Monster Cars, Choppers Cruise Into HD

Discovery HD Theater expands its 1080i offerings
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Discovery HD Theater expands its 1080i offerings

BOSTON

Imagine your custom-made chopper with the DDCC/Diamond Chassis, the polished S&S 113-inch engine (with ECR), an Accessories Unlimited Chrome Six-Speed transmission, Fat Katz fenders, Arlen Ness Radius controls, the CC/Vintage Stitch seat, an exhaust by MGS Cyclone, that Legend Air Ride suspension system-and, of course, the custom 3D Metal Glo paint job by MNK Custom Works.

Now imagine displaying your chrome-laden hog in HD.

This summer, Discovery Channel started offering two of its most popular programs-"American Chopper" and "Monster Garage"-on Discovery HD Theater for an initial run of at least 20 episodes each. "American Chopper," a reality-based show, follows the various business and social activities of a colorful, sometimes contentious father-son team who build custom-made motorcycles in their own shop. The hour-long program is being shot in 1080i, and stars cycle shop founder Paul Teutul, Sr., and chief designer Paul Teutul, Jr.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Craig Piligian, executive producer of Pilgrim Films & Television, said he's glad he took the technological leap into HD with "American Chopper."

"Our viewers expect a lot, we know that, and although it's always that extra expense to leap up to high definition, we found it's sure a lot more affordable than before. We're finding the new [HD equipment] in the field is a lot more compact-the lighting, too-and everything looks just great," he said.

Piligian made a special point of checking all the dailies that were coming in from the HD shoots and it didn't take long for him to take note of "what a major difference it makes to incorporate 5.1 surround sound. The audio is really great. It can make a huge difference with the final product. Every time you enhance the look, the structure, and the sound and feel of your show, you're attracting more viewers," he said.

A production crew from Moody Street of Boston is shooting "American Chopper" with Panasonic's AJ-HDC27F, a variable frame-rate DVCPRO HD camcorder that's also compatible with PAL and other international formats. (Pilgrim's analog shows are aired worldwide.) The camera can convert both 1080i and 720p to 1080p/24, serving as a "universal master" from which 25 fps PAL and other TV formats can be derived.

The variable frame-rate capabilities, incidentally, may produce a bit of nostalgia: The variables can emulate the "undercranking" or "overcranking" techniques of traditional film cameras by using various speeds, and can produce other familiar "cinematic" effects as well. Frame rates are adjustable within 4-to-60 fps and shutter speeds from 0.8 percent to 97.2 percent. It's becoming apparent that with each new enhancement of digital recording and post-production software, the ability to mimic the effects of "film" continues to be highly desirable among producers.

FLYING SPARKS

Piligian, a former co-producer of the CBS hit "Survivor," said while the content of the new second season of "American Chopper" will be identical to the analog version, he views the HD offerings as a thank-you to his viewers.

"It's 'added value' for them. It's added value in how much they now will see of the bikes, how much prettier everything looks," he said. "I'm really astonished at how much more definition and sparkle you see; the colors just pop out at you. Now when the sparks fly-you really see the sparks fly!"

"Monster Garage" follows the real exploits of yet another custom motorcycle builder, a rebel-without-a-cause sort with the appropriate moniker of Jesse James. Beyond building custom choppers, James and his crew of mechanics, artists, engineers and fabricators also transform ordinary cars-even garbage trucks, pontoon boats and hot-air balloons-into totally reconfigured, competition-ready, finely detailed, HD-worthy versions of their former selves.

The key demographic for "American Chopper" and "Monster Garage" (to no one's surprise) is predominantly male, age 18-49. Although no data is yet available for ad sales on the HD side, Discovery Channel Publicity Director David Schaefer said the new season of "American Chopper" in the analog realm was "completely sold out by early May."

Discovery's steadily increasing menu of HD fare comes during a relatively active period in the sputtering rollout of DTV. More than three dozen services-mostly cable channels and all seven broadcast networks-now offer various amounts of HD programming, most of it in nightly primetime and sports events, including NASCAR's upcoming season in HD, which targets very much the same audience as "Chopper" and "Monster."

The Yankee Group recently projected at least 6 million HDTV sets will be sold to consumers within calendar year 2004. If the Boston research firm is accurate, overall HD penetration could grow to an estimated 15 million TV homes by early 2005, or nearly 14 percent of the estimated 108.5 million TV homes. And despite the fact that no one knows yet how large any HD program's audience may be (cable and satellite HD shows are offered in bundled packages, not ala carte), Piligian hopes that all programs shot by Pilgrim Films & Television will be available in HD for the most basic reason.

"We just really like the way all this stuff looks and sounds," he said.