HDNet Turns To Hard News

Americans' perceptions of war changed forever when, during the Vietnam War, extensive television coverage brought the often horrific battle scenes into U.S. living rooms. Now, with the debut of World Report, the first on-location high definition news show, shot from the world's hot spots, HDNet is upping the ante for news gathering in battle zones.

"Seeing any politically-charged location in HD is a completely different experience than traditional TV," said HDNet Chairman and Founder Mark Cuban. "In traditional TV, they try to give a little flavor, mainly through verbal description. With HD, the camera can do what it excels in. A burned-out truck or a mortar shell on the groundÑyou see it. Someone in pain, you see it. HDTV coverage sets a new standard for immersing the audience in pictures and stories that increasingly convey to viewers the raw, visceral experience of the conflict."

Phil Garvin, general manager and co-founder of HDNet, concurred. "Our attitude is that anything that can be done in standard definition can be done better in HD," he said. "Just because it's happening on the other side of the world shouldn't stop us."

The first impetus to travel to areas of political turmoil with Sony HDCAM camcorders was the recent U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. In January of this year, when that conflict was in full swing, HDNet hired Broadcast News Networks (BNN), a major New York-based independent producer of news and documentaries to do coverage in the region. BNN, with veteran correspondent Peter Arnett, went to Afghanistan that month to report from the area in high definition, the first HDTV coverage from a war zone.

Since then, HDNet, BNN, and Arnett have gone to the Middle East, producing three HD programs, Inside Israel: Voices of Anguish, Voices of Anger, Inside Palestine: The Clash of Civilizations, and Israel's Dilemma: Counting the Costs of Expanding War, first broadcast April 8, April 25 and April 22, respectively on HDNet. In addition, the trio has produced Afghan Journal, the world's first high definition documentary.

Producing news programming in HD has required a different type of shoot. "We like long-lasting, wide shots, whereas in standard def, you wouldn't shoot that way at all," said Garvin. "With standard definition, visual information is limited, so stories tend to be more narrative-driven. In HD, what meets the eye is so informative and so detailed that you want to linger over the shots."

"We all talk about the technical specs of HD and how much more resolution there is and the wider aspect ratio," he continued. "But it's not just sharper. It's another dimension when it's done right."

With the completion of the three Middle East reports, Garvin says they've learned even more about how to shoot news in HD. "Recently we had a shot of a marketplace in Israel where a bombing took place," he recounted. "How often do you get to be at a bombing site? You wanted to put the camera there and look at all the aspects. We learned that we should have let the shot play even longer."

According to Garvin, training cinematographers to shoot HD rather than standard definition has been relatively simple. "We tell them it's much more like shooting a 35mm movie," he said. "Stop zooming and panning. Do a wide shot and don't touch it. There are many more things you don't do as opposed to things you do. Shooting HD is much easier than shooting standard definition in many ways."

After shooting, the footage is shipped back to HDNet via couriers and edited on a Pinnacle Systems CineWave HD editing and compositing system, with Apple Final Cut Pro 3, running on an Apple Power Mac G4Ñthe very same set-up HDNet used to edit segments of its Winter Olympics coverage for NBC's DTV affiliates. Titles, graphics, and effects are added with both the Final Cut Pro software and Pixel Power's Clarity HD. From there, the material is encoded, put on the server, and transmitted from Denver to Los Angeles via a DS-3 fiber path, as part of HDNet's feed to satellite service provider DirecTV, where it has a channel.

Though the initial goal was to transmit live day-of news programs from the world's most troubled lands, HDNet has had to settle, at least for now, for its longer feature-length programs. "This is one area where the technology just isn't ready yet," said Garvin. "Doing live reports back from all over the world is hard enough in standard definitionÑand almost impossible in HD, because of the complex encoding and the satellite space you need. We need another year to put that in place."

At the same time that HDNet continues to expand its coverage of other programming areas of interest, such as sports, World Report is and will continue to be an important part of the network's line-up. Garvin said that HDNet is aiming to produce "at least one report a week," from locales all over the world.

Cuban noted that, in addition to portraying the news in a more visual manner, HD news reports in general, and World Report in specific, will provide a momentum for the public's embrace of HD Ñand a historical record of the world's conflicts with evergreen values, ideal for archiving and re-purposing. "Looking forward to 10 years from now, when we're in an HD world, we'll have the only content that isn't dated," he said.

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