HD's killer app?

The era of HDTV broadcasting in the United States began near the end of 1998. Nearly a decade later, many industry pundits are still looking for the killer app that will drive consumers to replace their old analog TVs, hopefully by the time NTSC broadcasts are scheduled to end in 2009.

There are nearly as many opinions about what will motivate consumers to take the HDTV plunge as there are TV programs offered in HD during the past eight years. In 2004, a Broadcast Engineering e-newsletter reported the results of a research study conducted by Lyra Research, “Desperately Seeking Content: A Survey of HDTV Users.” The study, which polled 500 existing HDTV viewers, found that movies were considered to be the most important form of HD content, followed closely by sports.

Somebody throw the switch

HDTV has evolved from very humble beginnings, starting with the Japanese 1125/60 HDTV system and the Eureka HDTV Project during the '80s. At NAB in 1989, I saw the fruit of the Eureka project. From 30ft away, the picture looked washed out and lifeless, so I took a closer look at what was wrong.

The HD monitor was playing back a European “football” match. The program was captured with a 1250/50 HD prototype camera and was being presented on a 30in studio monitor. It didn't look much better up close, though one could see that there was more detail than in the standard-definition displays that filled the NAB exhibits. The images were good, but lacked contrast. The display was too small to render the available detail in a manner that viewers would find compelling.

Some industry pundits went so far as to claim that primary purpose of the Eureka HDTV Project was to derail HDTV in order to prevent the Japanese 1125/60 HDTV system from gaining a foothold in Europe.

It is noteworthy that HDTV is finally gaining favor in Europe … again. HDTV broadcasts of the recent World Cup met with a positive response in Europe and around the world.

During the advanced television standards setting process in the United States, I witnessed many demonstrations of HDTV. They were usually paired with the worst possible NTSC images one could conjure up — nasty ghosts from multipath and enough snow to go skiing.

Over the years, the quality of HDTV improved. However, it still wasn't enough to convince me to start paying for HD content.

We purchased our second HD-capable display just before Christmas in 2004. It was a 16:9 52in DLP-based rear-projection unit. I borrowed an HD cable box from a friend to see firsthand what I was missing. Not much. We never saw a program in HD on our old set, and it didn't look like we were going to on our new one either.

There were only seven HD channels, and much of what they carried was upconverted standard-definition programming. By the summer of 2005, however, the situation started to improve. ESPN HD had begun operations, and the local cable system began carriage of the NBC and CBS stations that serve the Gainesville market.

By the next Christmas, I was ready to take the plunge, motivated in large part by the number of college bowl games that ESPN HD promised to carry. The Scientific Atlanta HD-PVR was ready for the bowl games in HD, and we were ready for some football!

The feature game of the evening came on — in standard definition with the ESPN HD pillar boxes announcing to the world that this was not HD. Then someone remembered to switch the network feed to the HD broadcast. As Emeril Lagasse would say, “BAM!” Talk about kicking it up a notch! Sports is the killer app for HDTV.

Resolution realities

Somewhere out there a bunch of marketing and PR types are scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to convince us that we need to replace all of those boxes that play shiny DVDs with new HD boxes that play shiny DVDs. Good luck!

For decades, Hollywood types have been telling us that they are the real deal when it comes to sharp pictures on big screens. They sneer at what the television types are calling HD, claiming that they need 4K × 2K to faithfully reproduce what cinematographers have been capturing on film for decades.

What they don't tell us is that cinematographers will go to tremendous lengths to avoid capturing too much resolution. There's much more to the film look than the sometimes inadequate 24fps acquisition rate. Prime lenses keep only the content they want us to see in focus. Filters soften the look of images.

In short, movies (and television sitcoms and dramas) are not about resolution. This and the fact that the original source was captured as progressive frames are the main reasons that standard-definition DVDs look so good on an HD-capable display. The major benefit of the move to HD broadcasts of prime-time network programming has been the widescreen format, which moviegoers have enjoyed for decades.

But sports in HD is a whole new ballgame. You can actually see what's happening when the director sits on a wide shot. The instant replays have incredible detail, especially when the cameras are running in 720p mode. But most important, HD coverage of sporting events is the primary driver in the rapid growth in sales of HDTV displays.

The motivation for viewers to take the HD plunge may be the result of a neighbor inviting friends over to watch a game in HD; it may be the result of dad killing time in the electronics department while mom and the kids shop for new school clothes; or it may be the number of sports bars that are upgrading their displays to HD.

HD for the love of the game

According to a news release from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), November and December 2005 factory-to-dealer sales of DTV products hit 2.3 million, marking a 35 percent increase over November and December 2004 sales. The CEA attributed this to the desire of sports enthusiasts to watch HDTV broadcasts of college bowl games and the Super Bowl. Overall, total DTV sales for 2005 reached more than 12 million units and $17 billion in revenue, an increase of 60 percent compared to year-end 2004. High-definition products comprised 85 percent of total sales.

Apparently, the Super Bowl and March Madness have helped to sustain the momentum. The CEA reported in May that sales of digital televisions grew more than 100 percent during the first quarter of 2006. CEA president Gary Shapiro noted that more than 35 million DTV units have been sold since market introduction in 1998.

HD coverage of sporting events is proliferating thanks to national cable networks, including ESPN HD and ESPN2 HD, HDNet and InHD, and a large number of regional sports networks that are beginning to cover events in HD. And the major broadcast TV networks are covering most of their premiere sporting events in HD. To get a flavor of what is available, take a look at the HDSportsGuide.com. (See “Web links.”)

Now that there is a constant supply of content, HD is transforming your local sports bars as well. ESPN Zone, the sports bar and amusement centers found in eight cities across the country, recently completed a multimillion-dollar overhaul of all its TV screens, replacing them with high-definition monitors.

What's behind this dramatic growth in coverage of sporting events in HD? It's gone mobile.

The U.S. fleet of mobile production units is undergoing a transformation of its own. Statistics supplied by the Sports Video Group indicate that 25 percent of the units used to cover sporting events are now fully converted to originate in HD. Based on a recent study of the 164 trucks now being used to cover sporting (and other) events, 41 can originate in HD. At least 10 new HD trucks will be on the road this year, and many standard-definition units are going back for an HD makeover.

Look out, Hollywood. HD movies might have been a nice starter, but HD sports is becoming the main course.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV forum.

Send questions and comments to:craig.birkmaier@penton.com

Web links

“Moves to list of importance for HDTV viewing, sports a close second,” Oct. 21, 2004, http://broadcastengineering.com/newsletters/hd_tech/20041021/movies-tv-hd-20041021/index.html

“Super Bowl XL kicks off the year of HD, says CEA,” Jan. 30, 2006, www.ce.org/Press/CurrentNews/press_release_detail.asp?id=10941

“DTV sales up more than 100 percent during Q1, announces CEA's Shapiro,” May 8, 2006, www.ce.org/Press/CurrentNews/press_release_detail.asp?id=11015

“HDTV redefining sports bars,” June 12, 2006, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2003055504_bthdtvbars12.html

A program guide for nation HD sports broadcasts, www.hdsportsguide.com