Sunday, April 25, 1999

HDTV: Who needs the FCC?

While the country waits for a new broadcasting standard, producers of nonbroadcast video are putting HDTV technology to use.

By Susan Maier

In September 1992, NBC's WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., transmitted the one-hour news program News 4 at 5 simultaneously in high-definition television and NTSC, becoming the first television station in the country to send HDTV signals over the airwaves. "With advanced digital high-definition television," said Allan Horlick, WRC-TV's general manager, "viewers will experience unmatched picture quality and superior sound resolution."

At the time, enthusiasm for HDTV was running high worldwide. Europe and Japan had introduced limited satellite transmission of high-definition signals; in the United States, HDTV was making well-publicized appearances at trade shows, and headlines were touting it as the "TV of tomorrow." Prodded by industry, the Federal Communications Commission had set up a high-powered cross-industry panel, the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service (ACATS), to evaluate proposed HDTV transmission systems and recommend one as the next American broadcasting standard. By the turn of the century, analysts predicted, HDTV would have replaced NTSC in production studios, television stations, cable companies and homes throughout the United States, generating tens of thousands of new jobs and tens of billions of dollars in equipment sales and other revenue.

"If I were to rate interest in HDTV on a scale of one to 10, I'd say that the peak was in 1989, when it hit a seven or eight," says Gordon Bricker, a former executive with RCA who has studied and consulted on HDTV. " By the early 1990s, it had fallen to a two or three. Now it's not much more than a one." Enthusiasm has declined in large part, observers say, because of the uncertainty and confusion that have surrounded the development of the standard. When ACATS submitted its recommendation to the FCC in November 1995, three years after the expected delivery date, it endorsed a system that has been dubbed ATV (for advanced television), in which HDTV's role is at best unclear.

But does the future of American high-definition production depend entirely on what the FCC decides to do? Many in the industry don't think so. In fact, a small community of producers has been producing high-definition video, which has gained toeholds in a number of market niches. "There are all sorts of business opportunities for HD," says Randall Dark, founder of HD Vision, a high-definition production company in Irving, Texas. "The industry is not going to live or die by the FCC decision. Unfortunately, the people who may suffer are consumers, who may end up with 500 low-resolution channels."


If the FCC approves the ACATS recommendation, as it is expected to do within six months, U.S. terrestrial broadcasting will begin a transition from the analog NTSC system that has been in place for almost 50 years to a digital system in which broadcasters will be able to transmit not only HDTV but also multiple channels of standard-definition television (SDTV) and a range of data services. "Digitizing of the signal and signal compression have been substantially advanced in the past two or three years in the process of the world's trying to get HDTV," says Bricker. "In the meantime, the emphasis has shifted from HDTV to a digital format that does lots of things that people hadn't planned on. . . . Not all broadcasters are interested in HDTV. But they'd like to put four signals into the same channel space that they're now using for one channel."

After the FCC approves the proposal, Bricker says, it will have to go through a process of reallocating channel space-a reconsideration of which frequencies will go to which cities and regions. The FCC's plan until recently was to give the broadcasters the channel space they will need to broadcast HDTV and NTSC signals simultaneously during a transition period. Some years later-at one time, people were saying as soon as seven years later-the station would have to give up its old analog frequency, Bricker says. "But people realized that the U.S. probably is not going to convert to HDTV in seven years. Now about 15 years is being proposed. And Senator Bob Dole and others have gotten on the bandwagon of saying that the government should auction off all of these channels. Broadcasters aren't prepared to pay for their frequencies; they've never had to do that."

So it has become a waiting game, says Laurence Thorpe, vice president of acquisition and storage systems at Sony, the company that invented high-definition television. "There's a hiatus in the industry as everyone waits to see how the issue will unfold." HDTV can be transmitted by cable and satellite broadcasters without going through the FCC, he notes, but "will they use the format? Everyone's waiting to see who will go first.

"If the big broadcasters choose to transmit SDTV or data services rather than HDTV in their new digital frequencies, the reasoning goes, the chance for a mass market for HDTV hardware and software will be lost. With little or no programming on the air, consumers will have no reason to buy high-definition receivers. With no receivers in consumers' homes, producers will have no reason to create new programming. And without these markets, the makers of HD equipment will not be able to reach the economies of scale they need to lower prices to more affordable levels. In this scenario, HDTV will either fade away entirely or become a novelty for electronics enthusiasts and a few rich corporations.

In the words of Dale Cripps, publisher of the on-line newsletter HDTV Today and a longtime advocate of the medium, "If the politicians don't finally act like a good gateway instead of a cement wall, HDTV probably won't happen on any major scale in the U.S. On an industrial scale, however, it's already happening."


Despite the lack of a broadcasting standard, high-definition video has made advances in a number of areas. Hospitals and medical schools are taping surgical procedures in high definition for training and education applications. A number of corporations are using HD to create more visually exciting public presentations for use in trade-show booths, at stockholders' meetings and elsewhere. And a large number of companies are exploring entertainment businesses that can be built on the high-quality images that HD delivers. "NTSC video is the newsprint comparison to the slick, glossy magazine," says Cripps. "HDTV is slick. If I were a corporate executive today, I'd never consider putting my best foot forward on anything but HDTV."

Many types of productions are now being done in high definition, says Randall Dark of HD Vision. "We've produced and directed a motion ride for an HD theater, documentaries for NHK [a Japanese broadcaster], music programs for PBS, product launches for Chrysler and Buick. We've taped major sports events, such as the Super Bowl and the NBA All-Star game; the play Victor, Victoria on Broadway; and President Clinton's speech in San Francisco for the United Nations' 50th anniversary, which was down-converted live for world broadcast. The new Denver airport has an HD theater that is playing two pieces commissioned by [the cable company] TCI that HD Vision directed and produced. . . . We've even worked on HD productions of operations for doctors. In fact, we just finished post on a brain-tumor operation."

Three facilities in the United States are currently producing high-definition programming on a full-time basis: Rebo Studio and Captain New York/Magic Window Group, both in New York City, and HD Vision. Barry Rebo, founder of Rebo Studio, and David Niles, founder of Captain New York, have each been doing video production for broadcast and nonbroadcast applications for more than 20 years and HD production since the early 1980s, when Sony brought the first HDTV equipment to this country. "I got into HD because I fell in love with the picture quality," Rebo says. "I bought the first system that was available."

Dark's company is a more recent entry into the field. "I started HD Vision three years ago, though I started working in HD about nine years ago," he says. "I was involved in a project called Chasing Rainbows, a 14-hour miniseries shot in Canada." He then worked for a company that produced HD programs before deciding to set up his own shop. "I went out and paid cash for my equipment so I could open a company and move it in any direction the technology went," he says. "We've gone from two cameras and five decks to 13 cameras, 15 decks, two mobile-production trucks, analog and digital post-production, graphics and an HD stock-footage library."

A number of independent video producers have started working in high definition over the past few years, many of them in the corporate-communications area. "There was a point when the corporate-communications work was a significant part of our business plan," says Rebo, "but that fell off in the early 1990s because the production equipment was so heavy and expensive that people didn't want to take it out. When the equipment became lighter and less expensive, it could be taken out to the factories and so forth, and people started using it." Fred Margulies, an independent producer and director in New York City, agrees that lower prices and less bulky equipment have made all the difference. "For the past 20 years, I've been in corporate video," he says. "Most of my work has been in traditional linear videotape for corporate clients. . . . Now, my business is about 60 percent traditional video and 40 percent HD."

The turning point for independent producers came last year, when JVC released its $65,000 KH-100U high-definition video camera and $9,000 W-VHS recording and playback deck. "The KH-100U is . . . exactly the same as a Betacam in terms of weight and the lenses you put on it," says Margulies, who demonstrated the product for JVC at NAB '95. "And it has a self-contained CPU. Prior to that, [field-production] HD cameras needed a separate control unit, which was about the size and weight of a telephone booth. The recorder you needed was another phone booth. The combined cost for field production was about $7,000 a day. Now you can get the price down to as low as $1,500 a day for the equipment package. "

The JVC deck plays back VHS and S-VHS videotape in addition to the W-VHS cassettes. "The format was developed initially for the Japanese market," says Dave Walton, communications marketing manager of JVC Professional Products. "It was JVC's desire to sell it to specialized markets in the U.S. in order to generate revenue, but also to build the market and create interest in HDTV.

"It's hard to get people to look at standards that are different from the ones they're used to," Walton says. "People pay more attention to the almighty dollar than to the almighty picture. But I think times are changing. We'll see a lot more users for HD in the near future. . . . For now, HD is being used in event theaters, corporate presentations with large-screen projection and so on."

Price and equipment size are not the only factors that have held back HD production, says David Niles. "Misinformation about what HDTV is and what it does" is also to blame. Corey Carbonara, director of the New Video Technologies Project at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, has defined true HDTV as having five times the visual detail, 10 times the color information and more than twice the horizontal and vertical resolution of NTSC television. Moreover, the picture is substantially brighter, the aspect ratio is more than a third larger and the sound quality is equivalent to that of compact discs.

"We realized early that HD is not really television," Niles says. "That's like comparing a big stereo system to a telephone. We can certainly make TV with HDTV, but when it's not converted back to television, HDTV has an emotional impact that no other medium has."

Randall Dark agrees. "Video, film and HD are good for different things," he says. "Film is poetic. It doesn't give you the sense of being there. HD puts you right there. It's a whole different venue."


For corporate clients who "want to knock the socks off the viewer, nothing beats HD," says Margulies. "For clients who want to show the cutting edge of technology, nothing beats HD. Now, compared with a year ago, it is within the budget range of most corporate clients to produce high-quality HD programs." Much of the interest in HD in the United States these days comes from telecommunications companies that "want to do something high-tech," Barry Rebo says, and from the makers of high-end consumer products. "It's the Audis and BMWs in the lead in using HD," he says, "not the Hyundais."

Dark says that "viewer impact" is the biggest difference he sees between standard television and HDTV. "It's watching people's visual response to this technology. People ooh and aah. . . They get visibly excited when HD is done right. If you have a 28-inch HD monitor and a 28-inch NTSC monitor, they'll look alike from a distance. The only way to see film, HD and NTSC is in their element. When I do a demo on my 16-foot screen, people are amazed."

Producing in high definition is not so different from producing in NTSC, Margulies says, but to shoot, edit and post it properly, you do have to understand viewers' reactions. The detail is so rich and the picture so realistic that viewers' responses are much more immediate than they are to film or video. "You might make three fast cuts in a scene in video," says Margulies, "but you might have more impact staying on the shot in HD, because you can see more detail. You might not need the close-up in the cutaway. Take the example of videotaping a boxing match with NTSC and HD. The NTSC approach is to use four to five cameras with intercutting. With HD, one camera is all you'll need, because you can see more detail in the boxers' faces. The wide shot also gives you a better perspective on the scene. To conceive, shoot and edit projects in HD, you have to understand how to use it."

Despite the falling costs of producing HD and the emotional power of the medium, high-definition projects can be tough to sell to corporate clients. "When you're dealing with something that's different and more expensive, people are always looking for reasons to say no," says Margulies. "They have to be convinced that there's a payback for the extra dollars spent. Regular NTSC video is a no-brainer now. Everyone knows how it works, how much it will cost. HD is still new, so you have to have a trust relationship with the producer and the facility."

Just as important is convincing clients that if they're going to incur the higher cost of producing HD, they have to be prepared to pay the only slightly higher price of displaying it, Margulies says. "I've found that one of the most powerful uses of HD is in sales meetings," he says. "One component of that is the video roll-in-that is, the executives are on the stage, with a large screen behind them, and videos will be rolled in on cue. If they're in HD, they have so much more impact. In addition, sales meetings often use I-MAG [image magnification]-two or three cameras shoot the person at the podium, and the image is projected live on the screen. I-MAG in HD is incredible."

Most video projectors can project HD video; what's required is a technician who can choose the best projector for the application and set it up for the HD image. "When that doesn't happen," Margulies says, "all of the effort and money spent on producing the HD roll-ins will be wasted, because the image won't be shown at its full potential."

Delivering the product is still a sticky problem for everyone using HD. Wide-aspect HDTV display monitors are expensive, and will probably remain so until a broadcasting standard is approved. Video projectors and large screens are not appropriate for all locations-for point-of-sale displays and information kiosks, for example. For this reason, a lot of material shot in HD is being converted to other formats, including videotape, film and even QuickTime.

There are, of course, disadvantages to displaying converted HD footage on non-HDTV equipment: Some of the sharpest details and the wide aspect ratio of the original may be lost, for example. But there are also benefits, HD producers say. "When you transfer HD to video, it retains much of its richness," says Margulies. "The same applies to HD down-converted to NTSC. HD is as good as film in quality, but it's better because it's video, so you can immediately play it back."

Conversion also works the other way, Rebo says. "Not all elements of a corporate piece have to be in HD. We do up-conversion from NTSC videotape, and sometimes we shoot in Hi8 video or 8 mm film and transfer it to HD. So there is a role for archival material in HD productions. This is used in closed-circuit presentations for car companies-they have archives of commercials that they up-convert to HD and add HD footage of the new models."


The HD community in the United States is still small, and much of the work being done here is exported to the Europe and Japan. But, says Randall Dark, "I'm very excited about the growth of HD. In October 1995, we billed 16 different clients for HD projects; half of them were brand-new, and all but one were American."

Not everyone is as optimistic. "For the longest time we've been using 601 as the television-production standard, and the ability and quality of that signal is substantial," says John Pannaman, vice president of engineering at Quantel. "A huge amount of quality can be gained out of the current signal standard even as it exists today. To leapfrog that for a very expensive technology is something that people will really start to look at when they realize the cost of doing HDTV."

In the end, according to Michael R. Haley, a technical specialist at IBM, "the market will decide which types of information are the most economical [for the broadcasters] to transmit, and the ACATS system has the flexibility to permit that." In general, he agrees that HDTV won't take off until the big broadcasters embrace it. "There has to be content available before HDTV will see broad deployment in the U.S. I wouldn't necessarily expect it to be terrestrial rather than cable."

Haley and many others in video-related industries foresee HDTV arriving in the consumer market via specialty cable or satellite services, such as premium pay-per-view movie or sports channels. "We might even see HDTV used in a channel that pulls information off the Internet, which would require finer resolution to appreciate," Haley says.

Dale Cripps sees a similar scenario, in which HDTV will be pushed forward by two developments. "The Internet will open up to 45 megabytes; the cable companies will see to that," he says, "so we'll be able to receive full HDTV and capture to whatever your computer can do. And multimedia development will move up toward using HDTV in time. Multimedia is incredibly important to understanding the commerce of the future. Commerce is so internationalized that images and their presentation will become the international language. We're using all we need now at the VGA level, but if we're going to show images to larger bodies, we'll want HDTV's density."

Randall Dark says, "I got into high definition when I saw a monitor with HD on it and said, 'Hey, this is the future.' I love the technical stuff, and no matter what I say or the FCC says, it's evolution. We're going to have bigger, better pictures-whether it's called HDTV, ATV or something else."

Rebo's Field Guide

Plenty of books have been written in the past decade about the political, economic and technical aspects of high-definition television. Nothing, however, has been available for those interested in learning the techniques of producing in the medium.

Rebo Studio and Clay Gordon, a writer with 12 years of experience in the computer-graphics, interactive-media and video-production industries, intend to fill that gap with The Guide to HIgh Definition Video Production: Preparing for a Widescreen World. The book, written for the technical or the nontechnical reader, is available from Focal Press (800-366-2665.)

from HDTV Magazine