What you need to know about: HDTV

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High-definition TV has been available in the U.S. since 1998. But it's now gaining ground for two reasons: the government and flat-panel TVs. A digital-TV broadcast mandate, as legislated by Congress was moved up last week, requiring analog TV broadcasts to stop by the end of 2006. Booming sales of flat-panel TVs have buyers willing to shell out fairly big bucks and thinking "future-proof," which gets them thinking about adding HD.

What does it mean for marketers? HD is anywhere from five to 10 times sharper and clearer than analog TV. It changes the ratio of the picture from a boxy 4:3 to a widescreen, cinematic 16:9. So products and people look and even sound (thanks to digital surround) very different. Proof: A well-known tech pundit publishes a very popular list of the best- and worst-looking celebrities in HD (onhd.tv/thelist.htm). When consumers upgrade to HD they also tend to upgrade screen size, moving from an average 25-inch screen to a 50-inch which makes a big difference (literally) in consumer view.

How it works: True HD transmission requires that the content be shot either with HD video equipment or with 35 mm film. The content is edited and worked on in HD; then transferred to a broadcaster for transmission.

Who's using it: So far a pretty small group of marketers, including forward thinking (and generally big ad budget) marketers like SubZero (yes, the refrigerator people); BMW (two new 3 series spots shot in HD); Apple Computer, and movie studios whose content resides on 35mm, making it an easy transition to trailer ads in HD. Also some advertisers like McDonald's re-tool ads in HD for airing in movie theaters.

Who's offering it: Specific HD channels like HBO-HD or networks like HDNet, but the answer is less concrete for network TV. Broadcasters tend to offer HD on big events like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards. And some popular shows like ABC's "Desperate Housewives" are broadcast in HD, but, it's still pretty hit or miss for "regular" TV.

How much does it cost? Depending on who you talk to, anywhere from free to 30% more than making a standard TV commercial. Some postproduction houses are offering it free, others charge a bit more, and some apparently need quite a lot more to make HD happen.

Getting started: Talk to your agency. They're the ones shooting the spots and they're the ones hiring postproduction houses.

Reality check: Since the turn of the millennium, it seems like someone somewhere has declared each year "the year that HDTV takes off," with most of that noise reserved for this year. Still, HD is likely to be adopted more quickly through the rest of 2005 and 2006 as flat screen TV prices plummet. Look for real mass market potential by 2007 or 2008.

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