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Yes, Less HS Mess Stress, I Guess

You might not have noticed that Quantel has a great idea. Hey, don't get me wrong. Quantel has had some strange ideas too, like how you should mortgage your firstborn to pay for the company's stuff. But that ain't what I wanted to rant about this lunar cycle. I wanted to rant about the HS mess we're in.

What? You thought you'd already left high school? That ain't exactly the HS mess my pal Nellie the Neuron had in mind. The "H" stands for HDTV and the "S," as we'll call it, is for standard-definition TV – better known as plain old ordinary TV (POOT) – but I figured "HP" has enough problems with the founders' heirs without my confusing matters.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear. This ain't a rant against HDTV or DTV. I'm pretty sure I could think of a few things to rant about on either subject if I thought about it long enough, but thinking is kind of painful (especially for Nellie), so I won't.

Whatever problems DTV has – when it works, it can deliver HDTV. DirecTV, DISH and a bunch of cable systems are delivering HDTV too. There are also plenty of models of HDTV sets out there. HDTV is here and it ain't going away.

Ayup, HDTV sets still cost one whole heck of a lot more than cheapo POOT sets. But – if you're willing to pay what you pay now for a year's worth of Internet access, wireless phone service, and cable and/or satellite TV – you, too, can buy an HDTV set. See? They're affordable.


Ayup, some HDTV sets stink. But, hey, some POOT sets stink too. Don't blame the sins of the manufacturers and marketers on the technology. HDTV exists. There ain't anything wrong with it. The end. But here on Planet Earth, HDTV is causing a royal pain in the wazoo.

The problem ain't HDTV by its lonesome. A few years ago, the problem was HDTV by its lonesome.

Back then, when POOT was using all-chip cameras, HDTV was still on tubes. Even after HDTV switched to chips, the cost of one HDTV camera, one HDTV recorder and one HDTV lens could have set you back a cool million buckaroos.

Today, if you decide to shoot an HDTV show, you can. You can also edit HDTV, transmit HDTV and show HDTV. It can be done and it ain't even all that costly.

Nope, the problem ain't HDTV by its lonesome anymore. The problem is that HDTV ain't by its lonesome.

If you've got a tape library (aka, a bunch of tapes sitting somewhere), I can pretty much guarantee that at least some of them are POOT. Ayup, Ye Olde Electronics Shoppes are carrying HDTV sets, but they're also carrying POOT sets. And – heck – some of those HDTV sets are 16:9 and some are 4:3.

CBS prides itself on being T.H.E. HDTV network, but you can watch any CBS DTV station in the country and find POOT stuff being broadcast. ABC's got one whole heck of a lot of HDTV on DTV too, but it's also mostly POOT.

Any digital receiver with a DTV logo is supposed to be able to receive any of the 36 different video formats listed in the table of the digital television standard rejected by Our Beloved Commish, so that ain't a problem. But mix-and-match in production is.

I mean, look at the transition from black-and-white to color. The frame rate changed from 30.00 to 29.97. Maybe there was a moment or two when some colossally moronic director insisted on art that used two colors of near-identical luma as foreground and background for something that had to be read, and folks watching mono TVs couldn't make out the words. But otherwise the transition went fine.

That's because we didn't mess with the shows. Whatever was black-and-white stayed black-and-white. Whatever was color, stayed color.

Imagine if stations had to colorize every black-and-white show before airing it through their new color plants and had to drain color from the color show they aired through old black-and-white plants.

And then imagine one of the latter plants becoming one of the former and having to colorize the color-drained versions of shows that were color in the first place! Sounds pretty stupid, eh? Well, hon, say howdy to mixed-format production in 2002.


Suppose you're airing a 2002 football game in HDTV. There's a play that looks a lot like one that occurred 10 years ago, so the director asks for the 10-year-old tape to be shown. So you upconvert it, leaving black bars on the sides.

At the same time – after the 100 percent simulcasting that Our Beloved Commish ordered – you've got to air the show in NTSC. So, you downconvert and letterbox the HDTV feed. When the old clip shows up – instead of filling NTSC screens the way it did ten years earlier – it's shrunken down to a little center picture surrounded by black.

Maybe next year you decide you can't afford the HDTV production truck (CBS Super Bowl, anyone?), so you shoot the football game in POOT, upconverting for DTV. Then – miracle of miracles – the same play happens again, so the director reaches for last year's HDTV tape. It gets downconverted to be in the POOT show and upconverted for DTV.

Let me see if I can figure out what happens in my own suppose. The 11-year-old play was upconverted with black sidebars last year. When last year's tape gets downconverted for this year's POOT, it gets the same black picture frame that last year's POOT viewers saw. But, when that black picture frame gets upconverted this year for the DTV viewers, more black appears on the sides.

Perish the thought that some owner of a 4:3 HDTV set decides to watch the show in letterbox. There'll be a teeny little picture surrounded on all sides by huge black bars, and – with the 11-year-old tape getting upconverted, downconverted, upconverted and rescaled – I surely wouldn't want to bet on whether it's watchable at all.


Someday, when all TV is HDTV and 16:9, we'll only have to worry about frame rate, interlace/progressive and 1080/720 conversions. But Nellie tells me I ain't got an inkling of a hint of a suspicion of a clue of an idea of when that's going to happen.

Now then, at the big NAB show a while back, someone from Pixar presented a paper on repurposing A Bug's Life. That was the feature-length computer-animated cartoon about ants that purely coincidentally came out at around the same time as the other feature-length computer-animated cartoon about ants, Antz.

Anyhow, the deal was that – surprise! – what works best on a giant movie theater screen ain't necessarily going to be what works best on a five-inch TV screen. But the Pixar folks saved the individual elements. So, when the company "converted" A Bug's Life from a movie version to a TV version, it didn't just play with aspect ratios and scaling; the company was able to actually recompose some shots. For instance, it was able to make foreground characters bigger relative to the background.

Quantel's Monty can't recompose scenes for you unless you, too, saved the foreground separately from the background (which ain't going to be very likely unless you shoot everything as a color-replacement matte). But it surely can deal with problems like my hypothetical football suppose.

The good idea Quantel came up with – cancel that. The great idea Quantel came up with is to store everything in its native format. If something is 1080i HDTV, store it that way. If it's black-and-white POOT, store it that way.

You can edit up a storm without changing a thing. If and when you need a 1080i version of what you've edited, then – and only then – does the stuff that's not 1080i get converted to that format, and it only gets converted at the output. The stored stuff stays the same. If and when you need a POOT version of the same stuff, then that's when the non-POOT stuff gets converted at the output. The stored stuff still stays the same.

At the risk of mixing UK companies, I offer kudos to Quantel (sounds like "Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, " doesn't it?) for the best idea to cover the POOT-to-HDTV transition. There's just one wee problem. To store everything you've got on Monty, it might be necessary for you, the rest of your staff and maybe all your viewers too, to give up on the Internet, wireless phones, and cable and/or satellite service for a year and send the money saved directly to Quantel.