HD transition advancing, but not without growing pains

HD television was on the minds of many this week at the Competitive Television Summit in Orlando, FL.

The summit, co-produced by Broadcast Engineering and Broadcasting & Cable magazines, brought together top-level engineers and senior management from many stations and groups to discuss, among other things, how technology can help keep stations competitive.

HD Technology Update spoke with David Schleifer, Avid Technology vice president of strategic planning, prior to the opening of the event about where he sees HDTV today.

HD Technology Update: Recent In-Stat research indicates that there are just fewer than 2 million HDTV over-the-air viewers nationwide, and that number isn't likely to grow appreciably. Is OTA HD transmission a viable business, or is it just something local broadcasters have to do to stay in the game to gain access to other distribution avenues like cable and satellite?

David Schleifer: There are a lot of HDTVs. One of them is in my home. Over-the-air HD is interesting. As I did my research into buying an HDTV, I had a clear understanding that the picture is probably better than what I'm getting over cable. But the choices are more limited, and I'm hesitant to put an antenna on the roof of my house.

I was actually just saying yesterday, I don't think I've actually watched over-the-air transmission for several years. I think back to that little motor I used to use to rotate that antenna around on my roof.

I don't know how much viability over-the-air HD has. Local broadcasters will go through a transition during the next years as their value-add shifts from being the distribution method in the chain to being the provider of local content component in the chain.

We have choice. I've got FiOS, Comcast, satellite, over-the-air, and I'm sure I'll have more choices coming up in my own home. So, over-the-air has a lot of competition.

HDTU: At this point, what is the premium broadcasters can expect to pay for HD-capable acquisition, production and playout technology vs. SD? How has that equation changed during the past few years?

DS: I think the prices are actually fairly comparable these days. You do pay some premium depending on how much quality you want.

I think the real hidden premium has to do with the formats not yet being settled. There are still some flops ahead as codec technology is still at that cutting-edge point where it's improving, and those improvements do have impact on how much storage and speed of transmission, decoding and so forth.

So, I think people who have made a move or are making the move need to have clear reasons about quality, for example, to make the move early. Otherwise, they'll find themselves possibly paying a premium downstream as they need to shift formats to what has become industry-standard or the de facto standard.

Camera prices are definitely affordable and there's excellent picture quality available, but some of them slow the workflow down. So, while the technology is available, you may not get the same results in the end. Those are things folks need to consider.

HDTU: How would you describe the market for HD commercials, nationally, regionally and locally?

DS: If you sit down and watch HD programming, you see that we are still in an emerging market, and you can hear sounds shift when you go to commercials. Sometimes you lose your Dolby Digital surround, and you hear clicks and pops as those switches happen in the background and your whole soundstage changes in your home theater environment. You see the picture go 4:3; you see some people have upconverted very well in 4:3. Other people are letterboxed within that 4:3 box because they are trying to look 16:9.

You're seeing the transition take place, but I think consumers want 16:9 high-quality programming with consistent sound, and we're not there yet.

Commercials are where you see that shift. I think that we are starting to see a lot of advertisers wake up to the fact that cutting their commercials in HD is not that much of a premium. Demand is starting to go up. I think we'll start to see national commercials shift to HD first, followed by regional. Local will be last.

HDTU: Sprint Nextel is footing the tab for broadcasters' government-mandated transition to 12MHz-wide digital BAS channels in the 2GHz range, but there's more to HD ENG than transmission. What are your thoughts on the competitive landscape for ENG acquisition formats for HD?

DS: I'm seeing a lot of adoption of acquisition formats. Fox just made the announcement. CBS and others are making the shift. They really come from the benefits of file-based workflows, the affordability of the cameras and the excellent image quality they're offering across the board.

With Editcam, we see folks who are focused just on the workflow. Those formats still offer differences from the prosumer formats like HDV and HDAVC. So, I see them persisting. I see the professional formats being maintained above the prosumer formats.

There's a lot of the really good technology out there. I think the bigger issue is all of those choices out there. For those of us who are downstream of acquisition formats, all of this rapid innovation has given us a huge headache in the sense that file formats, interfaces, codecs themselves, wrappers — they're all different even though they're all trying to accomplish the same task. I think we will see some settling in the marketplace as we settle on some common ground here over time.

HDTU: Will most early adopters of IT-based workflows at stations be able to accommodate HD with their existing infrastructure, or will they need to start over from scratch? I'm specifically wondering about network cable, routers, hard drives, etc.

DS: It depends on the system. I know that we have from the beginning of dealing with SD tried to accommodate the bandwidths that were coming. We even went as far as to develop codecs that will work on Ethernet with DNxHD to make sure we could upgrade even high quality production to HD without needing to rip out the infrastructure.

It also depends on when you make the move. Quality is available at lower bit rates. For folks who are making the move early, they need to be on Gigabit Ethernet. The same quality will likely be available on 100BASE-T further down the road as the file sizes go down; but then again, Gigabit will become ubiquitous.

You know you've got all of these crossing technologies — CPU bandwidth, disk storage and network bandwidth — all coming in together to make of all these things much more viable.

Tell us what you think!
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