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.”

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.

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