Blog Post

Does HD Online Matter? AOL, CBS Say No

As cable companies and satellite service providers duke it out to augment HD programing for your TV, companies like AOL and CBS are backing out of or shying away from delivering HD viewing experiences online. Such a retreat raises the bigger question: Do audiences even care about HD online?

AOL (TWX) is phasing out its HD-like “Hi-Q” service because of low consumer adoption. Fred McIntyre, sr. VP of AOL Video, said the number of Hi-Q users was “very small, so small that we haven’t tracked it.” [digg=]

Launched in November of 2005, AOL’s Hi-Q won accolades from industry analysts for providing a DVD viewing experience online. “We were pleased with the nice things people said about it, but there are things consumers care about more: finding stuff, clicking on video and it playing, browser independence,” said McIntyre.

Quincy Smith, president of CBS Interactive (CBS), echoed that sentiment in a separate interview with NewTeeVee. “We are finding, generally speaking, people don’t care as much about the video quality. Right now, it damn well better work quick and fast,” said Smith.

Part of the issue with AOL’s Hi-Q service was that it required a separate download. “That’s a hurdle,” said McIntyre, “It didn’t work on all computers; it required specific versions of Windows media player; it sometimes did or didn’t work with Firefox. A series of things like these all added to the complexity of the value proposition, and all of this had some impact on adoption.”

While Smith said CBS has the capability to do it, he said he was not a fan of separate downloadable clients required to watch HD content either. “From our perspective, does it suck for the user? If it sucks for the user, then we got a problem. Last thing you want to do is put another hurdle against people watching network television online.”

The consensus seems to be that people are more interested in a breadth of content, being able to find it easily and having it play reliably. This doesn’t bode well for new services jumping into HD online.

There are currently a few services offering HD-like content without requiring a separate download client. ABC (DIS) and DivX’s Stage6 both offer an in-browser viewing experience (after downloading a plug-in), and Vimeo recently launched an in-browser hi-def option as well.

But other companies, like VeohTV and Vuze, are banking on the fact that you won’t mind a separate download if it means you can watch higher-quality video on your computer.

Om wrote a few months ago that the economics of delivering HD online are changing, making the prospect more affordable. But even super-huge CDN Akamai (AKAM), which is starting to push HD services, admitted to NTV Editor Liz Gannes that only 10-20 percent of their audience had the technical capability to watch it.

But even if they build it, will you come? Granted, at some point, everything everywhere will be in HD (or better). But for now, is the visual quality of web video important to you? Take our poll and give us your thoughts in the comments. And be sure to register for our NewTeeVee Live Conference, where both Smith and McIntyre will be speaking.

23 Responses to “Does HD Online Matter? AOL, CBS Say No”

  1. I for one miss AOL’s Hi-Q Video downloads. I’d download while sleeping and watch them the next day. The streaming videos just don’t cut it, herky jerky delivery and full screen images are fuzzy. Bring it back!

  2. Chris

    I know folks like ABC are spinning this, but calling what’s really DVD quality HD (as in your headline) or even HD-like only contributes to continued inferior video. This isn’t about semantics or technical objections; if companies get away with calling SD or DVD quality video HD, real HD will become harder to achieve. In a dozen interviews with senior folks who make encoders, telco and network CTOs, etc, everyone agreed that HD today requires 5 megabits or more. AT&T is using 8.5 for U-verse, Deutsche Telekom’s CTO said 9-11 three weeks ago, and Verizon is even higher because they have plenty of bandwidth.

     The 1.9 meg of ABC looks darn good, and the 2.5 of Amazon is a pleasure. But side by side against HD the difference is obvious.   So call it "great", "high quality" or any other superlative you like, but not HD. 
    Gigaom and NewTeeVee are doing some of the world's best reporting on our beat. That means you're held to high standards.

    Dave Burstein

  3. I have to agree with Quincy and Fred. We are finding also that breadth of content (we call it “coverage”) and performance are the most important now. HD will be there in a few years, but for now it needs to be easy to find, play, and share.

  4. Yuvamani

    Coverage is more important than quality. There is no point of getting HD content when I get it only on a windows media DRM enabled player. The user experience would suck negating any benefits you get from watching the higher quality.

    Once coverage becomes good then quality would follow. Youtubes greatest decision was the use of flash video. Even though it sucked in quality, It worked just about everywhere. The move to HD also has to come with a similar platform. Flash has improved video quality and it is going to get better. Other video platforms may be superior technically but they need the penetration of flash to get adopted .

  5. I think high-quality, full-screen video delivery could become much more broadly adopted in the next 12-18 months. As bandwidth prices decrease, video codecs improve, and large monitors become more popular, we’ll see more demand for high-quality, long-form content.

    The folks referenced here are right about it not being popular now – most people are watching on computers that are a couple of years old, and the most common screen resolution is still 1024×768 (I think). But Flash is quickly moving towards enabling higher quality content already, and a chunk of the market is buying new computers & larger monitors every couple of years.

    I picked up a larger widescreen monitor (Dell 24”) a few months ago, and increasingly find myself looking for higher-quality vids – it doesn’t make sense to have a larger monitor and squint at a tiny video window.