Tuesday, September 28, 1999

Digital Post-Production

The Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA) hosted its fifth Digital Television (DTV) Summit in Los Angeles, CA. Randall Dark was one of the panelists of industry experts who provided insight on DTV's impact on the post-production process and studio.

Questions addressed during "Digital Post-Production - Gearing Up for a New Medium" included how will the transition to digital change post-production? What equipment is needed and how will it impact the studio? What benefits will be realized in the production process? And who is already doing it?

The panel was moderated by Bob Goldrich, of Shoot Magazine. Other panelists were Tim Carroll, Dolby; Peter Heady, Tape House; and Tom Beauchamp, WRAL.

Friday, September 17, 1999

The Future Is Bright.

Randall Paris Dark discovered HDTV in Canada when he was called in on a production for the historic Canadian HDTV production of Chasing Rainbows--a miniseries aired over the CBC in standard NTSC. Dark quickly moved to New York City to take a post with HDTV pioneer, David Niles. The urge to strike out on his own led him to Irving, Texas where his HDTV production company has been headquarterd since its founding in 1992.

The interview with Randall is timely with its upbeat message for the coming selling season and provides you with the over-all conditions of the industry from Randall's 13 year perspective.

HDTV News: Good Morning Randall, can you tell our audience what is happening first with HD Visions, and then the industry.

The number one thing that's got me very excited is that the manufacturers are now making the cost of the equipment affordable. Now with a deal that we struck with WRAL, and CBC, HD Vision can roll out an affordable multi-camera (production vehicle). So the old adage, "It's too expensive to be done in high definition" is going the way of the Dodo bird. I think that's one of the biggest issues.

Another is that the manufacturers are now in competition with each other. Sony no longer has a lock on DTV and HD gear. All the other manufacturers are now putting out product that makes an end-to-end solution. What I mean by end-to-end is not just in production, but from concept to display. For the first time the nay-sayers are running out of nays to say!

That is true across the board from inexpensive playback devices to consumer televisions. The glitches in first and second generation technology are refined out with those issues being put to bed.

I don't know if we'll get into the Sinclair issue in this discussion, and those concerns where it would be easy to spot holes in the technology, but the greatest minds on this planet have been spending many years working on refining a system that is now a viable system, and it is now starting to be implemented . So we are in exciting days now.

It would seem that the nay-sayers actually have chosen to nay-say on things by simply saying that HDTV is not really part of the mix; that terrestrial television in particular is not really fitted for HDTV.

People that own typewriters were never convinced that the computer would take away their business. As the typewriter became more obsolete, people focused on how to generate revenue using this new device. I think that you have to look at the different things that the digital world brings us. It brings many. One of them is datacasting. One of them is High Definition One of them will be interactive entertainment. One of them will be passive entertainment. How you're going to position what you think the outcome of this evolution is going to be depends on your personal strategy as a business, on your vision of the future, and where you position your company.

Color I look at the different groups and how they are lobbying their position. It makes sense to me, and I think a lot of different business models will make sense in the very near future. One of them being high-resolution digital wide-screen images, period.

HDTV News: A broadcasting business has a problem making one size fit all at this juncture. But that's what it has been doing for 50 years. How do you see it reconciling to the gradations of possibilities available in digital?

We have to look at the nature of television. Only until DTV did larger TV meant worse TV. People would see a beautiful 27 inch Sony XBR. The picture was spectacular. Let's say it cost $900. They went and looked a $2700 projection TV. Comparatively speaking the picture was horrendous. Now there is a certain amount in society who will want the bigger picture, even at the loss of picture quality. I found that to be a fascinating phenomenon. How many other products are out there where the more money you spend the worse it looks! Yet it was a fairly successful niche business.

I'm one of the lucky ones. For 13 years I've had the opportunity to give extensive quality High-definition demonstrations--not just flowers and fish, but showing sports to the sports fans and nature to nature lovers. The response has always been overwhelmingly positive. Yes, they will pay more for it. Yes, they want it. Cost issues basically are governed by two things. Number one, how important television is in their lives, and two is what their revenue stream is like.

You can find people where television plays a very important role in their lives, enjoy a large screen image, and can afford season tickets to sporting events. I think they will invest in this technology. And people that are baby-boomers at their peak earning periods--that don't want to put everything in stocks. They are going to embrace this technology.

The roll-out this fall is going to catch everyone off-guard. Why? Because the chicken and egg problem is no longer there. I think that what CBS is doing, and ABC and Direct TV are doing is going to cause the nay-sayers to say, "Well, the technology works; the images are spectacular; there's programming there".

Finally the consumer will be able to decide if they really want it. No more engineers, no more people that have a vested interest in the advent of High-definition or the demise of High-definition. All of a sudden they're out of that loop. It's going to have the consumer saying, "I want this!".

You're one of the most experienced DTV people on the planet. You've been at demonstrations where the consumer has seen well-produced, well-executed demonstrations. You know what the consumer has said. That's why I'm very excited. We're involved with a lot of roll outs with manufacturers and different retail stores. We know what the consumer is about to see, and it is breathtaking. It is spectacular.

HDTV News: We certainly have suggested in our publications that the roll-out had to be equal to the product, and certainly we were concerned in this last year that the roll-out was unequal to the product.

You and I have had the benefit of seeing a lot of this in ideal situations. We know that it is compelling. It is finally the time for the consumer to get that same opportunity.

HDTV News: If you were a broadcast owner today with a group of 8 or 10 or 12 stations in various markets how would you be configuring your business for prospererity and growth in the 21st century?

The number one thing you have to believe in your heart is that technology never stands still. We will always want to improve our lifestyle. With that a given, and historically it is, you have to accept what business you will be in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, and where your company must be 15 years from now.

I think anyone that invests in 480p or 480i must quickly upgrade. It's about eyeballs. It's market share If you've got a news program that's 480i or 480p going head-to-head with a 1080i or 720p program, you're going to see your market share erode. You have to believe that the future of technology is bigger, better, sharper, and brighter.

It's been like that for everything we've been involved in. Why would television, one of the most important aspects of our lives, be frozen in time? Obviously it's not.

I'm looking at two things. First, I have to buy equipment that is expensive; amortize it over a very short period of time...but I also create products that hopefully will stand the test of time. Will I create that in a 4 by 3 low-resolution? Absolutely not!

HDTV News: Could you say that the investment one makes in their news department doesn't necessarily need that legacy quality?

The immediacy is so compelling with HD. For the last five years the high-definition demonstrations have been sporting events, music concerts, and so on. That has been compelling, but...Imagine CBS sending HDTV camera crews to the recent earthquake. You were able to sit home and watch a live broadcast like you are actually there. How revitied you would be.

How emotionally impacting it would be.Supposing I just bought a high-definition TV. I turn to the news on CBS and they are covering the earthquake in high-definition. ABC, the news I normally watch, is in low-definition. Which channel do you think I'll watch?

No-brainers to me. It's obvious. We're all about competitiveness. Let's look at the local level. It's very important for the local TV stations to be the first to do stereo; the first to have a helicopter; the first, the first, the first. Or the second... Being number one is another feather in the cap of a local television station--to be the first DTV broadcaster; to do the first DTV football game...

Look at Seattle. Seattle is an incredible test bed right now. It has two TV stations broadcasting news. As soon as WFAA and Dallas start doing news, and there are X number of TVs that are receiving, two things are going to happen. One, in high-definition you are going to have everyone watching your station. But the other thing interesting is that even though I can't afford an HDTV WFAA will tell me they're doing it in high-def and low-def.

They are a cutting edge company, obviously. They are ahead of the learning curve. I should watch them because they're on top of it all. At certain levels that's a very important ploy in the news departments. Who is up to date? Who is on top of things?

If I owned a TV Station, trust me, I'd be coming on in high-definition as fast as possible. I'd let everyone know in the Low-Def world and the High Def world. Look how up-to-date we are! You're not left behind by watching my news program. I think that's worth it's weight in gold.

HDTV News: Is there any chance of being first, and then being broke as a result of it?

A year ago, I would have said absolutely! It's a very high risk. It's very expensive. But if you look at what has happened to the cost of high-definition, and the competition that is out there now... Prior to a year and a half ago it was basically Sony. That was it. When I bought an HDC 500 camera it's a half a million dollar gig. These camcorders are a little bit more than REC 601 prices; edit suites are springing up everywhere, and there just a little bit more than NTSC.

There is more bang for your dollar. You are looking at TV stations that are mid-market that are investing in this equipment.

The other thing that we all have to realize: When was the last time you heard of a TV station going bankrupt? When was the last time you heard that a TV station was sold for less than a half a billion dollars? Now, I have a couple of friends, as you do too, that own TV stations. We all know what they are worth. We all know what they have been turning over. I think a TV station going bankrupt because of the cost of the equipment is...remember the first million dollar baseball players? Excuse me! They now make six million dollars! Anyone go broke?

I think we have to be prudent in our business decisions. We have to wait for the time to be right. As a businessman right now, I've been able to stay in business when the equipment was expensive. It's easier for me with the equipment more affordable and there are more choices out there.

HDTV News: You're in the business of making pictures. Some of the people will say, "Well, you know, we can afford this all right, and we think we should pay for it, and we can pay for it by using ancillary data." Have you been in any discussions with people who have had serious concepts and thoughts about how that is going to occur, and whether that is a real choice to be made, or simply one that is unaffordable?

What people have expressed the biggest interest in, is pure High-definition. Everyone sees that as the home-run technology. There is going to be a convergence of technology, granted, but for the most part, people are looking at a passive experience in their home entertainment center.

HDTV News: Again there is a contingency being born out of the enthusiasm for the world-wide web that says, 'you know, we're not so sure that passive is the future.'

Yes, and I think that there is an element of society that can justify a very coherent and successful business plan where you are making the home display a very interactive environment. I don't dispute that. We work with Microsoft. I have a very good handle on what I think that sort of program is going to be like,, My company anticipates developing those sort of programs...however...there is a great segment of our society that spends a lot of time on the computer, a lot of time working at their desktops during a business day, and when they go home, the last thing on the planet they want to do is have even a passively interactive experience.

I think that television, the way it's structured right now, is about mass market appeal. That's what justifies being able to pay ER 13 million dollars to have high-end programming. I think that those sort of experiences are very passively done.

I'm a sports fanatic. I love sports. There is no way I am going to watch a super bowl with me wanting to pick the cameras. That's not the experience you want, because there is so much excitement in the game, and so much intrigue, you're not going to miss a play because you can't figure out if you want to look at the cheerleader or the guy running a touchdown.

Those tests were done in the late 70's, for goodness sake, and they failed miserably, because the people that thought up these programs were techno-geeks--not sports fans. There's an element of auxiliary data at your finger tips that's going to be very important. I think that on a high resolution screen, for me to have access to information about my favorite golfer, or my favorite baseball player, and get stats on command is a very important aspect of it, but it's what I call a very passive interactive part of the viewing experience...but it still requires a big screen, high resolution image to get the willing suspension of disbelief to kick in, or that feeling of "better than being there".

480p and 480i doesn't give you that. That's what we all strive for. If I can't be at the Super Bowl, my goodness, I want the next best thing. Period. What will I pay for that? How will I want to involve myself? Again, ABC, in their wisdom, is going to prove this point to the world, that if I can't be there in person, I want my HDTV, because that's the next best thing.

I think that if you look at it historically, it's true. I give you three choices right now. I'll let you go to the game for free, I'll let you watch TV for free, I'll let you listen to the radio for free. What's your number one choice? Obviously, I just gave you the order. Now I'm going to redo that. I'll let you go for free, I'll let you watch it in high-definition for free, I'll let you watch in low-definition for free, and radio. What's your first, second, third choices?

These are no-brainers. These are givens. If anyone disputes that they obviously don't understand the sports fan. Period.

from HDTV Magazine