HDTV Primer: What you need to watch HD Programming

what_you_need_to_watch_hdtvOver the last five years, the most discussed topic in Digital Home’s Digital Forum has been high definition television (HDTV). In reviewing the thousands of questions we have received about HD technology, it’s clear to us that the consumer electronics industry has done a lousy job in educating Canadians about this wonderful technology.

For example, a common misperception among Canadian consumers is that all you need to watch television programming in HD is to buy an HDTV. In this article, Digital Home explains briefly what HDTV is and the three things you’ll need if you really want to watch HD broadcasts on it.

What is HDTV?

High-definition television or HDTV is a television broadcasting system with significantly higher resolution than traditional standard definition television (SDTV).

If you ask some experts about HDTV, they’ll often begin to get into a technical discussion and begin to tell you about 720p, 1080i, 1080p and all sorts of other technical stuff but they’ll never explain why you want HD or how to get it!

Simply speaking, high definition television is a broadcasting technology that delivers a superior television image along with superior sound. The proof of HD’s superiority is in the discussions we have everyday with recent buyers of HDTV’s. After watching a steady diet of HD programming, owners tell Digital Home they simply refuse to watch any program that isn’t broadcast in high definition.

What you need to watch HD Programming

As noted in our introduction, the biggest misperception among consumers about HDTV is the belief that all you need to watch HD programming is to buy an HDTV. Unfortunately that is not the case.

The truth is that, in order to watch high definition programming. you will need three things:

  1. a source for HD Programming;
  2. an HD Set top box or tuner; and
  3. a high definition television set (HDTV).

It’s important to remember that if you don’t have all three you won’t be watching HDTV!

Since 50% of respondents underestimate the cost of HDTV, we should also note that on top of the cost of your HDTV, cable and satellite television subscribers should budget between $15 and $20 a month for HD programming and $250 to $600 for the cost of an HD set top box.

#1 – Source for HD Programming

There are two different sources for your HD programming. The first is the cable or satellite provider that currently delivers television signals to your home and the second is over-the-air signals.

We’ll look at cable and satellite first.

When your favourite television program comes on and the announcer says the show you are watching is being broadcast in HD, it does not mean you are watching HD. When a show is available in HD, it means the networks are broadcasting versions of the show: a standard definition and a high definition version.

For example, let’s say you want to watch CSI which airs in HD and your satellite television provider was Bell TV. The standard definition viewer would tune to CBS East on channel 282 or CBS West on channel 289 while the high definition viewer would tune to CBS HD East on channel 817/1202 or CBS HD West on channel 1202/1212. To receive the HD channel cable and satellite television stations customer must first subscribe to an HD programming package.

Bell TV, Star Choice and the major cable companies all offer HD packages that contain one or more HD channels. As of November 2009, Canada’s top satellite and cable television providers routinely offer several HD programming packages with between 40 and 100 HD channels.

With most cable and satellite providers, HD programming packages will cost you extra so be prepared to pay an extra $5 to $20 per month for your HD programming. Check your local cable and satellite provider’s website for current programming costs.

The second method for receiving HD programming is to tune into free over-the-air (OTA) HD broadcasts. The aerials and rabbit ears you used to receive television signals in the days before cable can now be used to receive OTA HD signals where they are available.

Now, before you go out and dump your cable or satellite provider, let us warn you that the number of OTA HD signals in Canada is very limited so Digital Home recommends readers investigate what is available in your area before making any decisions. Readers interested in learning more about receiving HD Television signals in Canada should check out this very informative thread in Digital Home’s OTA forum which is a beginners guide to OTA signals in Canada.

#2 – An HD Set Top Box or ATSC tuner

The next step in watching HD is to buy or rent a device that will decode or tune the incoming HD signals. Once decoded, the signals can then be sent to your television in a format your set can display.

If you are interested in receiving HD signals over the air (OTA) you will need an ATSC tuner and antenna. An ATSC tuner is simply the Digital equivalent of your existing televisions channel tuner. Most HDTV’s sold today include an ATSC tuner, however, be sure to confirm that before buying your HD television. For more information about the type of antenna to buy, be sure to check out Digital Home’s OTA forum.

For most Canadians, to decode and tune HD programs you will need a High definition satellite receiver or HD digital cable set top box. The HD satellite receiver or HD digital cable box takes the encrypted HDTV programming sent by your cable or satellite company and puts it in a format that can be used by your television.

An HD satellite receiver or a cable HD set top box can often be bought from a major consumer electronics store or rented from your cable or satellite provider. These set top boxes rent for $10 to $20 a month or they can be purchased for anywhere from $200 to $400.

Before you go and buy an HD satellite receiver or set top box, please note the following:

  • Each satellite company and cable company have their own proprietary set top boxes which typically are not compatible with others. Something to consider if you’re trying to decide between buying or renting a satellite receiver or Digital terminal.
  • A regular Digital Cable terminal or Digital Satellite receiver will NOT decode HDTV signals so be sure to look for the a box that specifically states that it is an HDTV receiver or terminal

#3 – HDTV Television

Once you have established a source for HD programming and picked out an HD set top box or ATSC tuner, the last thing you’ll need to watch HD is, of course, a high definition television (HDTV).

The type of HDTV to buy is beyond the scope of this article so be sure to search the Digital Home site for more articles what to look for when buying an HDTV or check out our HDTV forum where readers discuss the latest and greatest televisions.


High definition televisions are the televisions of the future and our experience is that once you’ve watched HD you’ll never want to go back. In summary, in order to watch high definition programming you will need three things: a source for HD Programming; an HD Set top box or tuner; a high definition television set (HDTV).

Without all three components, you won’t be watching HD!

Discuss and learn more in Digital Home’s HDTV forum.

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