We've Only Just Begun

Tom Butts is the Editor in Chief of TV Technology.

Like most industries, we tend to gravitate towards the next big thing, especially since the end of the digital transition nearly two years ago. Currently we're fixated on Mobile DTV as a technology that could conceivably secure broadcasting's future relevance. 3D is still a nascent, but slowly growing market, if it can survive the recent backlash.

But there's another transition that we all too often forget about: the transition to HD. A recent study from the research firm Positive Flux pointed out that approximately less than 40 percent of U.S. TV stations are now "fully HD," (defined as hi-def production and master control systems vs. just passing the network's HD feed).

The analysis was broken down fairly evenly among markets, with 34 percent of the 362 stations responding from large markets (DMA 1–79), 41 percent from medium markets (DMA 80–139) and 25 percent from small markets (DMA 140+). "The sample size and the [42 percent] response was so enthusiastic that Positive Flux has significant confidence in the results," the company said.

Many of the conclusions are fairly obvious: the big stations in the largest markets led the way in transitioning facilities to HD (63 percent); while the mid and, in particularly, smaller (90 percent) have not. Of the stations surveyed, 45 percent have one or more HD control rooms; and 72 percent of the network-affiliated stations in the top-third of DMAs have converted master control to hi-def, while only 16 percent of the smallest markets have made the transition.

The survey also revealed that a lot of stations are not taking advantage of the benefits that extend beyond just adopting HD. While more than half share news clips within the network and with other stations, far fewer have centralized graphics or weather capabilities. And the majority of the stations that adopted HD in the survey indicated that they aren't even feeding HD through master control and instead bypassing the network's HD feed straight through to the transmitter.

"This helped to reduce the cost of the digital transition," the firm said, "but is a barrier to transmitting internal HD content and airing HD commercials." But it concluded that "these stations are likely to upgrade to HD in the near future."

This conclusion corresponds with another report from Devoncroft that was released just prior to the NAB Show. In its 2011 Big Broadcast Survey, which canvassed more than 8,000 individuals in more than 100 countries, far more respondents' indicated that they planned to upgrade their infrastructure for HD/3Gbps operations than any other planned projects.

Early adopters of HD news faced daunting obstacles by integrating hi-def material into their plant. In the major markets, competition (and support from the station group or network) was among the major factors in deciding whether to go HD. In the Washington, D.C. market for example, it took approximately 4–5 years between the time when the first station adopted HD news to when all four major network affiliates were hi-def. And although having the competitive edge in a market can still be considered an important factor, as the transition has moved down-market and progressed over the past half-dozen years, adopting a digital workflow (as well as consolidating operations in a centralcasting scenario) has replaced competition as the key reason.

Very few, if any advertisers have ever paid a premium to advertise on an HD news show, giving rise to the common consensus among broadcasters for years that there was very little, if any, return on investment for adopting HD in the local plant. But as broadcasters become more efficient and HD becomes a part of their adoption of file-based workflows and transmission plant upgrades (allowing for more HD-ENG, for example), that argument is becoming less relevant.

And although the transition to HD is only about a decade old, it's obvious we still have a long way to go.