Keep Both HD and SD Viewers Happy

News Flash: People are going to be watching TV with low-resolution display devices for a long time into the future.

You say that’s not news to you? Maybe not. But it’s apparently news to the producers of a local issues show I watched last night. The station produced the show in 16:9 and presented the program on its analog channel letterboxed, which is fine.

But what was really fine were some of the graphics. They were so fine, in fact, that I couldn’t read them on the 30-inch NTSC television I was watching. The letters were just sort of blurred shapes instead of legible alphanumeric characters.


We’ve all known that the DTV transition was going to be challenging. It was challenging for the Grand Alliance to come up with the ATSC technology, it’s been challenging for ownership to come up with money to buy that equipment, challenging for engineering to find affordable solutions, challenging to install and fire up that equipment. Some of those challenges are ongoing.

But I’ll guarantee something else: For as many as a dozen years following the cessation of analog television broadcasting in this country, you’re going to be challenged to present a television product that not only takes advantage of the wonderful resolution of the high-definition displays, but also presents a product that can reasonably be viewed by those with analog sets who are either viewing a converted signal through a cable or satellite set-top box, or an over-the-air digital signal converted for viewing on an analog TV.

When a television news consulting company is advising your news director (and marketing department, and the general manager) on how to tailor the newscast for better ratings, they talk in terms of getting more viewers into your tent. How can they design the newscasts to be inviting to more groups of viewers without losing the audience already watching the station?

I’ll give you a quick example I heard one researcher deliver in his report. He said about a quarter of our audience lived for the sports report, about a quarter hated sports and would tune away when that segment came on, and about half the audience would listen to some sports in the newscasts as long as they didn’t feel it was hammered down their throats.

Their recommendation was to get a more entertaining sports anchor and go after that 50 percent in the middle. Let the sports lovers go to ESPN, and let’s live without the sports haters. We did that, and it worked as planned.


I think I can make the argument that there will similarly be three different groups of set owners in the years to come.

There will be people with a lot more money than I have who will replace each and every TV in their house with an HD display. They also will subscribe to every tier of cable or satellite, have HD DVD players, DVRs and other sources of video entertainment. They may not really be available for your local news.

There will be people like the elderly folks who live next door to me, who have an old TV and an antenna on the roof. I think if their kids were to buy them a new digital set, they’d tell them to take it back and not waste their money. They’re not in your target audience, but they’ll keep watching.

And in the middle, I think the vast majority of people will end up buying a digital HD TV set or two, but will keep some of their analog sets in the house as well. They may watch the evening news on the big screen in their living or home theater room, but for the late news or late-night talk shows they may choose to watch the downconverted signal on their existing analog TV in the bedroom.

That third group, I’m betting, is going to be quite a bit larger than the other two. To keep them will be the trickiest of all, because it means delivering a satisfying experience to both extremes. As usual, I’m not going to be shy with my own advice.


The graphics are a good place to start, and to my way of thinking they’re the easiest to fix. Even though you may have HD monitors all over the place at the station, watch samples of your shows on an old analog set, over the air or over cable or satellite, downconverted. Are the graphics legible? If the answer isn’t clearly yes, then it’s actually no, and the graphics need to be a little larger or a little bolder.

As to whether to letterbox, until the NTSC transmitter powers down, you do have the choice of whether to send a letterboxed signal out or send a 4:3 centercut. I’m going to suggest you start to send a letterboxed image over the analog channel. Why? Because if analog viewers buy the entry-level DTV converters in a panic when their analog signal goes away, they may not have any choice but a letterboxed output. This will train them to watch that letterboxed image.

Sending out a letterboxed image on the analog channel now will have another effect. It won’t allow your graphics people to temporarily downsize the fonts they’re using, such that they’re barely legible on a fully filled 4:3 screen but illegible in letterbox.

A third advantage of presenting it letterboxed is it allows you to present a more complete image to the high-definition viewers, because you don’t want them to leave the tent either.

To people who weren’t in the TV business when stereophonic sound capability was added to the NTSC system in the ‘80s, you might be interested to know there was a parallel to this same transition problem. Technicians unused to working with two-channel sound would sometimes find the left and right channels out of phase, which yielded sound for those listening to a monaural speaker that was absent of sounds that were equal on both channels, like dialog, for instance.

We worked that out, and we can work this out.