HDTV: Savings Vary for New Master of TV Universe

Film-style features often worth the price
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Film-style features often worth the price

NEW YORK

When producers switch from 35mm film to HD video acquisition, they save substantially on costs such as film stock, lab processing and film-to-tape transfer. Since TV producers are especially budget-conscious, the trend is that many network series have either switched from film to HD acquisition, namely 1080/24P, or they are testing it.

But not all TV shows benefit equally from HD's economy. HD experts caution that the cost-savings of taping HD can be a more attractive proposition for half-hour sitcoms than for one-hour dramas. Because primetime dramas employ film-style production techniques, they don't save as much as sitcoms. And the savings they do realize are often not compelling enough for producers to sacrifice the dynamic range and in-camera effects capability of film cameras.

Nevertheless, whether primetime shows are taped in HD or filmed, the trend is also clear that producers save money and benefit by having a digital HD master from which to make any version needed for distribution more cost-effectively. And broadcast networks save money too through direct investment in the productions as well as in lower program licensing fees.

Of the major broadcast networks, CBS and ABC have demonstrated an aggressive HDTV strategy, and both have indicated their commitment to HDTV programming would expand.

NBC, which has been doing "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" in HDTV five hours per week, plus specials and sports events such as the Olympics and NBA games, is planning to expand its HDTV primetime offerings to 14 hours for the 2002-2003 TV season, plus movies, sports and special events, NBC Vice Chairman and Executive Officer Robert C. Wright in New York wrote in a June 20 letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell. Wright added that NBC has also invested more than $60 million in a state-of-the-art digital studio in New York.

HDTV IS GOOD BUSINESS

"Our HDTV initiative is paying off in many ways," said Bob Seidel, vice president of engineering and advanced technology for CBS Television Network in New York. "We're realizing some savings on production costs, expanding our distribution library with HDTV shows that are of interest to HDTV broadcasters in Australia, Japan and New Zealand, upgrading the look of our NTSC shows and attracting new viewers who are now watching CBS on their HDTVs."

As a leading provider of HDTV programming, CBS expanded its HDTV offerings over the last three seasons, culminating with 18 hours of HDTV per week during the 2001-2002 season.

One of the best examples of how HD has benefited CBS is "The Young and the Restless," one of four daytime dramas produced at CBS Television City in Hollywood. CBS began producing "Y&R" in (1080/60i) HD production in June 2001.

"We wanted to dispel the myths that HD production would be too expensive," Seidel said of switching the soap from NTSC to HD. "In reality, we didn't need to change the sets, lighting, make-up or wardrobe. The incremental cost for producing the show in HD is a small fraction of one percent of the total production budget.

"And, the impact on the show has been positive, with HD enabling the ability to use filmic sweeping pans and capture subtle facial expressions," he said. "When it's necessary to replace older, amortized video equipment, CBS upgrades to dual-standard systems, which keeps HD production comparatively cost-effective."

For CBS shows produced by production companies, "CBS regularly invests in many of the shows we air, and therefore, we share in the savings resulting from HD production," Seidel said. And, he added, production companies benefit from having a digital HD master in their vaults because it saves them time and money whenever they need to create deliverables for broadcast standards worldwide, as well as DVD and soon-to-be HD-DVD.

CBS' delivery requirement is 1080/60i on D-5. However, 1080/24P and 35mm film are acceptable acquisition formats. Among the popular CBS primetime shows, "JAG" was shot on 35mm film; "CSI" and "The District" were filmed in Super 35mm film for even higher picture quality; and "Diagnosis Murder" and "The Education of Max Bickford" were taped in 1080/24P.

In the 2002-2003 season, CBS will continue its commitment to HDTV. "Our slogan at CBS is 'It's All Here,'" said Seidel. "So, we wanted our HDTV schedule to offer something for everyone - sports, soap operas, primetime dramas and sitcoms and family entertainment."

NOT YET READY FOR PRIMETIME

"While saving money - by switching from 35mm to 24P HD production - is a terrific incentive for many producers, this move doesn't necessarily make sense for all shows," said Randy Hoffner, manager of technical planning for ABC in New York. "Despite all the hype, the reality is that there are many aesthetic and technical factors that can erode those potential savings, or compromise the show's entertainment value."

One exception, however, is "100 Centre Street," a drama on A&E, on which director Sydney Lumet has spared no expense. The 24P HD production shoots twice as much footage as a film shoot would, and three HD cameras are switched hot on a video truck instead of the film tradition of rolling one or two ISO 35mm cameras.

"Aesthetically, many producers do not believe that 24P HD will give them the filmic look they want. HD video cameras make it difficult for them to de-focus the background to accentuate the foreground as an in-camera effect because of the size of the imager in relation to the focal length of the lens," added Hoffner. "And, HD video cameras don't have the same dynamic range as film cameras, so in uncontrolled lighting conditions, strong highlights are more prone to producing 'burned spots' in their pictures. These limitations may not hamper sitcoms, but I think it will be a very long time before primetime dramas benefit from a switch from 35mm film to 24P HD."

"According to Jim," a sitcom that aired last season on ABC, was shot in 24P HD, but Hoffner says that its two top dramas - "The Practice" and "NYPD Blue" - continue to be filmed in 35mm and then mastered onto 720P HD. ABC's commitment to HDTV is also high, with the network planning to air the Super Bowl in HDTV in early 2003.

There are also some technical factors that can erode potential savings on 24P HD production. For example, if producers record audio on DAT recorders, and use the camera's audio recording only as a backup, there are audio synchronization and other audio-finishing costs. Also, color correction of HD pictures to approach film colorimetry adds to post-production costs.

"Hollywood film guys have a strong artistic perspective, and they're not easy to change," said Hoffner. "They won't compromise production quality, especially on dramas, because the camera helps tell the story."

In a May 30 to Powell, Robert A. Iger, president and COO of The Walt Disney Company, says ABC is planning to air about half the network's fall primetime programming in HDTV including "Drew Carey, " "According to Jim," "Life With Bonnie," "Less Than Perfect," NYPD Blue," "Alias" and "The Practice."

HOLLYWOOD'S HD MIGRATION

Conrad Denke, CEO of the Victory Studios, (formerly APS) in Seattle and Los Angeles, agrees that much of the progress in switching HDTV primetime production from film to HD is being made in sitcoms. (Victory Studios' Hollywood facility has just been signed by ABC to do post production on a half-hour HDTV pilot that will likely become a new primetime comedy series because of the star-power involved. Further details were not disclosed.)

"The economics are clearly dominating the change," said Denke. "When you are experimenting with a new program, it makes tremendous economic sense to use HD. You can shoot more, experiment more, and keep the quality high while keeping costs lower than traditional 35mm film shoots. And audiences can't really see the difference. We've seen 35mm and HD intercut, and it's literally seamless."

SERVING MANY MASTERS

"We're definitely seeing an increase in the number of network shows being shot in HD, and all of them have chosen 24P HD over 1080/60i," said Emory Cohen, president and COO of Laser Pacific, a Hollywood full-service post facility offering HDTV finishing for network shows, both HD and film. "Last season, two or three sitcoms taped in HD, but for this upcoming season we expect six or seven sitcoms will move to 24P HD."

Not only has Laser Pacific been the leading HD post facility for primetime network shows (especially for CBS and ABC), the company received four Emmy Awards for Engineering Excellence for its contribution to the development of the 24P HD format (in collaboration with Sony Electronics).

"In 1996, when the FCC mandated ATSC, CBS and NBC elected 1080/60i HD; ABC chose 720/60P; and Fox chose 480/60P - and as a company that serves the Hollywood production community, we said, 'this is a catastrophe,'" Cohen said. "We can't build an edit suite for each of these formats. And producers won't tolerate anything but a single archival master that can satisfy all delivery formats.

"So we approached Sony with our concept for a 24-frame HD format that would transcend the boundaries of transmission formats, and our technology was employed in Sony's F900 recorder. By virtue of its similarities to film, the resulting 24-frame HD format has captivated Hollywood and spurred the production of HDTV content."

Among the HDTV series edited and mastered at Laser Pacific are "Family Law," "Judging Amy," "Friends," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "JAG," "Max Bickford" and "Touched By An Angel." Cohen said CBS' "Max Bickford" has only been shot in HD, never film. And "Touched By An Angel," a long-running CBS series, began on 16mm, then switched to 35mm for the last three seasons, but will now switch to 24P HD for the upcoming season.

Although Cohen agrees there is a savings when shows switch from film to HD production, he notes that additional expenses often offset the savings. For example, many productions feel the need to hire a digital image technician (an HD video engineer) to advise the DP and crew about technical issues related to shooting HD.

"The only reason to change from film to HD production is to save money," said Cohen. "No one that we've talked to says they're making the change to improve the quality of their shows. Whenever the change is made, it's always motivated purely by economics."