Local production in HD

When I first saw the topic for this month, my immediate reaction was that this could be the shortest column I have ever written. Foot dragging and delays have been the hallmark of the transition to digital television for local broadcasters. Many stations have struggled with the financial burdens related to putting their digital transmitters on the air.

Options for affordable editing of HD are becoming more popular. Pinnacle’s Cinewave offers the ability to do uncompressed nonlinear post-production of HD formats using Apple’s Final Cut Pro software.

And, just in case anyone has bought into the misguided hype that all broadcasters are being required to convert to HDTV, let me remind our viewers that the FCC did not mandate any HD programming. The chairman of the FCC and certain members of Congress have tried to hold the network’s feet to the fire, regarding promises made about HDTV programming; however, when one reads the fine print of the FCC rules, broadcasters are only required to provide minimal DTV coverage over their city of license.

Local HDTV production is so far down the list that 2.4 percent of respondents to a 2002 survey conducted by SCRI for Broadcast Engineering indicated that they never plan to produce local programming in HD; another 28.6 percent were unsure if they would produce local programs in HD, and 23.8 percent indicated that they would not begin local HD production before 2006. (See Figure 1) We asked the question again in this year’s survey. Don’t expect the results to be significantly different.

Figure 1. In a 2002 survey by SCRI, local stations were asked: When do you plan to begin local HDTV production? Click here to see an enlarged diagram.

The reluctance of local broadcasters to jump on the HD bandwagon certainly comes as no surprise. For the most part, the broadcast networks have also been dragging their feet with HD production. Much of the high value programming produced for prime time (and national/international syndication) is now being produced in HD, and the new season will see more coverage of sporting events in HD. But news and other programs with a short shelf life are rarely produced in HD. Not one local network- owned-and-operated TV station is doing local HD production. Then again, you can count the total number of local stations doing their news in HD on one hand.

There is historic precedent at work here as well. It took more than a decade for color TV programming to fill the prime-time schedules of the networks. And it was more than a decade later when most local stations began to originate local programming in color. Decades after the introduction of stereo to TV, the majority of stations still do most local production with mono audio.

Bottom line, the “golden age of television”—for equipment manufacturers — is history. Gone are the days when one station taking the plunge with a new technology would quickly force the others in a market to follow suit. Today’s reality is … the bottom line.

Reality TV

The thought occurred to me that this subject might be perfect for one of those David Letterman-style Top Ten lists: The Top Reasons for Local Broadcasters to Produce Programs in HD.

But Letterman is still not doing his show in HD, although he may soon join Jay Leno in the late night battle for HD supremacy. And there was the minor problem that I couldn’t stretch my brain wide enough to come up with 10 crazy reasons for stations to take the HD production plunge.

But it did occur to me that local stations might be missing the boat with the current reality TV craze. After all, the biggest purported advantage of HDTV is how lifelike and realistic it can be.

If I were a news director in Los Angeles, the first thing I would do is put HD cameras in my news helicopters. Just imagine how much more detailed and lifelike those freeway chases would be in HD! Perhaps it is the reality of HDTV that’s the big problem. Hollywood has stubbornly held onto the film look, noting that it is an important aspect of the motion picture experience. Apparently the video equipment manufacturers got the message — this whole 24P thing has nearly hijacked the HDTV transition. So much for the glory of 1080i … even if virtually all of the HDTV displays being sold use the 1080i-scanning format.

Broadcasters have become accustomed to the look of SDTV. Sure it has improved over the years with advances in acquisition and display technology, but fundamentally it is limited. It is limited by the number of lines (525/625); it is limited in color fidelity; and it is limited by the filtering needed to keep interlace from flickering obnoxiously. Just call it the TV look.

The ability of DTV broadcasts to bypass composite video encoding (NTSC/PAL) is a big help; just look at the delivered picture quality and the success of DVDs. But MPEG-2 encoding has its own unique set of artifacts, and a modern digital component plant is needed to gain the full advantage of what MPEG compression can offer. Heck, more than half of the stations in the United States have not even upgraded to digital, much less HD.

Let’s face it: Broadcasters like the look of local production that they have spent decades perfecting. It’s not too demanding, of the sets or the talent. Do we want to see what those news sets and anchors really look like? There are some things that make-up and paint just can’t hide with HDTV.

Broadcast pioneers

It would be unfair, and misleading, to suggest that local HD production is non-existent. WRAL in Raleigh/Durham has been broadcasting all of its news programming in HD since 2001. KING-TV in Seattle does HD newscasts and claims to be the first station in the United States to offer a regularly scheduled daily program in HD. The Belo-owned NBC affiliate began carrying its homegrown daily magazine show, Evening Magazine, in HD this past April. The show is shot, edited and broadcast completely in the HD format. KING also offers its Saturday evening Northwest Backroads in HD. Boston’s Hearst-Argyle-owned ABC station WCVB-TV carries a nightly news magazine show, Chronicle, and has broadcast it in HD on occasion, but does not have any plans at the moment to broadcast the show in HD regularly.

Local HD newscasts typically use HD studio cameras. However, most ENG footage is still shot with standard definition cameras. With the cost of HD studio cameras coming down, it is expected that more stations will originate the studio portions of their newscasts in HD as they go through normal equipment replacement cycles. Several camera manufactures including Panasonic and Thomson Grass Valley are offering cameras that provide an upgrade path to local broadcasters.

These cameras use HD imaging sensors and can be equipped with SDTV back-ends that can be upgraded to HDTV when the station is ready. Options for shooting outside the studio are also beginning to proliferate. At NAB, JVC introduced a low-cost HD camcorder that shoots both 480@60P and 720@30P. Several consumer electronics companies have recently announced their intentions to develop a new HD camcorder format that records using the popular DV tape format, extending on the capabilities of the announced JVC product. The new format will record MPEG-2 transport streams to DV tape and will support both 720@60P and 1080i@30i acquisition.

Options for affordable editing of HD are beginning to appear as well. Pinnacle’s Cinéwave offers the ability to do uncompressed nonlinear post-production of HD formats using Apple’s Final Cut Pro software. And Media 100 has demonstrated an HD option for its 844X product line. At NAB, Media 100 also previewed a version of its popular Media 100 nonlinear editing system running on the same HD hardware developed for the 844X.

So don’t rule out the possibility that your station may be doing HD production in the near future. And … the number one reason to do local production in HD: used car ads!

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV Forum.

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