Skip to main content

Digital television lemonade

A little more than two months later, the post-NAB fog from product demos and press releases is lifting, and the reality of the broadcast television industry is becoming clear. Broadcast TV, not unlike most other industries, is struggling to survive in times of unprecedented change. It must adapt and make money doing so or die. To the optimist, it’s a great time to make lemonade.

The change or transition to digital television is nearly all driven by IT/IP technology, but not entirely. UHDTV, UH-DTV, 8K, 4K, 2K and similar variants are not necessarily driven by IT/IP. They’re primarily driven by the film industry’s need to replace the celluloid medium, and by leaps in digital imaging and display technology.

Ultra-definition formats like 4K and 8K serve a valuable purpose in production, post and large-screen theatrical-style presentation. Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), says 4K will also “pave the way for the next era of the home viewing experience.” Of course, he would say that. His job is to sell new television sets by the boatload. 3D didn’t make consumers replace their HDTVs, so how about 4K?

I love new technology as much as the next broadcast engineer or equivalent geek. Displays of 4K video are exciting in a demo, but at that resolution, limitations of human vision kick in. Specifically, the resolution of the eye with 20-20 vision is approximately zero degrees, 1 minute (0o 1’). That roughly translates to one typical flat-panel TV 0.5mm pixel viewed at about 5.5ft. Thus, the generic 3X screen height optimum HDTV viewing distance rule will become 1.5 x screen height if pixels are reduced in size by 50 percent, resulting in an optimum viewing distance of 2.75ft. How many people in TV households are watching at a distance less than one yard? i-Pads maybe, but most TVs in the United States are viewed at a distance greater than optimum. The advantages of smaller pixels and more detail at distances beyond optimum screen height become moot as distance increases. Does TV really need more pixels? I’m all for new technology and better pictures, but if you can’t see it, might there be a better use for the bandwidth?

What happens to the 3X screen height viewing rule as the number of H and V pixels double? Are pixels going to get smaller, or are screens going to get larger? The answer to both is “yes.” Whether you can see a difference depends on distance and your visual acuity. We’re close to the point of bumping our heads on a glass ceiling when display resolutions surpass human ocular capabilities. Apple seems to be approaching the limit with the retina display in the new iPad 3. The resolution of its 9.7in screen is 2048 x 1536 (3.1 megapixels), which works out to 264 pixels per inch (about 10.4 pixels per mm). Compare that to 300dpi on a laser printer or approximately 50.4 pixels per inch (2 pixels per mm) on a typical plasma or LED HD consumer television display. Using a similar formula to that for calculating optimum viewing distance, the best distance to view an iPad 3 Retina display is approximately 14in. Of course, when your target market is 14-34 year olds, visual acuity at 14in isn’t an issue.

TV is magic
Recently, Grass Valley President and CEO Alain Andreoli updated Broadcast Engineering on progress since the company was bought by Francisco Partners 18 months ago. The story is available here.

Specifically, he discussed the convergence of broadcast and IT. In brief, Andreoli asked, “Is (it) all becoming IT with broadcast edge or broadcast with an IT edge?” In my opinion, it’s both. We’ve seen it before. Word processors were introduced, and the first thing people did with word processors was write eulogies for the publishing industry. MIDI was going to kill music studios, but instead revived the music business. Now, IT video is poised to overtake broadcasting? Of course, IT people want to be in charge because everyone wants to be in show business and rub elbows with the stars. From an IT perspective, shooting video is simple; anyone can do it.

Like all the earthshaking media technologies and tools that came before IT video, dating all the way back to the first stick used to draw in the dirt, we’ve learned that most creative technologies aren’t of much use without trained talent. There’s a big difference between an hour of security video and an hour of edited content someone is willing to pay to watch or sponsor, yet in the IT world, it’s all just data. To broadcasters, edited content is more than just data; it’s the lifeblood of every broadcast television operation. If the period at the end of this sentence is dropped somewhere between when I saved it and when you read this, no big deal. If a similar speck of data is missing from a video content file, it might not play at all.

Word processors and home PCs didn’t create more writers; they just empowered those with talent to write more. Everyone can shoot and edit HD video with cell phones and iPads. If nobody is willing to pay to see it or it doesn’t accomplish an objective, then the video files are truly just data. Broadcast TV content, however, is different.

It takes talent and experience to plan and pre-produce broadcast content before it is captured and becomes data, and to transform that captured data into television content with editing, style and creativity focused on a specific goal. Content is data with a soul.

A friend of mine started shooting wedding videos when VHS and Hi8 camcorders were all the rage. I didn’t know anything about wedding videos, so I asked him how he planned and evaluated his work. When he was shooting and editing, what was his goal? It was, he told me, to make the bride cry. Emotion is what it is all about. I was impressed.

Since then, I’ve asked other wedding videographers, aspiring videographers and film makers what their goals are when they shoot and edit. I listen to what they say and then often share the above story with them. Some give me a puzzled look and wonder why any videographer or film maker would want to make a bride cry. These are the type of people who are perhaps better suited for IT work.