "believers," including the outspoken Mark Cuban, owner of HDNet, claim that if more ad executives, media planners and marketers were watching HD at home, they'd insist on putting their commercials in high-definition formats.

Ira Berger, an admitted HD-advertising believer and director-national broadcast at the Richards Group, where advertisers including Sub-Zero refrigerators and Patr¢n tequila use HD, agreed that clients who have HD tend to want HD ads.

Tipping point

"If clients watch TV in HD, they'll want to see their commercials in HD," he said. "In that way, it's almost a viral thing, catching on. ... When color TV hit, how long before ads were really shown in color? I don't know the answer, but if it was slow, then maybe that's just the way the general ad community reacts to changes like this."

Maybe it has yet to reach a tipping point for most advertisers. The incremental cost, lower-than-mass viewership and lack of HD programming all cause many marketers to feel that switching to HD simply isn't logical.

"Twenty million people may have bought sets, but really only 10 million are watching HD because they haven't signed up for service," said Phillip Swann of TVPredictions.com. "So if I'm an advertiser, what's my payback? It's just not enough yet. ... Eventually this will all come to a head and reconcile itself." He said he believes there will be a flood of HD programming and advertising sometime in the next 12 to 18 months.

Of course, some marketers are shooting and showing ads in HD. Microsoft's Xbox 360 "Jump In" spot, which recently won the Addy Best in Show award, was shot in HD (as was Microsoft's current "People-Ready" campaign). Even nontech products are playing with HD: Anheuser-Busch, Ameriquest and Domino's Pizza all have done ads in the format.

For now, there may be an extra advantage for advertisers who use HD. Besides being a first-mover, of course, there's an opportunity for creativity in the margins, in sound and in general imaging.

"Next year at Cannes, there will be all these ads that show up and win all the awards because they did something creative in HD," Mr. Meisenbach said. "That should wake some people up."
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