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Looking high and wide for news

As reported in this column in May, affordable HD was one of the big news stories at NAB2005. (For more, see “Web links” on page 16.) The reality that the new tools of digital media production are scaling up to meet the requirements for HD post production has been growing for several years. Computer-based tools for editing and managing HD content are now available from a variety of vendors with little — if any — premium over their SD counterparts. You may need more disk storage for HD, as well as monitors that are up to the task, but these components are being driven by the relentless cost reduction benefits of Moore's Law.

As the broadcast industry comes to grips with the impending migration to digital television, including HDTV, we are beginning to understand where the real costs and challenges of moving to HD, with its widescreen format, will be revealed. For example, it has been reported that the management at one Little Rock network affiliate received a request from the on-air staff to include a budget for plastic surgery and dermabrasion along with the cash for HD cameras.

Unlike other technical innovations that have changed the look of television over the decades, HD is not creating a bandwagon effect at the local level, forcing other stations in the market to upgrade to remain competitive. Only a handful of stations in the United States have hitched their fortunes to the HD bandwagon; to date, their local competitors have not followed.

One can understand the reluctance to be a pioneer in the face of tough local competition, especially in the broadcast news business. And then there is the reality that there are still only about 10 million HD-capable homes in the United States, and most of these do not receive off-air DTV broadcasts. It was to be expected that local broadcasters would find little to be excited about when looking at first- generation HD products and the total costs of converting station operations for HD program origination.

At NAB, the PR hype was thick with the buzzword affordable HD filling the air. JVC introduced an HD ENG camera and demonstrated an end-to-end solution for live remote broadcasts in HD. Panasonic's first HD P2 camcorder also seems optimized for ENG and other local HD origination tasks. And Sony seems anxious to push its HDV bandwagon into the industry's newsrooms. Affordable HD camcorders are now finding their way into many hands, including some broadcast facilities, if only to learn more about the technology.

Local broadcasters can no longer hide behind the high cost of HD acquisition and production. Although to be fair, you get what you pay for. A good HD lens for a studio camera will generally cost more than the HD camera to which it is attached. The new affordable HD camcorders can make outstanding pictures, but it is obvious that they must employ some compromises to reach these breakthrough price points.

So what's the real problem with local HD production and HD ENG?

Like being there

Those hooked on HD like to say that the HD viewing experience is almost like being there. There is no question that the higher levels of detail make it possible to see things that have been carefully masked by the limitations of NTSC and the expert work of those who often turn local news into a beauty contest.

Sets that worked fine in SD don't cut it for HD. Every imperfection can be seen, including those in instances where station engineers have learned to use the lack of definition in traditional broadcasts as a mask. Plastic surgery has even been cited as a requirement for those seeking to make the transition to HD.

And then there is the $64,000 question: How does HD actually enhance the ability to cover the news? Do we really need to see what passes for news in more detail?

Some see the trend moving in the opposite direction. Competitive pressures are causing news organizations to deliver breaking news using technologies that offer significantly less resolution than NTSC. For example, camera phones provided some of the most compelling images in the aftermath of the July 7 terrorist bombings in London.

And then there's competition from the Internet. When a major story breaks, many people — especially those at work — turn to Internet news portals for the story. A recent announcement by the CBS television network suggests that the very landscape of television news is changing as viewer options for information proliferate.

On July 12, CBS News and its digital content partner, CBS Digital Media, announced plans for a major expansion of, creating a 24-hour, multiplatform digital news network, bypassing cable television in favor of the nation's fastest-growing distribution system — broadband. (See “Web links” below.)

The very definition of how news is delivered is changing before our eyes. And the enhanced clarity of HDTV may not be a critical factor.

Catch 16:9

One factor, possibly the most significant barrier to the migration of news to HDTV, is that the wider screen allows some viewers to see more than others.

This may well be the Catch-22 to the quick adoption of HD, not just in the United States, but worldwide. While the United States flirts with HDTV, Europe welcomes widescreen TV. Even there, however, compromise is the watchword. Many DTV broadcasts in Europe are using a 14:9 aspect ratio. On legacy 4:3 sets, the 14:9 content is displayed in a letterbox format that nearly fills the screen. On 16:9 sets, the 14:9 programming does not fill the full screen width.

The easy way to deal with the aspect ratio mismatch is to keep all of the critical information within a 4:3 safe area so that the entire audience can see what is important. This is the technique that the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” uses. Nothing important happens in the extra side panel areas that only the HD audience can see.

For TV news, the situation grows even more complex because of the extensive use of graphics. Some stations have experimented with adding information that can be seen only by the HD audience in the side panels, while the standard 4:3 broadcast fills the center. Others simply restrict important graphic information to the 4:3 safe area.

Even if a station does make the commitment to move to HD news broadcasts, it is likely that much of the content will remain in SD. Most stations use contributing news services that do not currently feed in HD. Plus, it is still expensive to re-equip the entire news department for HD, even with affordable HD products. So for now, HD news will remain a compromise, with a mixture of stories that may be delivered at almost any resolution and multiple aspect ratios.

There is one aspect of affordable HDTV, however, that cannot be ignored. There is nothing to keep broadcasters from playing and learning. The cost to acquire an HD camcorder and an NLE system to produce HD content is now at a level where it can be written off as a learning experience. And these tools can also be used to create SD programming, including widescreen shows at SD resolution.

In such a competitive world, broadcasters cannot afford to ignore this opportunity.

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

Web links

Download May 2005: “Affordable HD at NAB”

WUSA HDTV FAQ: “What's the big deal about HDTV? For starters, it's big…”

“CBS News revamps online presence”

“ABC News to re-launch ABC News Now service”

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