In about the same amount of time, the cost of an HDTV camera, lens, and recorder has dropped by a factor of close to 300:1. Consumers now have a broad choice of HDTV displays priced under $1,000. Multiple channels of HDTV programming are being delivered by broadcast, cable, and satellite.
It follows, appropriately, that everyone should be shooting HDTV as soon as possible. But then there's the A.L.A.M.O., the audience left after mythology's over.
The mythology is that, in this Age of High Definition Television, everyone views HDTV. To say that is not the case is an example of understatement.
According to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), about 12% of U.S. households had "DTV" as of the beginning of this year. Products in CEA's "DTV" category must have circuitry for receiving digital TV broadcasts or accepting at least 480p signals or both. About 85% of them meet CEA's criteria for HDTV, which do not include a widescreen aspect ratio (about 66% have that).
That's less than 7% with a widescreen HDTV. But only about 18% of the "DTV" products shipped were equipped with digital-TV reception circuitry. Add HDTV delivered by cable, satellite, and all other means, and perhaps as many as 4% had the possibility of displaying HDTV pictures on a home screen at the beginning of this year.
Of course, some of those HDTV screens were as small as 13 inches in diagonal. It is essentially impossible to see more than standard-definition detail on even a 31-inch 16:9 TV screen positioned at the nominal home viewing distance of nine feet. A person with perfect vision wouldn't be able to see all of the detail in a 1920 x 1080 HDTV image unless it were almost six feet
This might seem an argument against shooting HDTV. It's not.
Although viewers of even the few HDTV screens actually being fed HDTV today might not be able to perceive all of HDTV's detail, all viewers--even those watching small, non-HDTV screens--will likely appreciate HDTV's additional sharpness.
The psychological sensation of sharpness is proportional to the square of the area under a curve plotting contrast ratio against fineness of detail. At almost any level of fineness of detail, from ordinary VHS on up, an HDTV camera and lens will offer a higher contrast ratio and, therefore, greater sharpness, than a non-HDTV camera and lens.
That's why shooting HDTV is important. But remember the A.L.A.M.O.
It's all too easy, when shooting HDTV, to forget that, for the foreseeable future, most of the audience will not be able to take full advantage of what's in your frame. To guarantee that viewers can make something out, it's necessary to be sure it's both big enough and positioned where those without widescreen sets will be able to see it.
When looking at an overscanned HDTV monitor in production, it's important to remember that viewers watching a letterboxed (or reduced-vertical-scan-size) version will be viewing the top and bottom of the image in underscan mode. Lights and microphones outside of safe area in HDTV may be visible to most of the audience.
Monitor 5.1-channel surround-sound, but remember that most of the audience will hear something else. Check mono and stereo versions, and mix accordingly, lest (as one company learned to its regret) dinosaurs tiptoe instead of thud.
Shoot HDTV! But don't forget the A.L.A.M.O.!