Confused Consumers: Why Isn’t My HDTV Picture Clear?

Consumer electronics retailers are doing a crappy job of explaining HDTV, so much so that people sometimes return the sets as defective.

“Perplexed TV purchasers often will hook up an HDTV incorrectly, then return it to a store as defective, says Rich Dinsmore, an executive with RCA Television’s parent company, TCL-Thomson Electronics told USA Today.

What’s the big mystery? Customers are not being informed that while HDTVs are “higher definition” and display a much clearer picture than a standard television, to actually take advantage of the technology consumers need access to HD programming.
Standard programming often looks worse on an HD set. The picture can be stretched or pixelated. Ugh.

USA Today says the problem is widespread: “One in four HDTV owners is still watching regular programming and doesn’t know it, says Bruce Leichtman, head of the Leichtman Research Group.”

Some quick info for HD n00bs:

• “digital cable” does not mean “HD.” Digital means the type of signal, not the quality.

• New HD owners can call Panasonic’s “Plasma Concierge” for answers to their questions. Callers do not need to be Panasonic owners to take advantage of the service. Call: 888-777-7134

• You may need to upgrade your satellite dish or cable box. If you’d like to use an antenna, you can learn more at


TV companies aim to demystify HDTV [USA Today]


Edit Your Comment

  1. AlteredBeast (blaming the OP one article at a time.) says:

    Perhaps this just means more open box specials for bargin hunting consumers!

  2. junkmail says:

    The Discovery Channel also has a handy guide at Not exhaustive by any means, but some good info for HD noobs.

  3. KevMa says:

    Maybe it is because I am young and decided this a while ago for myself, but shouldn’t we educate ourselves on our purchases? I don’t think they can blame anyone but them selfs when they come with instruction books.

    I had a good friend do this with two LCD’s until he finally sat down with the third and read the instruction booklet. Good thing Costco has a great return policy.

  4. homerjay says:

    Having all the right equipment doesn’t mean diddly if your connecting it through coax or s-video. The hookup is in the wiring, as well.

  5. Gari N. Corp says:

    I had a chat with a Circuit City goblin the other day, and he was very good, saying, as politely as possible, that the pretty new 1080p telly was going to require a fair amount of new kit. He did say that using S-video to watch standard def channels was a better bet than using HDMI cable.

  6. AlteredBeast (blaming the OP one article at a time.) says:

    A friend of mine has this fantastic 60″+ widescreen projection HDTV. I hate watching it with him because he watches regular tv channels on it. They look clear, but are stretched out for the format. I change the settings to add boxes to the side when he isn’t in the room, but he always changes it back. I say “Look at everyone, they are stretched out!” and he says “It is supposed to be like that, it is widescreen.”


  7. Antediluvian says:

    I know someone who runs Tivo on “low” or “basic” quality (to store more programming) and then plays it back through an HD set. Looks like, well, low quality MPEG compressed video.

    HOWEVER, this person KNOWS this is the case, and has made the conscious decision to run the setup this way. Didn’t do it by mistake but on purpose.

    I’m okay w/ that as a choice because it was made deliberately. Also, it’s a standard-def Tivo, so anything recorded would look like standard-def displayed on an HD set. I don’t know whether I’d make the same choice myself or not, but it’s moot: no HD set at my home. None in the near future either because I don’t want to switch cable formats for HD content delivery and I love my Tivo, standard def and all.

  8. LatherRinseRepeat says:

    I don’t think the “average” consumer really cares about the HD content and the technical details of HDTV. They just want the “bling” factor of a flat panel television, and they’ll buy whatever the salesperson tells them to buy.

    If you (or someone you know) is in the market for an HDTV, you should definitely look for a TV that can display SD television without making it look too distorted. Some HDTV sets can perform this better than others.

  9. FLConsumer says:

    I wish they’d make non-widescreen HDTVs. Better yet, I wish the US had gone with the Euro HD standards, then we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now. Long live PAL!

  10. raindog says:

    I don’t really know what the big deal is. I watch Youtube videos fullscreen on a 19 inch, 1280×1024 monitor all the time and they look a lot worse than SDTV on an HDTV would. Not every form of programming needs to have HD resolution.

    We gave my parents an HDTV for xmas, and it seems to have some kind of scaling algorithm for SD programming such that the center of the screen has a normal aspect ratio and it gradually stretches out as it approaches the edges. Not as good as native HD, but their podunk little cable company doesn’t even offer that yet. (We got them the HD set because their old set died, not because we wanted to introduce them to the glorious world of HD or whatever. I’m using a 13-year-old 25″ set with just a coax connector, myself, with digital cable and all.)

    I do agree that the sales droids do an incredibly poor job of explaining what you’ll need to watch HD programming on your HDTV, even the ones who are normally pretty knowledgable and low-pressure in places like Tweeter. Sure, they’ll answer your questions if you have any, but now that HDTVs are edging down into mass market pricing, many customers don’t know that you even NEED to ask “So what do I need to see my shows in HD on this set you’re about to sell me?”

  11. isadora says:

    I got an HDTV because my old TV died. Of course, I did a little research about the technology first. I don’t have digital cable or HD (except through an antenna) but I figure I’ll be upgrading to a Series 3 TiVo at some point (I’m waiting out the introductory price–wish me luck) so I may as well have a box that will work with my future technology desires.

    That said, it amazes me what people will buy without knowing jack about the technology! I understood I’d be watching a TV with boxes on either end unless I was enjoying a widescreen DVD. I do not understand employing the “panaramic” feature to stretch the picture. It’s crazy! I do enjoy the zoom feature on my TV, though. It allows me to simulate widescreen on letterboxed TV shows.

  12. viriiman says:

    @FLConsumer: Non-widescreen HDTV’s were made for a while. The problem is that HDTV is broadcast in widescreen.

    I would have to explain to people that while it made sense “today” to get a fullscreen HDTV, “tomorrow” (when they’re watching HDTV) they’ll get those lovely black bars on the top and bottom of every channel. Most people opted to go widescreen and see stretched out images in SD but no black bars in HD.

  13. LTS! says:

    As long as the stores are the ones stuck holding the returned inventory then it’s their own fault for not educating their lackeys properly.

    If you watch a lot of 4:3 television it makes sense to use the stretch options as it reduces burn in. Using Zoom will cost you some of the picture as it does not simply zoom vertically but maintains the aspect ratio.

    Everything should be in HD, it’s simply better. As far as the comments about making a 4:3 HDTV… how absurd… almost everything we do in life evolves around a wider than higher aspect ratio. Your vision range is far wider than it is higher.

    The buckethead who buy an HDTV without knowing how to hook it up get what they deserve.

  14. Slack says:


    18 Digital Standards within ATSC. Some 4:3, Some HD. Some Both! How absurd.

    Are there skyskrapers in your world? I mean, how absurd.

  15. I wish they’d make non-widescreen HDTVs. Better yet, I wish the US had gone with the Euro HD standards, then we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now. Long live PAL!

    I thought the European HD standard was the same as the US? Did I miss something?

    HDTV is far more confusing than it has to be, and it’s all due to proprietary formats and DRM. Treat the consumer as a thief, make the product impossible to use in the manner it was intended, and charge, charge, charge, seems to be the HD motto right now.

  16. naclone says:

    there’s also a fair amount of consumers who actually get the tv, get it hooked up correctly and get the HD programming package…but then fail to realize/be informed that the HD channels run in a separate tier.

  17. CMPalmer says:

    I gave up trying to help my Dad set up his set. I can’t remember his brand or model, but it refused to intelligently switch between the stretch modes for SD channels and HD channels, so if you stretched the SD, the HD would clip. I figured the best compromise was to leave the stretch off and show him how to change it if he wanted (so he could see the entire picture on the HD channels), but every time I go home, he’s got it screwed up again.

    Our Panasonic does a great job with this. We watch the SD channels on the the proportional zoom mode where the center is relatively undistorted. We have everything hooked up with component video cables (never went HDMI/DVI) and we watch probably 80% of our programming in HD.

  18. Trai_Dep says:

    I’m slackjawed at friends that get very high end cell phones, cameras and HDTVs and don’t bother to crack open the book. May as well buy 3-y-o models for all the benefits they’re getting. And give the saved $$$ to… ME!!

    Another great HDTV site, more gearhead, but the guy knows his stuff:

    Article on best antenna for receiving on-air HD signals:

    Just got a 46″ Bravia XRB3 (!!) and beginning the arduous process of hooking it up. Then hooking it to my home theater system. Then calibration. Then VCR (ouch – will have to see how badly this looks). Then wire a feed from my iMac to the beast. Later, I’ll be getting an upconversion DVD player.

    Avoiding the HD cable/Tivo option for as long as I can, since it entails a $70/mo outlay, which is freaken insane. Unsure of how to get the time-shifting, commercial-hopping capabilities I’ve grown fond of using my VCR, though. Bit-torrent is the only alternative to analog VCRs or over-the-top monthly satellite/cable fees?

    Sure ain’t my grandmom’s TV, for sure. Or my mom’s.

  19. rbf2000 says:

    Is it really so surprising that people are buying these TVs and are not happy with the results?

    I worked at a Circuit City for 4 years, so I know my stuff when it comes to TVs and connections, and HD connections. It all makes sense to me, because I’ve been following it as if my job depended on it… My mom, on the other hand, has not.

    She’s used to the plug and play of older TVs. She doesn’t have the time to figure out what kind of connection her TV has. She just wants to be able to turn on the TV, push the button to change the channel and have her show be on.

    She has cable – but what’s involved with that? Taking on cable and screwing it into the back of the TV. Now you expect her to worry about getting an OTA tuner, upgrading her basic cable to digital, which means getting a new cable box (which she previously did not have at all) and then adding on the HD package to that digital one.

    Even if should could understand that, at this point she would expect ever channel to be in HD for the amount of hardware involved. And of course, we all know that only a handful of channels, after this gigantic hardware upgrade, are in fact in HD.

    TVs were made to be simple so the layman could set it up. It has now become much more technical. It still makes sense to technologically inclined people (i.e., if you read this site), but it is out of the reach of the layman.

    PS, I know that at both CC and BB they push the HD services because that’s yet another way for them to make some money – without even actually selling anything. Now, whether or not your individual salesperson is informed enough to offer or explain these services is a different matter.

  20. adamondi says:

    This is what happens when people buy things based on hype rather than spending an hour or so educating themselves about what they are about to spend large amounts of cash on.

    The whole situation reminds me of what happened when the Hummer H2 first came out. Tons of posers and gangstas ran to the dealerships to buy them, and then complained that they got horrible gas mileage. You think? A 5000 pound vehicle with a big fat V-8 getting horrible gas mileage? Well, I’ll be.

  21. mschlock says:

    My favorite thing ever is just the opposite: people show me how awesome their “HD” signal is, and then I notice they’ve got their cable box connected via composite. Wishful thinking, I guess?

  22. rbf2000 says:

    I heard about a study a couple of years ago that claimed that over 50% of people with an HDTV did not have an HD signal going to it, but thought that they did.

    I would imagine now that HDTV prices have gone down even further, the ignorance rate would be even higher.

    Although, if you have a fixed panel display (e.g., plasma, LCD, DLP) any signal you put into the TV technically would give you an HD picture, as the TV will scale the signal to their native HD resolution. Which ironically makes the picture worse than if it was just played at its native resolution (which is why old school CRT TVs do much better with SD content).

  23. CMPalmer says:

    I got stuck the other day in a Tweeters store for an hour waiting to talk to a car stereo guy and I spent the time mentally critiquing the settings on all of their displayed HDTVs – all were too bright, most had a bad color, one was not converged correctly, two or three had the sharpness set so high there were halos around high contrast figures and the biggest one in the store, right as you walk in, was looping through a non-HD movie clip that was showing MPEG artifacting.

  24. NeoteriX says:

    I’ve read that the mark of a good HDTV is their um, for lack of a better term, “upscaling” processing. Now I know the term is reserved for DVD players that actually upscale the video data for output in their HD connections (component or HDMI).

    However, this feature seems relevant when a TV is playing a non HD signal and has to interpolate/blow up the image. It seems to me that it’s natural that some (more expensive) TVs can process this better than others.

    How do we distinguish between these TVs?

  25. raindog says:

    Yeah, I was at Tweeter a couple weeks ago to have a remote car starter put in and on the biggest DLP set, front and center, they were showing a Formula 1 race that was SO blocky it looked like it was being played off of a VHS tape recorded at EP.

    I would hazard a guess that “blockier than Pong” is a good way to distinguish a set with particularly bad scaling from one that’s merely mediocre.

  26. jbsibley says:

    If I’m going to spend $1k+ on a TV, you bet I’m going to educate myself as to how to use it. Other people do not seem to feel this way.

  27. airshowfan says:

    I agree with KevMa and Adamondi and trai_dep. You guys expect the STORES to educate the customers? People need to do RESEARCH if they expect to be able to understand, make use of, and intelligently buy, a new technology. This reminds me of…. and

    Jcase757: Do you honestly believe that your mother is not capable of hooking up an HD system? Why is it that people who drive automobiles, cook, and perform many other complex tasks, are believed (sometimes by themselves) to be incapable of figuring out simple things like HD television, digital photography, email/web browsing, and so on?

    In any case, it’s fairly clear that, if you want to be able to use technology (without depending on someone to press the buttons for you), the price is learning about it. This does not seem unreasonable to me.