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The cost of HD

Television is a business, though sometimes we seem to wish it wasn’t. Station owners have to sell a product, meet margin expectations, and figure out how much money they can afford to spend to sustain and grow the business. NTSC broadcasting is a mature industry. The size of the audience is growing, but not at the rate it once was. And the broadcaster’s share of the total advertising dollars and viewership has declined in every decade since competition arrived.

CrossCreek Productions mobile truck company uses Thomson Grass Valley’s Kalypso switcher. Thomson introduced an HDTV and switchable HD/SD variant of the popular switcher at NAB this year.


HDTV wasn’t dreamed up as a way to raise margins, reduce costs or deliver a product for which viewers or advertisers had cried out.

Instead, the first impetus behind broadcast HDTV, emerging around 1986, was an attempt by broadcasters to keep all of the broadcast spectrum for themselves. During that time, the FCC was being pressured to give away some spectrum to other uses — spectrum that broadcasters considered their birthright. In “Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television,” the definitive political history of HDTV, author Joel Brinkley relates a story about NAB members John Abel and Tom Keller visiting William Glenn, a college professor and former director of CBS Labs. Their purpose was to discuss HDTV technology and how it might be used to justify their argument that the FCC reserve the contended spectrum for broadcasters. That discussion began a process that led to the Commission’s adoption of the rule that became the DTV transition. At the time, the Japanese had developed prototype hardware and were experimenting with analog HDTV broadcasting. The thoughtful minds of Dr. Abel and company found HDTV to be a reasonable purpose for the contended spectrum. Broadcasters used this purpose to lever the Commission into protecting the spectrum while they, the broadcasters, worked out the details. They correctly knew that much was yet to be done –in fact, HDTV was yet to be invented.

You’ve come a long way, baby

From that early breadboarded HDTV system, we have come a long way indeed. The good news is that broadcasters won. The bad news is that now they have to use the spectrum in a competitive environment. As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” And they got it – in spades. Broadcasters retained the spectrum – in fact, they were granted a second channel – but they didn’t have a clear business model to make it profitable. Now, almost two decades into the transition, broadcasters are faced with deadlines that require them to deliver advanced services – services they once claimed they needed FCC protection to foster. But though the Commission has granted their fondest wish, they are no closer, in the opinion of some, to making HDTV a financial success.

Initially, the NAB and others warned that the transition would cost as much as $30 million per station. At that time, an HDTV recorder, or a camera and lens, could cost nearly $300,000. And though the equipment’s visual performance was stunning, its ability to provide the production values to which the public was accustomed was simply not on the horizon. The first digital codec commercially produced to encode ATSC signals cost almost half a million dollars. How much things have changed since then! This year, JVC introduced the JVC JY-HD10U HDTV consumer camcorder for about $3000, barely one percent of the cost of just a camera at the time the Advanced Television proceedings began.

How has the landscape of HDTV products changed, and what might one expect in the future? How expensive is it today to build HDTV systems that comply with industry standards and offer production capabilities that viewers will accept? Will pricing trends continue to make HDTV capabilities more accessible, or have we reached diminishing returns?

This article probes for practical guidelines that describe the state of the art and its cost. The cost has two elements: economic cost, and adjustment in the expected performance of initially immature HDTV hardware.

The bad old days

When the DTV transition officially began on Nov. 1, 1998, very little HDTV hardware existed. The transition in technology, if not in programming, has proceeded with amazing speed. In 1999, HDTV waveform monitors were just coming on the market. Today, they offer options with features that even NTSC waveform monitors didn’t offer a couple of years ago. At that time, 720p scopes were nonexistent, a fact that perplexed those implementing ABC’s HDTV Release Center in 720p. In a matter of months, Tektronix and Leader developed prototypes and delivered the WFM-1125 and the LV-5152 respectively. Today, their descendants offer new and advanced features. The same situation was true in many hardware categories. The first master-control switcher offered cuts, wipes and dissolves, limited keying and no push back. The limitations they placed on on-air continuity would have been hard to accept – even if there was an audience (which, arguably, is still insufficient for a viable business).

Equipment evolution

In 1998, the only large production switcher and DVE was the HDVS-7000 from Sony which, with two channels of effects, cost nearly one million dollars. Features that broadcasters expected in character generators and other dedicated systems were barely acceptable, if available at all. Cameras were still nearly 50 percent more costly than high-end, standard-definition cameras. Lenses were scarce and similarly expensive. Handheld cameras were heavy, bulky and offered no new features. An encoder was half a rack, half a million dollars, and based on largely unproven technology. Coding was inefficient, and picture quality barely acceptable. The brightest spot was the audio system: Dolby AC3 hardware worked and was not overpriced.


Much has changed. Today, HDTV cameras cost about what EFP or studio cameras cost five years ago. They offer at least equivalent performance as well.

Panasonic’s AJ-HDC27 VariCam, shown here being used by TOMBO FILM (Hollywood, CA), offers the ability to “over-crank” and “under-crank” like film cameras.

The LDK-6000 MKII from Thomson Grass Valley offers multi-standard image capture (720p60, 1080i30, 1080p24 and variable aspect ratio). Panasonic’s AJ-HDC27 VariCam offers the ability to “over-crank” and “under-crank” like film cameras. Box cameras are available from Panasonic (AK-HC900) and Ikegami (HDL-20) for use in sports venues or as “POV” shots in studios or control rooms, just like their standard-definition equivalents. Studio cameras from Hitachi, Ikegami, JVC, Panasonic, Sony and Thomson Grass Valley offer features at least equivalent to SD offerings, and with superior performance to boot. The price premium has dropped from nearly 300 percent in 1998 to about 25 percent today.


Lenses have evolved to the point that, while there is a premium cost, virtually all models have HDTV variants. Lenses for handheld cameras offer the same range of focal length and zoom ratio, and Canon and Fujinon have developed prime lenses intended for film-style shooting. The improvements required by HDTV imaging have also helped make today’s standard-definition lenses outstanding in quality. Chromatic aberration (variation in the focal length as wavelength changes) has been greatly reduced in all lenses, and especially in HDTV models. Focus breathing (zoom changes as focus is adjusted) has also been substantially improved.


HDTV production switchers have improved in just a few years. Sony has added the MVS-8000 to the product line, the first switcher from Sony to offer both 1080i/1080p and 720p capability. In addition, with optional I/O cards, the switcher can operate in standard definition as well. Thomson Grass Valley introduced the popular Kalypso series in an HDTV and switchable HDTV/SDTV variant this year at NAB. Neither suffers any compromises for HDTV production over SDTV production, a major improvement in a few short years. Compared to SD equivalents, the price premium in this equipment category has dropped from almost three times a few years ago to about 30 percent today, with reasonable features and options.

Terminal equipment

HDTV terminal equipment in 1998, while widely available from a number of manufacturers, could have best been described as a bit thin, and much more expensive than standard-definition options. Distribution amplifiers had only a few outputs, cost a bundle, were often large and in short supply. A/D and D/A converters were available. A couple of manufacturers offered frame synchronizers, and not much else. Terminal equipment today is smaller, uses less power and is available in a much broader range. Stand-alone keyers are available from several manufacturers, and distribution amplifiers with monitoring downconversion outputs are readily available from several companies. This year, the availability of chip sets for image scaling from Gennum has allowed manufacturers not normally thought of as providing complex products to offer downconversion and upconversion as well as audio embedding and de-embedding at prices not possible until now. How about an up/downconverter for under $10,000?


Routing switchers were available in HDTV variants a long time ago (in this business that might mean six years). But the first 32x32 router cost almost a quarter of a million dollars. Now, a 128x128 HDTV router costs about $50,000 less, though that is still a premium of about $80,000. Wideband routing capable of seamlessly handling data rates from 19.39Mb/s (SMPTE 308) to more than 1.485Gb/s (SMPTE 292) are readily available with features and performance much like that of standard-definition products a couple of years ago. Re-clocking is available at multiple rates in some products.

The price gap

Often, people assume that HDTV is so expensive that it is impractical. Some of the items mentioned in this article show little effective difference in cost between SD and HDTV variants, while others show a considerable gap in price. There is no doubt that the trend is downwards in both cases, and the rate of decrease portends the eventual near parity of both technologies. Some HD items, like monitors, will always cost considerably more. Highly accurate, large-size displays are just more expensive to build and thus will remain higher in cost. As the volume of production increases, the cost will slowly decrease. But the mechanics of large CRTs and other display technologies will ensure a cost gap well into the future. Some technologies for display hold the promise of achieving near parity. Indeed, at some point we may find ourselves using one common display for all resolutions. Those technologies that scale with size will fit this model – plasma displays, for instance. Large plasma screens that maintain the same pitch between pixels as smaller screens are inherently higher in total resolution and are a natural fit to HDTV applications. Theoretically, the components of plasma displays can be manufactured in an extensible process, though yields are lower with increasing size. And some of the newer display technologies, including plasma, have yet to achieve the uniformity and accuracy of modern CRT displays, which is required for critical viewing applications such as telecine transfer and camera shading.

The performance gap

Potentially, there is a second cost to HDTV technology. If the range of production capabilities of HDTV equipment was not equivalent to SD equipment, HDTV’s price/performance ratio would show a disadvantage in the long run. As recently as three years ago, this certainly was the case. Early production switchers, for instance, offered fewer features, more limited DVE capabilities, fewer inputs and, in general, fewer options the industry has come to take for granted. HDTV camera cable lengths were (and still are) shorter, and operational complexity is generally higher. This has had the effect of convincing some experienced production professionals that, while HDTV pictures are stunning, the technology is not quite ready for prime time. This was particularly true for 720p hardware at one time, though not so much now.

The question of camera cable has popped to the top of the list of “issues” this year as several companies, notably ESPN and ABC, have ramped up HDTV service offerings. Producers simply were not ready to have stadiums wired with fiber-optic camera cable in addition to industry-standard camera triax. Permanently installing fiber in stadiums might be a solution, but at whose cost? Thomson Grass Valley and others developed both triax-native HDTV cameras and fiber-to-triax adapters in response to this critical path issue. As a result, a crop of third-generation HDTV mobile units are being built this spring with triax for HDTV camera-control applications. The maximum usable length of triax is still limited to about 3000 feet. In many venues, that will suffice. Venues requiring longer runs can temporarily add a small amount of fiber camera cable (SMPTE standards 304 and 311) at modest cost. But HDTV generates little new revenue for the producer who, consequently, is skeptical about any increases in operating cost.


The overall picture is still somewhat murky. Today, a high-end, standard-definition mobile unit costs in excess of five million dollars. A similar HDTV unit might cost as much as two to three million more. The cost differential is shrinking, but is still considerable. But, if you factor in the value in future continuing release and repurposing of the media assets captured in HDTV today, it is easy to make a case that the marginal extra cost is an investment in the future value of the content. At the end of the day, that will be the deciding factor in the maturing of the HDTV production industry. Content is king, and long live the king. HDTV is clearly the future of television, as the pioneers told the FCC in 1986. It is finally coming true.

John Luff is senior vice president of business development at AZCAR.

To reach him, visit

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