Broadcast HD television is a complex and confusing landscape. There are multiple delivery systems (satellite, cable, over the air) with multiple evil vendors (Comcast, DirecTV, DISH) and multiple levels of availability and service. I was ready to put off the question for a long time. But then the Steelers got deep into the playoffs. On a lark I bought a cheap indoor antenna that a friend recommended and I told the TV to see what it could find. Surprisingly, even though we had no luck at all with analog channels, many of the major local digital channels came in immediately, and with very high quality. Digital broadcasts are funny that way. If you can get them at all, the signal quality is pretty much perfect.

Armed with CBS and FOX in HD, we were ready for the Championship games, and a fine time was had by all. Football in HD is much nicer than watching football on a 50 inch screen using an upscaled super-compressed MPEG stream from DirecTV. No weird color streaking, good detail. Everything you would expect. (Of course, Pete couldn’t tell the difference, because he is blind).

As a bonus, the Steelers won convincingly. Then I found out that the Super Bowl was going to be on ABC. The TV didn’t manage to lock on to ABC. Now I had to learn more about HD broadcast than I cared to know.

The first confusion is where the actual HD channel lives on the “dial”. I surfed around a bit and found out that the local ABC, while being channel 4 in regular TV broadcasts its digital signal on channel 51. So I tuned the television to channel 51 and got… nothing. I moved the antenna around. Still nothing.

Noticing that CBS-HD is mapped to channel “2.1” (the main channel is channel 2), I tried to tune to channel “4.1”. Now the TV still showed nothing, but it also gave me a digital signal meter, which showed me… nothing.

It turns out that these “.1” sub-channels are just some remapping that the television does after its automatic setup has found the digital signal. The channel sends some meta-data over the air to tell the television to look for the digital signal on UHF channel 25 when I hit “2.1” on the remote. Sadly, there does not seem to be any other way to tell the television to look for a digital signal at a given frequency. The only entry point for this functionality is via the automatic tuner setup. This is retarded since if you are using a very directional antenna, you have no idea where to point the antenna so that the TV will find the signal you need.

I figured I was doomed to put an antenna on my roof, which I wanted to avoid. But, another friend who lives near me said that they can get all of the local digital channels easily with their outdoor antenna. So, I bought a long wire and tossed my indoor antenna outside into the raised flower bed. Then I told the TV to find more digital channels, and lo and behold it locked on to ABC, PBS, the WB and the freaky GOD channel.

With this success I pulled the antenna back into the house. The TV, having locked and mapped the digital channels could now give me the helpful signal meter, so I figured I’d see if ABC would come in without running the wire outside. Surprisingly, it did. I moved the antenna around to find the best spot, and now we are all set for SUPER SUNDAY.

Of course, all happy endings deserve a bitter complaint. Let me sum up: in order to get ABC-HD, I had to throw my antenna outside so the automatic tuner setup could get a lock. Then I could bring the antenna back inside and set things up for real.

My question is: why did I have to do this ludicrous dance to lock on to the station automatically before I could try and lock on to the station by hand? Surely in a television that costs several tens of hundreds of dollars, they would provide me with a tuner that can look for both analog and digital broadcasts at a given UHF channel.

Instead, just to get ABC, I have to read about the gory details of the ATSC channel meta-data information standards to work out exactly how everything works. No wonder so many people buy big televisions and never even bother to hook them up to an HD broadcast source.

Nice going consumer electronics industry, you just gave me another reason to feel that my buddies in the computer software business understand user experience better than you do.