HD: It’s all a matter of numbers

Whether it’s bandwidth, data rates or economics, HDTV is a matter of numbers, says Accom Chairman and CEO Junaid Sheikh. But sometimes the industry takes some of these numbers too seriously
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Michael Shore uses the Accom Abekas 6000 during production of the Super Bowl.

Accom has a long and varied presence in the television production and post-production communities. From digital disk recorders to production servers and video effects devices, the company has helped post houses, production companies, mobile teleproduction facilities and television stations put their unique stamp on many SD and HD programs over the years.

For that reason, High Definition Technology Update turned to Accom Chairman and CEO Junaid Sheikh for his perspective on where HD production and post stand today and what, if anything, is impeding its broader acceptance.

HDTU: What are the top two or three issues facing production/post-production houses as the industry undergoes the transition to HD?

Junaid Sheikh: Production is a bit different than post. When I say production, I don’t mean sports production or production of live events because this all seems to work pretty well as is evident by the number of games we can happily watch in HD. In this context, I’m referring to shooting a show in the studios that has to be edited to make the final product.

And in that area, one of the problems is being able to capture multiple streams of HD at a good enough quality level and edit it efficiently. I think it is essential to move away from the paradigm of capturing on multiple tape machines for weekly or daily shows like soap operas if they are to make a quick and painless transition to HD. People can admit by now that compressed HD is good enough in quality but the workflow still has to be streamlined at these higher bit rates.

HDTU: And on the post side?

JS: On the post side, I don’t know that there are many technical hurdles. There are definitely economic hurdles. HD may be expensive here, and the demand to generate more content in HD is greater than there are people willing to pay.

In terms of short-form work, there are some commercials being made in HD, but not a lot. It’s more of a financial issue, because technically it could be all done in high definition.

In long-form HD productions, there’s lots of data you want to edit. There needs to be high bandwidth devices to store the amount of data required for long-format editing.

There are no insurmountable hurdles there because a lot of people are doing long-form the old fashioned way - conforming HD source tapes in an online session from an EDL built from low-res copies on an offline editor.

HDTU: How do the economics of long-form work in HD play out?

JS: There are a number of prime time shows being shot in 24p HD today instead of film because it is cheaper to do so. About three or four years ago, a manufacturer commissioned a study on the cost of shooting in HD instead of film and it came out that shooting in HD was about $35,000 cheaper in hard costs. Once you like the cost, you can justify the rest of it.

HDTU: So, what obstacles exist in the long-form HD arena?

JS: Editing long-form is still done the same old way. The show reels are downconverted and fed into nonlinear editors for offline work. Once the EDL is available, it is used to conform the show in full quality in a linear edit room. I know this approach is still being used in HD productions because we still sell our linear editors and most are 24p.

But it’s still done on tape, editing the old fashion way instead of putting it into some digital device that can hold 10 reels each with 30 minutes of source material.

If there was such a server, that would really improve the workflow, making the HD editing process more efficient from a cost and time point of view.

Overall there aren’t any serious hurdles at this stage. The big thing is nobody wants to pay for it.

Why don’t they want to pay for it? Because there aren’t enough people watching HDTV at home yet. Sponsors aren’t releasing HD commercials. HD programs today are populated with SD commercials that are upconverted. Once more people start watching HD in larger numbers it will be more effective to make a commercial in HD and downconvert it for the SD channels.

HDTU: Turning to local stations, what solutions do you see to costly HD field acquisition for locally originated programming like news?

JS: HDV is the answer. If it is cheap enough, I think that will be the impetus for doing news in HD. At local stations, news is the biggest money-maker, and if they can do news in HD they will do everything in HD. When it’s cheap enough, and it’s good enough, HD news will happen. The first step will be putting HDV in the hands of the news reporters. The next step will be the weekly local magazines.

With HDV material, the data rates are the same or similar to what they deal with today so editing and news compilation will be transparent. You have 25Mb/s with HDV versus 450Mb/s with high quality HD production.

HDTU: So you don’t see HDV’s data rate as being a limitation for news production at over the air television stations?

JS: No, I think it will really look good and bring the story alive. When you get HD over the air, it’s 19.2Mb/s and on DBS services my guess is that it is around 11Mb/s or 12Mb/s.

Last year, I visited a cable company that has been transmitting in HD for a while. They put out an East and a West Coast feed via satellite for the cable headends. They decided that 13Mb/s would be good enough for HD. Remember, 19.2Mb/s is what’s required for a TV transmitter. They told me that their East Coast feed is 13Mb/s but the West Coast is only 11Mb/s. When I asked why, they told me they just needed a little of that bandwidth for some other use.

My point is we get too serious about these numbers. We should remember that good enough is good enough.

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