Financial news network CNBC is planning to launch a new high-definition service called "CNBC HD+" later this fall. But the network's lawyers are likely going to need a crash course in the applicable truth-in-advertising laws, because CNBC's high-definition plans call for no live high-definition images -- not at launch and apparently not ever.
Instead, the technical boffins at CNBC plan to take its current 4x3 aspect ratio analog broadcast feed and scale it to 1080i. It will then place the upconverted 4x3 image on the left side of the widescreen picture area, with the remainder of the space on the right used to display additional news headlines and financial market graphics.
Although CNBC says it will offer some documentary programming in HD, that's not what viewers expect when they hear CNBC HD+. CNBC should be calling its new service "CNBC Widescreen+" -- and even that's a stretch (pun intended).
According to a new article at the Broadcasting & Cable web site, CNBC calls its non-HD version of HD broadcasting "non-traditional":
"What we did was take a very nontraditional approach to HD," says Steve Fastook, CNBC vice president of technical and commercial operations. "It would be relatively easy for me to replace all the cameras, make the studios all hi-def and be all happy. But it doesn't give viewers anything different than what's on CNBC [in the traditional world]."
It would be too easy to question the motives of CNBC, because it's not really "easy" to convert a broadcast operation to HD -- it's time-consuming, disruptive and expensive.
But let's focus on the actual planned product. I'm an advocate of innovation in broadcasting, and this approach definitely has some merit from an information quality angle. Fastook makes the point that presenting an HD service that only improves picture quality doesn't really add meaningful value for its investment-oriented viewers. I disagree, but I also understand why CNBC delivering the best possible picture quality wouldn't have the same impact as it does for HBO or ESPN.
So, I'm prepared to take Fastook at face value. Where I have a problem with CNBC's HD plan is where the technical innovation ends and the marketing spin begins. Calling something HD that isn't HD is flat-out misleading, borderline deceptive and treats viewers who know and expect better with disdain. There's already more than enough confusion among consumers about what is and what isn't HD, and now CNBC is merrily adding to the confusion.
The FOX television network previously dabbled with a dumbed-down version of non-HD sports broadcasting, in which it acquired images in 480i widescreen and upconverted them to 720p. The early adopter market vehemently rejected that hybrid approach, and FOX, to its credit, realized that it needed to deliver true HD to remain competitive with the other national broadcast networks.
But at least FOX never called its hybrid product "HD" -- it was always correctly presented and labeled as "FOX Widescreen."
Now, CNBC needs to be honest about the product is delivering and do the same.