Meeting the HD demand: PBS matching rollout to buyers’ slow uptake

By Dan Odenwald

A Medusa jellyfish stars in “Under Antarctic Ice,” the first Nature episode to originate in high-def. (Photo: Norbert Wu, WNET.)

With its pockets emptier than usual and few viewers demanding high-definition pictures, PBS is moving to HD more cautiously than the commercial networks. Rather than converting its schedule overnight, as the networks seemed to have done, PBS’s HD planners suggest moving to the fine, widescreen picture as fast as viewers buy receivers capable of displaying it.

For every 10,000 HD receivers purchased, the network proposes to produce one additional hour of high-def programming. PBS now broadcasts about 48.5 hours of HDTV a year. Nearly half of that—22 hours—comes from the Latino drama American Family and the rest from monthly specials. By fall 2003, PBS expects Americans will own 600,000 HD receivers, and under PBS’s formula, the network would distribute 60 high-def hours next year, says Deron Triff, v.p. of digital ventures.

But it’s easy to suspect that HD won’t spread that fast. High costs continue to thwart a dramatic boost in high-def program production. Consumer confusion threatens the sales of HDTV sets. Hollywood is reluctant to go digital until TV makers adopt copyright safeguards. And, until recently, Congress and the FCC didn’t want to get involved.

With HDTV’s failure to take hold, PBS has reduced its high-def programming over the past three years, Triff says. Its high-def output looks skimpy compared to the big three commercial networks. CBS produces about 27 hours a week—nearly its entire primetime schedule—in HD. ABC and NBC produce fewer, 15 and 13 hours, respectively. Fox presents a few hours in widescreen standard-definition digital but none in HD.

PBS faces a practical disincentive. While the big networks actually save money by switching from film to HD production, public TV producers face higher costs of conversion because they typically shoot standard videotape rather than film.

Cable and satellite channels are seeking HD audiences, too. HBO, Showtime and Discovery each offer HD programming that cable operators hope will attract new subscribers to their digital tiers. Satellite provider DirecTV carries the all-HD network, HDNet, in an effort to lure away high-end TV customers from cable.

Underwriting for HD?

PBS says it’s taking cues from the public. “If there’s a demand, we’ll develop it,” Triff says.

Whether the network can afford to produce large amounts of HDTV is another matter. PBS planners believe it will cost an additional $30,000 to $50,000 an hour to upgrade its primetime programming to HD. Producing just 10 more hours of HDTV in 2003, as PBS expects to do, could cost the network about $400,000.

PBS could cover that with money from the $10 million it intends to take out of the joint PBS/CPB Program Challenge Fund for new HD and widescreen digital programming. PBS and CPB plan to spend even more of the fund on digital projects in 2004, but only some of it for HD upgrades.

PBS management proposed unsuccessfully in March to amass funding for digital programs by boosting National Program Service fees by 2.7 percent. But the PBS Board, with advice from stations, rejected the fee increase.

Beyond the Challenge Fund, PBS doesn’t know where it will find the money for more HD, Triff says.

One option may be underwriting. DTV makers such as Panasonic, Sony and Zenith underwrite the high-def costs of some commercial nets. PBS is retooling its underwriting practices to accommodate category underwriting—for programs of a certain video standard as well as certain program genres.

That could help producers deliver more primetime high-def. WNET, for example, already makes about 10 HD specials a year but needs help from PBS to do more, says Margaret Smilow, director of culture and arts documentaries.

Another option is dipping into federal aid for DTV conversion that now goes mostly to digital hardware. Some of it is needed for programming, says Maynard Orme, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting. He believes the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program should pay for construction projects, while the digital aid appropriated to CPB should go toward content. If public TV fails to deliver HDTV, audiences will go elsewhere to find it, he says.

Because few viewers actually own screens big and fine enough to show the true detail of HDTV, public TV may want to pursue the near-term strategy of shooting standard-definition digital video in widescreen format instead of HD.

Widescreen is easier to produce and doesn’t cost much more than today’s analog shoots, says Ken Devine, WNET’s chief technology officer.

Partnerships offer another way public TV can hold down high-def costs. In October, PBS announced plans to develop five high-def projects with Japanese pubcaster NHK, the broadcaster that originated high-def back in analog days. PBS and NHK haven’t yet agreed upon the shows, but they intend to announce their first project in January, says Jim Guerra, PBS’s departing v.p. of business affairs.

Mixed signals

By linking its HD ramp-up to consumers’ purchases, PBS is declining to bet on the public’s rapid adoption of high-def.

There’s reason for caution. Forty percent of Americans have never even heard about the DTV transition, and only one in five are “very aware” of it, according to a U.S. General Accounting Office survey released last month. In visits to 23 DTV retailers, the GAO found that sales staff gave consumers inaccurate or incomplete information about DTV equipment and programming.

Consumer confusion about high-def has created an “HD landscape that is pretty slim,” says Maryann Schulze, executive director of Magid Media Futures, a media consulting group. While thousands of Americans own HD displays, many units don’t include tuners necessary for receiving high-def over the air. The price of such integrated sets—well into the thousands of dollars—scares the average buyer, Schulze says. A decent analog TV set can be purchased for less than $200.

But the obstacles holding back high-def are temporary, and HDTV will succeed in the marketplace, predicts David Liroff, WGBH’s chief technology officer.

While over-the-air HDTV may fail, digital TV itself is already taking off, via cable, satellite, other broadband systems and disc. Right now, the DVD player is the main driver behind the DTV transition, Liroff says. Consumers are gobbling up HD displays to watch their DVDs. While the discs don’t offer as much resolution as genuine HD, they’re crisper and better-sounding than analog VHS tapes.

As the price of digital data storage plummets and computer processing gets faster, viewers will be able to store HD programming on their personal video recorders, Liroff says. And digital cable subscribers will be able to order HD on demand, he adds.

Eventually, the expense of producing in high-def will drop, too. Some HD equipment has already fallen to near the cost of high-end standard-definition equipment, and the number of HD post-production houses, while still small, is growing, he says.

Software developers are even designing HD desktop editing suites. The ABC affiliate in Boston, for example, is taking the lead for the Hearst-Argyle station group to find cheaper ways to make HD. Its plans hinge on desktop editing.

Washington policymakers are also getting serious about HDTV, Liroff adds. In April, FCC Chairman Michael Powell issued a voluntary plan to expedite the digital transition, inviting the cable industry to carry the digital services of any five broadcast or cable networks. The top 10 cable operators immediately signed on, partly to please Powell and partly to fend off competition from satellite providers, who want to lure customers away from cable, Schulze says.

In August, the FCC required that DTV makers include tuners in all sets larger than 13 inches by 2007. Though electronics manufacturers are fighting the rule, broadcasters welcome it.

Until the Powell plan, the burden of the DTV conversion fell on broadcasters, Liroff says. Now the FCC recognizes that other industries have a role to play.

While HD’s believers trumpet its imminent promise, Schulze believes the country will be slow to warm up to it. “Human beings don’t change over night,” she says. “The big fear is that we’ll all wake up in the morning, and the world will be a different place. That’s just not the case.”

LATER ARTICLE

Milwaukee HD advocate David Felland urges public TV to ramp up production of true HD material, March 2007.

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