An aggressive new marketing campaign by a cable TV giant intends to resolve the billion dollar question “Which pay TV service delivers the highest quality HD picture?” But has the deck been stacked against the competition?
Comcast Takes Off The Gloves: Recently, Time Warner Cable won a court ruling that forced DirecTV to stop advertising its claim of offering “the best” HD picture. Now, Comcast Cable is jumping into the fray with a research-driven ad campaign that declares consumers actually prefer the HD picture quality provided by Comcast to that of its satellite rivals, DirecTV and Dish Network.
309 viewers – fairly evenly split between cable and satellite subscribers – participated in surveys in March at the Comcast Media Center in Denver, Colorado. They were asked to rate the pictures displayed on three identical TVs, showing live content from HBO-HD, ESPN-HD, Discovery HD, and local HD services from ABC, CBS and NBC. Obviously, they weren’t told which set was showing cable’s version, and which the satellite-delivered feeds.
About 20 percent of the group couldn’t make a quality distinction. But of the remaining group, 60.3 percent expressing a preference between Comcast and DirecTV chose Comcast, while 65.6 percent expressing a preference between Comcast and Dish Network chose Comcast.
DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer was quick to question the methodology of the test , and so did we – without much useful response from Comcast and its test partners, research consulting organization Frank N. Magid Associations, the management and technology consulting company Accenture and the legal counsel of Loeb and Loeb.
We did find out that the test subjects spent all of ten minutes comparing the services. Pretty snap judgments. We also learned that the TV sets were periodically rotated to show the different feeds, just in case one of the sets was better adjusted than the others.
But for “competitive and other reasons,” Comcast pr guy Gabriel Weissman could not respond to other questions we posed. Namely – what type, screen size, brand and model of displays were used in the test, how was the output signal set for the respective boxes – 720p versus 1080i – and, most importantly, what was the nature of the connection between the boxes and the sets – component or HDMI.
From personal experience, this techie knows that today’s DirecTV and Dish HD boxes put out a sharper and more vivid picture with a pure digital domain HDMI connection than the boxes do when connected to a TV set via component cable link-ups – which output a converted, analog signal. Some first generation Comcast HD boxes installed in America’s homes only offer high def linkup via component jacks, while current models offer the option of component or DVI – which is the same digital video signal as you get with HDMI, but without a piggybacking digital audio stream. So if the guys who produced this test decided to hook up all three systems via component video and separate audio cabling under the premise of making all things “equal,” then Comcast was essentially cutting off the competition at the ankles. DirecTV and Dish could not put their best foot forward.
Also, there’s no indication whether those six HDTV channels used in the test were worked equally, or if some were favored. Truth is, Dish’s handful of local HD feeds in my market do look a mite soft around the edges, while its thirty-one national feeds pretty much all look terrific. And despite software upgrades, DirecTV ‘s local HD channels still hiccup on occasion. Conversely, cable renderings of local HD stations are at a distinct advantage. These signals don’t travel thousands of miles and jump through nearly as many technical hoops as the satellite renderings of local HDs. So if local HD feeds were the channels that the survey subjects saw 50 percent (or more) of the time, one could argue that slanted the results in cable’s favor disproportionately .
Despite my discomfort with the methodology, I’m thrilled that Comcast is pushing the “picture quality” issue in its HD advertising. This is a terrific way to raise public awareness about high def. And the campaign will force all service providers to rise to the occasion, to be on their best technical behavior.