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Dealers Challenged To Set Expectations When Promoting DTV’s 5.1 Surround

The lineup of 5.1-channel HDTV programs is growing, but not at a rate that has made it easy for retailers to promote and demonstrate HDTV’s 5.1-channel audio advantages, dealers tell TWICE.

Not only is the number of 5.1 HD channels limited, but geographic availability through terrestrial broadcasters and local cable companies is spotty (see DTV Guide in this issue).

Nonetheless, some HDTV dealers are actively promoting HDTV’s enhanced audio quality in direct mail, in advertising, and on the sales floor, while carefully setting consumers’ expectations.

These dealers are making the effort even though only about 180 of 443 terrestrial digital TV stations were able to deliver 5.1 to viewers in mid-2002, or less than half of all DTV stations on the air, Dolby Labs said. Most TV networks have also been slow to adopt 5.1.

On the cable side, local cable operators have begun delivering 5.1 HD content to subscribers only in select markets. The operators promise, however, to expand 5.1 HD service into additional markets in the coming months. Their content sources include HBO, Showtime and select local over-the-air stations.

Another challenge for dealers is the limited availability of regularly scheduled 5.1 HD content suitable for general viewing on the sales floor.

Other options: Dealers, however, are looking forward to other 5.1 HD demo options. One is D-VHS, the high-definition videotape format that supports Dolby Digital 5.1. The first prerecorded D-VHS movies were launched in June, all in 5.1, and they were followed by several PG-13 movies and one PG movie, Galaxy Quest.

Said a Tweeter spokeswoman, “Hopefully, hi def VCRs will provide us with a reliable source of both hi-def video and Dolby Digital 5.1 when [appropriate] prerecorded hi-def material becomes available.”

Another potential option is Sencore’s HD server, which supports 5.1 and is used by retailers to feed HD content to TV displays. At the end of the summer, Sencore was supplying only a 30-second Dolby commercial in 5.1, and Mitsubishi was supplying HBO HD content in 5.1, said Garrett Carter, Sencore’s video national sales manager.

In October, however, Sencore began offering authorized content of Blue Angels pilots accompanied by generic surround-sound music, he said.

The 5.1 content available for the Sencore device has been limited, he noted, because “you need someone almost full time working on securing and reinstating rights” to use content.

Undeterred dealers: Despite the content challenges, select dealers are actively promoting HDTV’s enhanced audio quality.

Tweeter etc. is among the most active promoters, given its audio-specialty heritage and its longstanding SAVE program (Sell Audio with Video Everyday). The program’s goal is to sell 80 cents worth of audio for every dollar of video sold. A “large percentage” of Tweeter’s ads include the headline “High Definition TV Needs High Definition Audio,” said audio merchandising director Dave Malin. The message is reinforced on the sales floor, where “our salespeople understand that one main advantage of HDTV is its capability to pass through a 5.1 signal,” he said.

Because of limited general-audience HD 5.1 programming, however, Tweeter turns to DVD to promote HD’s 5.1 potential. “We use DVD to demonstrate 5.1, but we connect it verbally to HDTV,” Malin explained.

Here’s how the strategy works: In the TV area of every store, Tweeter sets up a minimum of two TV walls, each equipped mainly with HD-ready sets. In the middle of each display, one screen plays 5.1-channel DVD clips, and at the touch of a button, the clips’ Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks are funneled through a 5.1-channel home theater system.

Another aggressive HDTV promoter, Bjorn’s Audio Video Home Theater of San Antonio, stresses 5.1 in HD seminars held on site and promoted via direct mail.

Owner Bjorn Dybdahl also promoted HD’s audio potential in a half-hour infomercial in which he was interviewed. The infomercial, produced with the help of a local ABC HD affiliate, focused on three HD topics: aspect ratio, picture detail, and sound. It ran on a late-May weeknight at 7 p.m. and four to five more times in June in non-prime time hours.

“Our competitors taped it and used it for their training,” Dybdahl said.

Dybdahl also worked with the local CBS HD affiliate to sponsor 30-second educational spots produced by the station. Dybdahl also produced some educational spots aired over the station.

On the main sales floor, Bjorn’s demonstrates HD sets, but HD 5.1 demos are left for three good-better-best lifestyle rooms and a custom-install demo room. In those venues, the store connects HD sets to surround-sound audio systems to reproduce the 5.1 soundtracks of the HBO, Showtime, and HDNet high-definition channels through a satellite feed. “The problem is that there’s not always a decent 5.1 signal,” Dybdahl lamented.

In part because of the lack of consistently available 5.1 programming, Bjorn said he is careful to set proper expectation levels. Bjorn’s is also careful to clarify the difference between Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital 5.1. “The majority of consumers assume Dolby Digital [stereo] is surround sound,” Dybdahl said. “We don’t want to set up expectations that we can’t meet.”