While the increasing number of HD networks, programs, locally originated newscasts and sets sold are testaments to the growing pervasiveness of HD television in the United States, much needs to be accomplished before the next era in TV can truly be considered complete.
There may be no better example than HD coverage of sports, if you consider the point of view of Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports senior VP, operations & production services.
“What happens to people like us at CBS Sports — because we are in a position where we do multiple, simultaneous HD feeds as we do on “NFL on CBS” and because capital isn't something that just falls out of trees — is we find ourselves in a partial-SD world and partial-HD world,” he says.
The reality of a bifurcated broadcast world translates into obstacles.
“The main point is the HD revolution has happened, but we're not home yet. We have a long way to go. There are still a lot of issues,” says Aagaard, who is presenting a keynote speech during the Broadcast Engineering, Broadcasting & Cable and Multichannel News HD Technology Summit Dec. 4-5 in Universal City, CA.
For example, on any given Sunday during the NFL season, CBS Sports produces five to six games in HD, depending upon whether or not the network is presenting a doubleheader, out of a total of as many as eight game telecasts. With that mix, what to do with audio becomes a major obstacle.
“Right now, our NFL studio, which is our wraparound studio, still has only stereo audio,” Aagaard explains. “But every time we switch to that studio for updates, half-times, post-games and pre-games, we take a game that is in 5.1 surround sound, and if you are listening in 5.1, it collapses down to stereo. The problem that causes is not necessarily a happy story for the guy listening in 5.1.”
Currently, not a lot of HD viewers have surround sound at home, but the number is growing, which adds urgency to overcoming the 5.1-stereo issue, he says.
Obstacles arising from the mix of SD and HD games aren't confined to audio, however. Switching from market to market to update viewers on games across the country creates challenges related to aspect ratio.
“As we switch from game to game, one minute you are on an SD 4:3 game. Then the next minute, you are on an HD game,” Aagaard explains. “It becomes technically and operationally difficult for the stations and the viewers, too — especially the HD viewer.”
While the SD viewer remains unaware of the aspect ratio changes, the HD viewer sees it all.
“Now that the penetration of HD is so much larger among the viewing audience, this is a bigger deal,” he says.
The trouble of mixed aspect ratios also touches sponsors. Many agencies and advertisers deliver HD 16:9 aspect ratio commercials, but fail to ensure they are 4:3 safe, Aagaard says.
“Many of the stations in our system just take HD, and they derive the SD 4:3 out of the HD feed,” he says. “What that means is those commercials get clipped, and that presents its own problems.”
Fixing the problem is a matter of educating sponsors, but they better learn soon, Aagaard says.
“Come next year, all broadcasters are going to tell them: ‘Time's up. Deliver us an HD, 16:9 4:3-safe commercial,’” he warns.
These HD growing pains aren't the whole story, however. Bright spots abound, and HD sports production sheds light on the progress. Only a few years ago, tools and technology considered commonplace in SD sports production simply didn't exist in HD. But that has changed.
“From a production point of view, the manufacturers have caught up,” he says. “You can't even go buy SD gear anymore. It doesn't even exist. I really cannot think of one thing I cannot do in high def that I couldn't do as long as I'm willing to pay for it.”