What's your excuse?

As the era of analog NTSC broadcasting inches closer to an end, the percentage of U.S. homes with widescreen, HD-capable displays is growing rapidly. In turn, viewers and local video content producers are asking an important question: When will broadcasters begin to produce widescreen and HD programming, and enable independent producers to deliver programming and commercials in the widescreen SD and HD formats supported by the ATSC standard?

If there was any doubt that the era of HD video acquisition had begun, those doubts were erased at NAB2007. A wide range of products, from entry-level camcorders to high-end digital cinematography systems that can acquire images with up to 2000 lines, are now shipping in volume. A high-quality camera head that can shoot in any of the ATSC formats now costs little more than the SD products that are being replaced.

Glass is the only area where HD acquisition is significantly more costly than SD. To gain the full benefits of HD acquisition, you may need to spend nearly as much for the lens as for the camera head. But many lower cost combinations can deliver widescreen images, from high-quality SD to full-quality HD. The one point of commonality is the ability to acquire and display widescreen images.

Unfortunately, while the number of channels that offer HD content is increasing — especially those delivered by multichannel subscription systems — the vast majority of commercials are still delivered in the SD 4:3 aspect ratio.

This should be a red flag to broadcasters and any nonbroadcast network that delivers HD programming. The industry is already concerned because consumers have the power to zap commercials. They can pick up the remote and surf during commercial breaks, or with a DVR they can fast-forward through the commercials. So why disrupt the continuity between widescreen program content and the commercials that help pay for it by switching to the 4:3 aspect ratio during commercial breaks?

Discovery Communications, which includes the flagship Discovery Channel and Discovery HD Theater, recently announced the results of a study of HD advertising effectiveness that it conducted with Starcom USA. (See “Web links” on page 16.) The study concluded that “commercials in high definition not only look better, they sell better.” The study found that the increase in brand recall by HD viewers was triple that of SD viewers. Intent-to-purchase was 55 percent higher when ads were seen in HD as opposed to SD.

Are viewers more likely to watch commercials when they don't see the switch from widescreen to NTSC pillarbox on their new widescreen displays?

Another study by the Home Technology Monitor found that HD viewers are no more likely to watch TV commercials than SD viewers. (See “Web links” on page 16.) The study says HD subscribers find commercials produced in HD “more relevant,” but 88 percent of HD viewers say they change channels or ignore the commercial when it comes on, as compared with 80 percent of non-HD viewers.

Format wars

The transition to digital broadcasting has enabled manufacturers to break away from the historic practice of developing proprietary formats that all deliver the same NTSC composite video signals. Unfortunately, this pattern is repeating itself as we move to the common language of bits.

The ATSC standard offers broadcasters a menu of formats that can be tailored to programming requirements, with options for spatial resolution and frame rates. The common ground is that all formats are encoded using MPEG-2 compression and delivered using the MPEG transport stream specification. Every consumer receiver must decode and present all of these formats at the native display resolution.

But broadcasters have elected to use only a subset of these formats, with local stations typically building their physical plants around the HD formats used by the networks they are affiliated with. In the end, all of the HD formats are being converted to either 1080i with 59.94fps or 720p with 59.94fps, while SD is always 480i with 59.94fps. One of the major reasons for this is to maintain continuity between program content and commercials so that receivers do not need to change scanning characteristics as the formats change.

One would think that maintaining aspect ratio continuity would be equally important, yet widescreen ads are rarely seen, even on dedicated HD cable networks like ESPN HD. Thanks to affordable entry-level HD camcorders, some stations are beginning to migrate their local newscasts to HD, but local HD commercial production is virtually nonexistent.

It is now becoming quite common for independent producers to shoot their projects in HD, even if the final output will be 4:3 SD. Those with HD acquisition gear may also be able to shoot projects for the networks — especially local interviews used in HD sporting events.

As was the case with NTSC, however, the ability to get this kind of work is highly dependent on the ability to supply the networks with the final work product in the physical format they require. Ironically, tape-based HD formats are typically what the networks are looking for.

The delivery of projects on P2 memory cards or HDCAM Blu-ray discs is virtually unheard of, as is the use of hard drives and DVD discs. The ability to upload files via high-speed networks is generally not supported, despite the fact that consumers are now routinely downloading HD programming via the Internet.

The solution seems obvious. It's time to create the infrastructure for the delivery of MPEG-2 files using DVD-R or high-speed networks. A DVD-R can hold more than 30 minutes of MPEG-2 HD content encoded at 25Mb/s. Even at 40Mb/s to 50Mb/s, rates often used to deliver contribution-quality network programming to affiliates, a DVD could hold an entire rotation of HD commercials or short program segments.

Don't wait!

With little more than a year until the scheduled February 2009 end of NTSC broadcasting, it is time for broadcasters to develop a comprehensive strategy to support widescreen SD/HD programming and commercials.

A good place to start would be to deliver all widescreen programming to NTSC viewers in letterbox format. If commercials delivered to HD viewers in pillarbox is a red flag for commercial breaks, perhaps delivering all NTSC programming in letterbox would be a red flag for consumers to buy a widescreen display. It might also encourage advertisers to get with the program, so to speak.

To help speed the conversion to widescreen SD/HD, broadcasters need to work with manufacturers to develop standards for the delivery of MPEG-2 files in any of the ATSC formats. If there is still any doubt, it is time for broadcasters to start shooting and delivering widescreen content.

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