Survey shows bigger is better

The Radio-Television News Director Foundation (RTNDF) recently released a report on the future of TV news with little mention of HDTV.

However, where respondents could choose between small-screen presentation of news and larger screen presentation, they consistently picked the latter, which may bode well for HD.

HD Technology Update turned to Ball State University professor of telecommunications Bob Papper who conducted the survey and authored “The Future of News, A Study by The Radio Television News Directors Foundation,” to get a better sense of where HD fits into the future for TV news.

HD Technology Update: The findings of your recent study seem to indicate that HD news is more on the minds of news directors than viewers. Is that how you read it?

Bob Papper: What people really notice is about content, and HD is the technical side and not the content side. So, what we have here is a lot more news directors talking about the technical side and high definition than we have the audience.

What that says, in essence, is that they’re saying substance is more important than form. What they are looking for is content that’s meaningful to them. And that’s more important to them than the technical side.

Now, at the same time we see that people love television. They love television, and if you give them the choice of looking at absolutely anything, the bigger the screen the better. You have them choose between a small screen and a computer, and they’ll choose the computer. Between a computer and a big TV, and they’ll go with a big TV.

There is no question that people are going to want that picture to look as good as it possibly can.

So, is high definition going to be important in this? I think absolutely it will be.

One of the other things we are seeing — and this isn’t identified as high definition, but this is coming through very clear — is that the mass audience of the future is going to be a mixture of perhaps small mass along with a whole bunch of niche markets. We see people dividing up into a variety of ways (to view news), and stations are going to have to reach those different people through different means.

That means they are going to have to be dealing with those digital channels and offering different choices. It may even be the same thing in different ways.

HDTU: Could you give me an example of what you have in mind?

BP: If we look at some of the different technologies and priorities we can get some insight. For instance, 40 percent of the people said they like the idea of assembling their own newscast. Not on the Internet, but on TV. That breaks down primarily based on education.

Now, most people say getting news when they want it is important to them. There’s no question about it. But we also have over 60 percent of people saying they are interested in interacting with TV news.

HDTU: So, even though the study says they want it on television, the respondents want it presented in more of an interactive way like what they get on the Web?

BP: Yeah. And as you know, this is really hard. I mean interactive TV, saying that it is in its infancy in this country is probably giving it too much credit. It’s difficult. It’s time-consuming. But part of it is that the Internet is teaching people about interactivity, and people want that interactivity on the TV.

It is possible. It’s not that it can’t be done. It’s just really difficult. Stations and broadcast companies are going to have to come to grips with that.

That finding is age dependent. The younger the audience, the more interested they are in it. So, companies are going to need to be dealing with that and working with that. So, those digital channels are going to get really well used in terms of companies that are going to try to stay ahead of the curve.

What this study suggests is there is a lot of loyalty to traditional media — not just TV, but newspapers. All that says is companies have a little bit more time to make critical adjustments, and a lot of what this study says is that a lot of that low-hanging fruit, like small screen and blogs, is not going to cut it.

That’s not the new technology a lot of people are really interested in. You are going to have to get into a lot of the more technical, more difficult kinds of things. And I think stations are going to have to look at programming for different groups of people at different times.

HDTU: The study finds that a large number of people don’t want old news, and also want news at their convenience. That’s got to make news production difficult.

BP: Quite a challenge, isn’t it? Part of what it’s undoubtedly going to be is that different people have different demands at different times of the day. So, it is even more complicated.

The person who wants to assemble his own newscast at 6 p.m. may well not want any part of that at 11. They’re tired. So, it is going to be difficult. And different groups of people put a premium on different things, so you can see how big the challenge is likely to be as we march forward.

HDTU: Will the wide aspect ratio of HD be useful in helping news directors satisfy some of the viewer desires unearthed in your study?

BP: I think that is one of the really good questions. One of the things that I’m a little bit surprised at is how little research I’ve seen on what you do with the different aspect ratios that more and more people have in their homes.

If in news the standard configuration in a 4:3 format is two people side-by-side, is that still true in 16:9? And the saddest part is that I don’t think we know the answer to that, but it’s not like we didn’t know this was coming. The research doesn’t say this, but I’m concerned that people haven’t given a lot of thought to the best way to use that wider screen. Do we use part of that screen for graphics, or a third person? Do we mix and match that? Do we just spread them out? What do people want? We really need to do some research in terms of how we are going to use that.

If we look at what sets people are buying, more and more are 16:9 and more and more are high definition, and no one bought a high-definition set to look at bad pictures.

I think people are perfectly happy to give stations, and probably mostly cable companies, a fair amount of time with this, but it’s not an infinite amount of time. What the audience is saying in this research is that they are not going to buy into new technology simply because it is new.

What they want is something that’s going to make their lives better, simpler, easier, save them money and make it more convenient. They don’t want to change their lives. They want their lives improved. So, technology is going to have to prove itself against that standard. Just being new isn’t really going to be enough.

Editor’s note: The RTNDA has posted Papper’s report “The Future of News, A Study by The Radio Television News Directors Foundation,” on its Web site:

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