Two Words On HDTV for Producers: ‘Up Yours!’

You might not have noticed that HDTV has gotten cheap.

You might not have noticed that HDTV has gotten cheap. I ain’t talking about the Wal-Mart post-Halloween sale of a 50-inch Sanyo HDTV plasma TV for less than $999 and an HD DVD player for less than $99. I am sort of including the Canon PowerShot TX1, an HDTV camcorder that can be purchased, while Nellie the Neuron causes my fingers to type this, for less than $270.

Okay, so maybe a sub-$300 camcorder doesn’t provide the highest-quality pix in the world (for one thing, it’ll do 720p, but with only 30 pix a second instead of 60), but there are others out there. Just about 10 years ago, (says Nellie), an HD camera, lens, and recorder combo could top a million pistoolas. These days, you can buy pretty decent HD camcorders from a whole mess of companies for less than 10 grand. And, heck, you can buy a digital-cinematography camera with more than four times as many pixels as full-detail 1080-line HDTV for around $20,000, including a lens.

“But, Mario, what about multicamera shooting?”

Yes, most of those camcorders are designed more for a lone wolf shootist than a news studio, but don’t think they ain’t being used in switcher systems. Take a gander at Those folks do multicamera shooting with multitrack audio, and the whole enchilada is based around six Canon XL H1 camcorders, which have a list price of less than $9,000 (and can be found on the Web for as low as $2,800).


Now, then, I ain’t saying you have to shoot anything in HD. Heck, no!

You can find one whole heck of a lot of “news” stories that say that all TV has to be HDTV as of Feb. 18, 2009. That’s a load of male-bovine patooties.

If Congress doesn’t change its mind (the way they did about the previous date they came up with for ending analog U.S. broadcasts, the end of 2006), then on that date it’ll be illegal for a full-power U.S. broadcaster to transmit analog NTSC. But there ain’t a speck of a law, rule, or regulation that says anyone’s got to transmit any HDTV on that date or any other.

Heck, Our Beloved Commish (aka the FCC) came right out and specifically said they ain’t requiring any high definition. All they said is that the primary video on a DTV channel needs to be at least comparable to what was on the analog channel. Even if you’ve been playing out from a six-hour-mode VHS machine on your NTSC station, you’re entitled to keep using the same deck to feed your DTV transmitter.

That’s the law. Now let’s talk about audiences.

There’s much ado about how many folks actually watch HDTV these days. CEA, the Consumer Electronics Association (which I pronounce “See-ya”), said 32 percent of U.S. TV households were equipped for HD as of July; Nielsen said it was just 13.7 percent as of some similar date, and only 11.3 percent actually ever watch HD on their HDTVs.

Pretty pathetically low, eh? Well, now, even using Nielsen’s lowest figure, that’d be around 13 million homes or maybe 30 million folks. Give or take a Mountie, that’s roughly the entire population of Canada. That’s an audience segment I wouldn’t want to be on the outs with. And that’s as of Julyish of this year.

It’s already half a year later, and it’ll be more than three halves later by the time Analog Shutdown Day rolls around. No matter whose figures you choose to believe, folks are buying one whole heck of a lot of HDTVs these days.

So, if I were you (which I might very well be), I’d start switching all of my production over to HD ASAP (“ASAP” is what you’ll be if you don’t). But I know that ain’t necessarily the easiest thing in the world, especially on account of you might have some old tapes (aka “legacy programming,” as if that was some kind of grand inheritance someone left you).

For that, there’s upconversion. Heck, these days everything from a VTR to a laptop editing system has a built-in upconverter. So you might think upconversion is a piece of cake. Well, it ain’t.


If you’ve got a stationary picture with nothing but horizontal and vertical black-and-white lines, then, heck yes, upconversion’s easy. But throw in shading, color, diagonals, curves, motion (especially rotary motion), and good old interlace, and it’s a horse of a different resolution. And, whether you’re going to 1080i or 720p, if you’re upconverting you’re definitely starting with interlace. And get ready for another surprise.

Chances are that your boss wants to cram as much money-making stuff into your DTV channel as it’ll hold. Weather radar doesn’t take up many bits per second. Neither does a news-text roll. Standard-def programming can usually be squeezed down to 2 Mbps or so (it could do a lot better in AVC instead of MPEG-2, but that’s something you’ll have to take up with Our Beloved Commish and the ATSC). That just leaves the channel’s HDTV.

Well, now, if you’re a certain type of viewer (and if you’re reading this fish wrap, you probably are), you just might think 18 Mbps ain’t enough for an HD basketball game in MPEG-2. But, if you’re just plain folks, you might not mind 12 Mbps for HD.

That’s for true HD. Believe it or not, it’s actually harder to compress most upconverted standard def than true HD. The false resolution the upconverters generate has higher energy than real HD.

There are some really good upconverters available from folks like Brick House, Snell & Wilcox, and Teranex. They can do a pretty decent job. They can also cost more than a few of the low-cost HD cameras. You can do the math yourself.

Nellie remembers when folks colorized black-and-white programming. Good colorizers cost a lot, and then there were plastic sheets with blue tops, green bottoms, and tan middles that weren’t totally awful if you watched a Western.