Stupid human tricks: No HD on an HDTV

This past New Year's Eve, in the middle of party, David Carnoy fixed an HDTV that sadly was showing a standard-definition picture when it should have been showing a high-def one. It's a more common syndrome than you think.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Headphones, Bluetooth speakers, mobile accessories, Apple, Sony, Bose, e-readers, Amazon, glasses, ski gear, iPhone cases, gaming accessories, sports tech, portable audio, interviews, audiophile gear, PC speakers Credentials
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David Carnoy
4 min read
The Leichtman Research Group (LRG) recently conducted a phone survey that showed 18 percent of HDTV owners think they're watching high-definition shows, when in fact they're viewing standard-definition programming. I'm not sure exactly what questions LRG asked and how it arrived at that 18 percent figure, but I can tell you that I spent part of my New Year's Eve this year confronting and rectifying a non-HD situation just in time to see the ball drop in Times Square in HD.

If the picture doesn't pop, it's not HD. CNET Australia
This is not the first HDTV I've rescued from the standard-def dungeon. It's happened a few other times in the last couple of years. The conversation usually starts like this (and usually involves a large-screen LCD or plasma for which someone paid a fair chunk of change):

"Dude, what do you think? Pretty good, huh? I got the one you guys [CNET] recommended."

I look at the TV and there seems to be something a little off about it. I move closer and say:

"You have HD?"

"Yeah," he replies, pointing to the cable box sitting underneath the TV.

I tell him to turn it to an HD channel. Something in the 700s (the HD channels for Time Warner Cable in New York are all in the 700s).

"I have it on an HD channel."

For good measure, I have him turn to 702, CBS HD. (Now that we're owned by CBS, I always tell people to go to CBS HD first. Naturally.)

"Dude," I say, "You're not watching HDTV."

"I'm not?"

"No, you are not."

On New Year's Eve, I was dealing with a Sony Bravia. About 3 years old. Cosmetically, really good looking. It wasn't displaying HD, however, even though there was an HD box sitting right next to the TV.

I took a quick look at the box's rear and lo and behold, there was a yellow composite video cable running from the back of the cable box to the back of the TV. Sound was carried by the standard red/white composite cables.

"I hate to break it to you," I said to my host (I didn't say dude because he was a buttoned-up dude who you don't call dude), "but you're running video to your expensive TV through the worst possible video connection."

This was actually the fourth time I'd encountered just such a scenario in the last couple of years. Three times the owner had screwed up and in the fourth instance, a "professional" installer had--remarkably--hooked my friend's system up with a composite video cable. (Shame on my friend; double shame on the installer).

In this case, part of the problem was that the cable box was fairly old and had a DVI connection but no HDMI. That meant the owner would have had to purchase a DVI-to-HDMI cable, then run the sound to the TV with the red/white composite cables (he didn't have an AV receiver in the mix). For a lot of people, that's just too complicated. Of course, today all new satellite and cable HD boxes feature HDMI connections, which makes things much simpler if all you're looking to do is hook your set-top box up to the TV and get HD video and stereo sound through your TV's speakers. But somehow people occasionally manage to screw that up, too. (Watch our "How to connect high-def to your HDTV" explanation here).

Anyway, to make a long story short, in the middle of the party I magically turned the composite cable into component cables (no, the colors don't match up, but in a pinch you can always convert the yellow/white/red composite cable into a red/blue/green component cable) and pumped the HD into the set that way. The sound had to be passed through a separate red/white composite cable, but people always tend to have an extra set of those lying around, so we were cool there.

I then fiddled around with the cable box's video-output settings and the Sony's settings until everything was how it was supposed to be (at least in terms of getting the pictured displayed at the proper aspect ratio and resolution). Unfortunately, a lot of this stuff is still too complicated for the average person to deal with (and sound is a whole other matter entirely).

When I finally got the HD working, the small crowd erupted in applause and the owner of the TV stood back and looked at the set, stunned. I was briefly Moses parting the Red Sea.

Alas, I think this situation is more prevalent than I initially thought. I had guessed that around 10 percent of HDTV owners weren't actually watching HD. But it may very well be closer to the 20 percent the LRG survey cites.

What do you guys think? Anybody willing to admit to being an embarrassing victim of the think-you-have-HD-but-you-really-don't syndrome? (Or maybe you're just worried you have it and need advice). And has anyone helped save a friend with an HDTV afflicted with non-HD syndrome?