By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/31/2007 9:30:25 AM ET 2007-12-31T14:30:25

What’s not to love about HDTV? The picture is fabulous, prices are coming down dramatically and there’s hundreds of sets from which to choose.

But many consumers who buy high-definition television sets are getting them home, turning them on and thinking what they’re seeing on the screen is HDTV.

It’s not. Chances are a new digital set, HDTV or not, offers a much-improved picture than an older, tube-based TV. But that doesn’t mean the screen is displaying programming in high-definition.

Nor does buying a set that is advertised as HDTV-ready or HDTV-capable.

One in six U.S. households now have at least one high-definition-capable TV, an increase from about 1 out of every 14 households two years ago, according to a study by the Leichtman Research Group.

“Half the people with an HD set are watching HD,” said Bruce Leichtman, company president. “Another quarter believe they’re watching HD, but they’re not.”

“They don’t have the correct equipment, such as a box from the cable or satellite company,” which brings in an HD signal to the set.

(Another way of getting HD is using an old-fashioned TV antenna in the house or on the roof to pick up the HD signal.)

“The main part of the problem has been that the people selling the sets have had little motivation to explain how it works,” Leichtman said.

“They’re interested in selling things like Monster cables and warranties, but not in explaining HD programming.”

Also compounding consumer confusion is the issue of digital television.

Congress has established a deadline of Feb. 17, 2009 for television broadcasting to switch from analog to digital. Analog TVs will still work after that deadline, but will need converter boxes to change digital broadcasts to analog formats.

A TV advertised as being a digital set (DTV) is just that. HDTV may or may not be a part of it.

In 2008, high-definition sets are expected to account for 79 percent of digital TV shipments in the U.S., the Consumer Electronic Association, an industry trade group, said Dec. 28.

But if you’re not an expert at alphabet soup or technology, DTV and HDTV sound awfully similar, and can make the purchasing process more confusing.

HDTV requires these elements:

  • Having a video display capable of displaying high-definition resolution (720p and higher)
  • Using a high-definition receiver, either built into the set itself or provided by a cable or satellite provider, for example
  • Watching high-definition programming, which not all networks and cable channels yet provide.

In a recent study, the Consumer Electronics Association found that 44 percent of HDTV owners actually receive HD programming, 34 percent are definitely not receiving HD programming, 16 percent are not sure and 6 percent think they receive HD programming, but likely are not.

“Consumer confusion is horrible, just horrible,” said Dale Cripps, publisher and founder of HDTV Magazine (www.hdtvmagazine.com).

In 2004, when the public’s interest in HDTV, plasma and LCD screens started to grow, Cripps advocated for a kind of a TV “czar to lead the industry — not for financial purposes, but so that each time something was said” about HDTV, one person would address the issues, “so that we wouldn’t have the confusion caused by competitive technologies.”

That didn’t happen, although the Consumer Electronics Association probably comes closest to acting as such a czar.

Because the association represents, and is financed by, more than 2,000 competitive companies, including Sony and Toshiba, Apple and Microsoft, Best Buy and Circuit City, it treads carefully in such areas as recommendations.

But its consumer Web sites — www.myCEknowhow.com, www.CEAconnectionsguide.com and www.antennaweb.org — are all good starting points as sources of information for those considering buying a new TV, especially an HDTV.

“For most consumers buying their first HDTV, there’s a lot of choices out there,” said Joe Bates, CEA’s director of research.

“That’s a positive aspect in one respect, and challenging in another. Consumers really need to do their research. And, what we have found is that more and more of them are doing so.”

Greg Belloni, a Sony spokesman, said that “initially, the electronics industry did a bad job” explaining HDTV to consumers.

“There is still a little bit of confusion, but it has gotten markedly better,” he said.

“We’re doing a better job now of explaining to retailers, and manufacturers are taking it on themselves to give the public an idea of how to buy an HDTV.”

In the last year, he said, Sony sent its representatives to electronics retailers around the country to give “HD test drive” presentations to sales reps to help them be better informed about high-definition TV.

“The message is getting out there that you need more than the HDTV to get HDTV,” he said.

Dan Schinasi, HDTV product planning manager for Samsung, said the company is making sure it prints detailed information “on the box and the owners’ manuals, and even bigger on the TVs themselves.”

The Consumer Electronics Association estimates sales of 20.7 million HDTV sets in 2007, up from 17.3 million in 2006, 8.8 million in 2005 and 6 million in 2004.

One reason for the increase is that prices for the sets have fallen dramatically.

One major electronics retailer recently advertised a $2,100, 50-inch, plasma HDTV on sale for $1,500, Two years ago, that set would have been at least $1,000 more.

Schinasi, of Samsung, believes the biggest issue for consumers buying a new TV is not about HDTV, but which television technology to choose, such as plasma, LCD, DLP, LCoS or CRT. Yes, CRT (cathode ray tube), which was TV as most of us knew it until the past decade.

“They still exist, and are very affordable,” Schniasi said of CRT sets.

“$599 gets you a high-definition, 30-inch CRT set. It’s a price point that’s very favorable.”

For now, consumers have to wade through several checklists to make sure they’re getting high-definition TV. It’s not as simple as turning on the set.

“It will get to the point where you can just plug in HDTV without special equipment,” said Cripps of HDTV Magazine.

But it’s not there yet.

“I think the industry certainly understands that ‘plug-and-play’ is where we need to be,” he said.

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