Primer: What you need to watch high definition programming

what_you_need_to_watch_hdtvOver the last five to seven years, one of the most discussed topics 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.

Even after being available for ten years, a common misperception among Canadian consumers is that all you need in order to watch high definition television programming is 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.

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 high definition television!

#1 – Source for HD Programming

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

We’ll look at cable, IPTV, 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 two versions of the show: a standard definition and a high definition version.

For example, let’s say you want to watch Monday Night Football which airs in HD and your satellite television provider was Bell TV. The standard definition viewer would tune to TSN on channel 400 while the high definition viewer would tune to TSN HD East on channel 1400.

Generally speaking high definition customers are required to pay extra in order to have access to the HD channels. For example, to receive TSN in HD on Bell TV, subscribers must pay an additional $5 per month.

The amount you’ll have to pay to receive HD programming varies by provider and by what channels you wish to receive in HD so check with your service providers.

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 thing you will need to watch HD is 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. Every HDTV sold today includes an ATSC tuner.

For the majority of Canadians who are subscribing to cable, satellite or IPTV, you will need an external set top box. The HD set top box or satellite transforms the encrypted HDTV programming sent by providers and outputs 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 $500.

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.


While High definition televisions are no longer a novelty, poor communications by the consumers electronics industry has meant that many HDTV owners don’t realize they aren’t watching HD programming because they were unaware of what else was required.

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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