Producers moving to real HD, while PBS moves faster to quasi-HD
Depending on your definition of high-definition TV, PBS primetime will be 100 percent HD next fall or maybe it’ll be 20 percent, though rising fast.
This fiscal year, producers have almost tripled their output of genuine HD program hours among PBS general-audience programs, compared with fiscal 2007, and are headed toward 20 percent, the network says. Included this season are all new episodes of Antiques Roadshow, American Experience, the NewsHour, Nova, Soundstage and Wired Science.
But to fit the prevailing practice in U.S. television — offering the same shows in its main analog service as in digital HD — PBS is moving quickly to run the majority of its primetime shows through digital processors to mimic HD, more than doubling the scanning lines to 1080. Some shows also were shot in HD’s characteristic widescreen though not in HD.
Viewers were calling stations to ask why they couldn’t find familiar PBS shows on the HD channel, explained PBS technology exec Merlyn Reinke at the NETA Conference in Columbus, Ohio, last month. Merging the main and HD schedules also helps pubTV hold down program duplication between channels and meet standards in its carriage deal with major cable operators, he indicated.
The up-converted video doesn’t have the rich detail of programs shot in HD, but calling it “high-definition” has become standard practice in the TV industry, PBS Chief Technology Officer John McCoskey told Current.
Technologists say un-converted DTV looks much better than analog TV anyway. Consumer Reports calls it “quasi-HD” in its latest issue.
PBS began up-converting Monday’s primetime in October and Wednesday’s in January. Tuesday will go up after March pledge drives and the rest of primetime by October, PBS said. Children’s and pledge programs and everything else will be up-converted by February 2009, in time for the last emissions of analog broadcasting.
The network distributed its “HD Roadmap” plan to station managers in November, but many pubTV programmers and others attending the NETA Conference said they had not yet heard the details.
The PBS Board endorsed the plan last week, reallocating satellite capacity for the fall and discontinuing the original HD Channel, a loop of eye-candy video used to demonstrate the great looks of high-def.
Costs of going HD
However HD is defined, public TV is beginning to pay various the costs of keeping up with commercial TV’s move to 21st-century technology. To produce real HD, Frontline estimated, national producers pay a premium of about 10 percent over the cost of standard-definition production.
For a station that airs more or better HD, there’s often a tradeoff with the number of specialized multicast channels it can fit into a DTV channel.
And some stations may also suffer some inconvenience as PBS reduces its variety of satellite feeds. Because feeding HD requires four times the satellite capacity of SD, and acquiring more satellite capacity would be “prohibitive” in cost, PBS said, it will discontinue SD feeds of its main schedule. Stations needing an SD version for analog broadcast or other purposes can readily get the HD feed downconverted by the integrated receiver-decoder that was part of the 2006 satellite system upgrade, said PBS interconnection chief Jerry Butler.
In addition, the network will discontinue three of its five time-zone feeds to stations under the plan okayed by the PBS Board—curtailing a tradition of right-at-airtime delivery that goes back to the early days of radio networks. This may cause some inconvenience for stations in the Mountain, Central and Alaska/Hawaii time zones.
“The Mountain time-zone stations are being screwed, basically,” said Ron Pisaneschi, p.d. at IdahoPTV, during the NETA session. Those stations are paying their PBS fees and getting less service than stations in the Eastern and Pacific zones, he said.
To accommodate HD’s fatter bitstream, most HD feeds, including primetime and children’s programs, will be collapsed into the staggered Eastern and Pacific feeds in the fall, along with the station-break elements from the previously separate “Schedule X” feeds for some home dish users. A third HD channel will carry HD soft feeds, including those from American Public Television and other syndicators.
Ted Garcia, manager of KNME in Albuquerque, N.M., and chair of the PBS Interconnection Committee, said during PBS meetings last week that losing the traditional feeds at the broadcast hour could affect stations in the disadvantaged time zones that lack enough HD equipment to time-shift the programs — that is, to record an HD satellite feed while playing back an earlier feed for broadcast. The committee recommended that PBS seek CPB funding to help those stations.
In a session at NETA, Jim Wiener, program chief of ThinkTV in Dayton, Ohio, said he was hearing from low-budget “have-not” stations that lack decks to record or play back HD programs. “Some stations,” he reported, “are barely above water.”
Beyond the logistical headaches of handling HD video, Kevin Harris, station manager of WETA-TV in Washington, D.C., questioned the value of “trying to keep up with the networks” without doing market research to know how many viewers want HD. Fewer than 15 percent of pubTV viewers have HD screens, Harris said.
Indeed, Nielsen estimated in October that just under 14 percent of TV households had an HDTV screen with a tuner capable of receiving HD signals.
Some stations have already gone HD
Ann Tucker, director of cable and DBS strategy at PBS, said the HD Roadmap came out of extensive talks with station leaders, including four round-robin meetings and two Interconnection Committee meetings.
Public TV’s Affinity Group Coalition, taking its cue from a group of stations licensed to universities, asked PBS last spring for an HD channel that mirrors its main analog channel.
PBS said stations wanted the change so they could customize it and add non-PBS fare, as they’ve done with the analog schedule.
Alabama PTV made the change on its own last year, Executive Director Allan Pizzato said, and it stopped buying PBS’s optional HD Channel. Multiple defections from the HD Channel left it with fewer users and declining support. Subscribing stations altogether had paid PBS $2.6 million for the channel last fiscal year, the network said.
Maryland Public Television converted its entire schedule to HD last April to get viewers in the habit of coming to one channel number for both its main schedule and HD, said Eric Eggleton, MPT’s chief content officer.
In addition, MPT offers V-me and MPT Select standard-definition channels over the air and on digital cable.
But most pubcasters limit their multicasting because picture quality suffers if a station squeezes too many SD multicast channels—on top of an HD channel—into its digital signal. Having a full-time HD channel can force tradeoff decisions between picture quality and breadth of content.
Oklahoma’s OETA network, which started upconverting its main channel for HD last month, offers three SD channels in addition to the HD channel on digital cable systems in parts of the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas. But for its over-the-air digital signal, OETA decided to include HD and only one of the SD streams. That has restricted the network’s ability to cross-promote among its channels, said Ashley Barcum, OETA public information manager. (Over-the-air DTV viewers get neither OETA’s kids’ channel nor APT’s nationally distributed Create channel.)
The real thing
PBS’s major producers are moving quickly to upgrade their shows to genuine HD. With major help from the NewsHour, which added five weekly hours to PBS’s HD total in December (Current, Dec. 17), the network expected to hit 300 hours of general-audience programming in all dayparts this year, about double its fiscal 2007 total, said Shawn Halford, senior director, program scheduling.
But producers outpaced expectations, he said, and now may hit 395 hours this year — 20 percent of PBS’s general-audience programming.
The network officially defines HD in the specs published for its producers: 1080-line, interlaced, 30 frames a second, preferably with 5.1-track surround sound.
The specs continue, in part: “Programs submitted as ‘High Definition’ must be principally content that was originally created in a minimum frame size of 1280 x 720 [pixels], using a camera with three CCD chips, each with at least a ½-inch diagonal and a minimum resolution of 1280 x 720.”
Specs like those dictated high costs a few years ago, and few PBS producers rushed to shoot in HD. But equipment rental and purchase prices are falling as high-def becomes the norm.
When WGBH checked into HD prices two years ago, national production chief Margaret Drain told Current, the cost of shooting an Antiques Roadshow episode was more than $500,000 per show, partly because there were few HD-equipped mobile units available. But by last summer the estimates were down to $400,000, and Roadshow producers did better still.
Roadshow, one of the most-watched shows on public TV, had financial help from PBS to go high-def, Drain said, but most producers have to pay the HD premium without getting higher fees from PBS. “We’re just squeezing,” she said.
WGBH’s Frontline, which prefers to spend its money on more shooting or editing time instead of HD, scrutinized costs and found the HD premium in the neighborhood of 10 percent, said NETA speaker Tim Mangini, director of broadcast for Frontline at Boston’s WGBH.
That’s about $40,000 per program at the high end of Frontline’s quality range, on top of standard-def production costs that range from $250,000 to $600,000 per program.
Frontline had experience with nine hours out of about 22 last year. The series plans to do 11 or 12 HD docs this season and go all-HD next year, he told Current.
For postproduction, the additional cost runs $100 to $250 per hour of editing, Mangini estimated, with a program requiring about 40 hours’ work on average, he said. Frontline brought the premium down to $1,000 to $2,000 per documentary hour, he guesses, by pushing vendors for good prices while gradually upgrading its tape players, leased Avid editors and other equipment over several years.
For shooting, the premium depends on the quality of cameras and lenses rented. Frontline and its sister series, Frontline/World, have used HD cameras and recording formats in several price ranges:
- HDV cameras from several manufacturers cost little more than their standard-def counterparts. They’re small and cheap enough for some amateurs, and they look it, which makes them ideal for use in Iraq or wherever it would be dangerous to look too professional (earlier article). Frontline/World used HDV for five programs last year as well as Gangs of Iraq, Mangini said. But HDV cameras must heavily compress the image data to record it at the HDV’s data rate of about 25 megabits per second.
- Sony XDCAM cameras are less stingy, with a bitrate of 35 Mbps, and have the advantage of recording on a Blu-ray DVD, so a recorded file can be ingested quickly by an editing system and can include an easy-to-handle low-resolution version that can be used for the initial offline editing. Mangini is eager to see Sony’s promised upgrade of XDCAM, said to have a bitrate of 50 Mbps.
- Panasonic DVCPRO HD has become popular because of its price, around $25,000, and its variable frame rate, Mangini said. It records data at 100 Mbps.
- Sony HDCAM, which records at 140 Mbps, is the most costly format Frontline would consider. Mangini said he’d use it more often if budgets permitted and more shooters used the format.
The cheaper formats often mean poorer lenses, smaller image chips and heavier compression, but the differences in specs don’t always show up on screen, Mangini said. He played 19 clips from different cameras for his audience at NETA, and they voiced “a lot of surprised-sounding comments” in return. Mangini said middling equipment specs can be overcome with skillful lighting and shooting and a good colorist — a specialist who optimizes the video during postproduction.
Expected late adopters
Some PBS series won’t move quickly to high-def. Masterpiece and other programs made in Britain and Europe are standard-def for now, because Europeans aren’t producing in HD, Drain said.
Independent Lens, P.O.V., and other indie-doc showcases may also lag behind. Lois Vossen, series producer of Independent Lens, estimates that less than a quarter of programs in the series are made in HD.
“The shows we’ve bought that have been in HD have been very warmly welcomed, because stations are hungry for HD content,” Vossen said.
PBS’s high-def plans and ITVS’s encouragement to indies may result in more HD shows on Independent Lens, but she doesn’t expect any HD preference to alter the nature of programs selected for broadcast.
Reported with assistance from Katy June-Friesen.
Web page posted Feb. 5, 2008
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee