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Discovery Leads HD Production Sessions

Programmer lays out criteria for sought-after hi-def content

SILVER SPRING, MD.

In an effort to promote more and better high-definition content, the Discovery Channel is holding seminars to explain its HD requirements to television producers.

The most recent event was held in September at Discovery's headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. About 40 producers and content creators attended, receiving an explanation of HDTV formats, technical information about the "deliverables" for Discovery programs, and examples of acceptable and unacceptable images.

"We have been on an unrelenting quest toward better picture quality," said Clint Stinchcomb, senior vice president and general manager for Discovery HD Theater, Discovery Channel's HD service.

Stinchcomb said that there are a number of factors that are driving Discovery toward HD content, including increased investment in HD production equipment, the decline of consumer HD monitor prices, pressure from the FCC, and competition between cable and satellite program providers. It was in response to these forces that Discovery Communications launched Discovery HD Theater and powered its quest for a wide variety of HD content for Discovery HD Theater, the Discovery Channel and its sister networks.

Discovery used its extensive experience producing and broadcasting HD programming to develop precise criteria for HD production, including limits to the amount of standard-definition images that are mixed into an HD program. The network also has guidelines on the recording formats that are acceptable for use in programs that are produced in HD.

PRECISE CRITERIA

All the popular professional HD videotape formats are acceptable in Discovery's HD productions, including D-5, HDCAM, HDCAM SR and DVCPRO HD, according to Josh Derby, manager of technical quality control for Discovery Production Group. Most professional standard -- definition formats are acceptable -- within well -- defined time limits -- for use in programs that are produced in HD for Discovery.

The biggest exceptions to this are DV video and 16mm film formats. Derby said that neither is acceptable for use in a program for Discovery that is produced in HD, and that the network formalized its list of acceptable and unacceptable video sources after experience and testing.

"It's all information that we've been asked a million times on the phone," he said, even as he encouraged producers to continue to call him with questions about HD video quality.

Discovery limits the use of SD images within an HD program to no more than 25 percent of the total, and no SD segment can be longer than one minute. The network's goal is to give viewers the best possible images as often as possible, even as it acknowledges that there is frequently no way to avoid the occasional use of archived SD video.

UPCONVERTED TO 1080I

Officials from Discovery were pleased with the video quality that they have seen from the Panasonic VariCam 720p camcorder, even though productions get upconverted to 1080i for eventual broadcast on Discovery HD Theater. One HD format that was unacceptable for HD production for Discovery was the new semi -- pro 19 Mbps system used by the JVC JY -- HD10U. Derby explained that this format created too much noise and has too many artifacts when upconverted to the final 1080i master and subsequently broadcast.

At the session, Discovery staff members detailed the deliverables that the network required from its producers. These deliverables include an HD program master, a digital stereo audio master and a digital 5.1 surround sound master, the latter two of which must be supplied on a tape compatible with a Tascam DA-88 multitrack recorder.

Discovery uses both in-house and contract producers for its SD and HD material. One of the biggest of its in-house HD productions is "Atlas HD," a visual encyclopedia of 30 countries around the world, each done as a two-hour program. With a total budget of $65 million, the first of the "Atlas HD" programs is in production now and will premier in late 2004, according to a Discovery spokeswoman.

One of the attendees at the September seminar was Joel Olicker, the president and co-owner of Powderhouse Productions in Somerville, Mass. Formed in 1995, Powderhouse Productions produced a standard -- definition 10 -- part series for Discovery called "Extreme Engineering" in 2002.

Olicker said that he is in discussions with Discovery about producing HD programming, including a second season of "Extreme Engineering." Although he is somewhat familiar with HD production requirements, he said that making the trip from the Boston area was useful.

"It was totally worthwhile, a great experience," Olicker said. "It was great to meet the engineers. Because [HD] is so new, it doesn't hurt to hear about it again and again."

BETTER PLANNING

Discovery's acceptance of HD technology for production helps Olicker better plan his productions.

"We did a series for another network that we shot in Super 16," he said. "Within a month, the tide of opinion had shifted toward HD video."

Olicker finds that production and post -- production in HD takes no longer than a standard -- definition program. An official from Discovery said that an HD production typically costs 15 to 20 percent more than the equivalent program in SD.

The Discovery HD production seminar lasted about 75 minutes and had an extended informal question-and-answer session afterward. The first two seminars were given in London and Los Angeles, and Discovery is considering giving another session in New York.

Bob Kovacs is the former Technology Editor for TV Tech and editor of Government Video. He is a long-time video engineer and writer, who now works as a video producer for a government agency. In 2020, Kovacs won several awards as the editor and co-producer of the short film "Rendezvous."