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Programmers' slow switch to HDTV gets clearer

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Old 03-07-2008, 09:07 AM   #1  
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Default Programmers' slow switch to HDTV gets clearer

Martin Rogers needs only one word to describe the selection of high-definition programs he receives: pathetic.

"You pay all this money for high-def equipment, and then you find there's not that much for you to watch," said Mr. Rogers, who lives in Dallas.

Mr. Rogers and other HD lovers should see some relief soon. Cable and satellite TV providers plan to add dozens of channels now that one household in three has an HDTV.

But viewers shouldn't expect total HD anytime soon. Television executives think it will be three to five years before all new stuff and most old shows appear in HD. Worse, many classics will never appear in HD.

To folks who just spent thousands on HD sets, this seems crazy. To folks in the TV business, it makes perfect sense.

Program makers, considered collectively, have no reason to switch to HD. The transition costs them money, but unless HD gets viewers to watch more TV, it won't bring the industry an extra nickel of ad revenue.

Individual companies can use HD to woo viewers from the competition, of course, but the highly uncertain benefits may never justify the very tangible costs.

Indeed, until just last year, there was virtually no way to make money on HD because there was virtually no way to distribute it. Cable and satellite systems had no room for extra channels.

Heavy investment has just begun making room for more HD. DirecTV and Verizon's Fios can now fit almost unlimited programming, but the Dallas area's largest TV provider, Time Warner Cable, is still scrambling to upgrade the antiquated systems it took over in 2006.

"We have invested more than $100 million here in less than two years, and we're still going strong," said Gary Underwood, a Time Warner spokesman. "We'll make this a world-class network, but we can't do it overnight."

Program makers, in other words, still must risk money on HD without knowing if they'll land a spot on cable company lineups.


Risky moves

Even if they get widespread distribution, program makers often struggle to attract enough new viewers to justify the transition costs. For example, TV trade journals say that WWE has yet to see much of a ratings boost for the $20 million it spent to bring HD wrestling to TV last month.

Some earlier adopters have suffered even greater disappointments thanks largely to the inexplicable behavior of many HDTV owners.

In theory, people who spend thousands of dollars for an HDTV should care deeply about video quality.

In reality, studies show, about 40 percent of HDTV owners cannot distinguish HD from standard programs. A similar percentage of HDTV owners have never signed up for an HD program package.

Behavior like this has done much to slow the HD transition, but all program makers do plan to switch. They're just waiting for the right moment.


Falling prices

The price of HD production equipment has fallen as fast as the price of HDTVs, and it keeps falling. A single year's delay can save a big company millions of dollars.

Delay can also open the door to competitors, though. Fox News Channel and MSNBC held up on HD last year while archrival CNN made the plunge.

"There is no safe bet," said Van Baker, a research vice president at the consultancy Gartner Inc. "Whatever move you make, it's a gamble."

CNN bet that it can make back the money it spent on HD by winning viewers who stick around even after Fox and MSNBC make the transition. The other two channels are betting that viewers will stick around while they wait for equipment prices to fall.


High-def limitations

Many programmers try to minimize risk by working the HD conversion into their regular product replacement cycles. Rather than dumping working equipment for HD models, they wait for older stuff to die before moving forward.

"We know people want everything in HD, instantly, but we can't just chuck standard-definition equipment that cost us hundreds of millions of dollars," said Andy Citos, president of engineering for the Fox Group, which runs the Fox broadcast network, Fox News Channel and dozens more cable stations.

As they acquire more HD equipment each year, big companies allocate it to the programs they expect to benefit most.

Generally speaking, the more popular the channel or the program, the earlier it launches in high definition. Broadcast networks began showing high-def programs before cable networks. Prime-time programs beat soap operas.

Another allocation rule: The less visuals matter to a show, the longer it takes to make the transition. Network comedies went HD long after the dramas. Talk shows started going HD long after sports and nature shows.

But nothing is written in stone.

Network reality shows such as Survivor or The Amazing Race draw huge audiences and would certainly look beautiful in high-def. Unfortunately, some of the specialty cameras that reality shows use don't come in HD models yet. Others are just hitting shelves at a huge premium.

Technology limitations also hinder high-def news broadcasts.

It's easy for them to show viewers crystal-clear images of anchors sitting placidly in the studio. It's really hard, though, to use HD where it really matters, for compelling live reports that could change how people see places like Iraq.

"It's probably going to be a few years till HD equipment provides the agility and flexibility we need to do reality shows or live news from remote places," said Dan Harrison, senior vice president of emerging networks for NBC Universal Cable.

Mr. Harrison also believes it will be several years until production companies remaster older movies and television shows for HD broadcasts.

"If it was shot on film, it has more than enough detail for HD. That means that pretty much every movie and most TV dramas will eventually make the leap," he said.

"It's just going to take a few years."


Upgrade challenges

Again, program owners will probably convert the most popular shows first and get around to secondary materials later.

The only real challenge comes from programs that were shot in the tall-and-narrow format used in traditional TV shows. Studios can either retain this original shape when they remaster the shows or they can cut the top and bottom to make it fit on widescreen televisions.

All but the newest comedies present far greater challenges. Only a few of them were shot on film. The rest were shot on low-definition tape that cannot be upgraded into anything resembling true HD.


Much left to do

Overall, thousands of movies and old TV episodes have been remastered for HD, but studios have yet to touch the vast majority of older programming.

"Like the people who make new programs, they've been holding off on spending the money, but that's changing," said Terry Denson, vice president of product marketing at Verizon's Fios.

"Now that TV service providers have some extra room for HD, they've gone from rejecting it to demanding more and more of it. That's going to speed everything up, but it's not going to make anyone forget about the bottom line."

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Old 07-05-2008, 10:36 AM   #2  
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This is the only article I can find on how Time Warner Sucks in Dallas. I pay an extra $9 for HDTV in Dallas, but all i get is like 5 or 6 channels on HD. Also I have to get their digital package even though I really don't need it. What sucks even more is that, the HD channels that I do get are just marginally better than the non-HD versions of the same channel. I sometime find myself asking. Is this really HD. Do other people have the same experience in the Dallas area?
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Old 07-05-2008, 01:07 PM   #3  
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Originally Posted by navinxavier View Post
This is the only article I can find on how Time Warner Sucks in Dallas. I pay an extra $9 for HDTV in Dallas, but all i get is like 5 or 6 channels on HD. Also I have to get their digital package even though I really don't need it. What sucks even more is that, the HD channels that I do get are just marginally better than the non-HD versions of the same channel. I sometime find myself asking. Is this really HD. Do other people have the same experience in the Dallas area?
That is the main reason so many have changed to either Direct TV or Dish Network. Many more HD channels and they really do show as HD.
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Old 07-07-2008, 09:32 AM   #4  
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Worse, many classics will never appear in HD.
How could they? Most classic shows are stored in standard definition (or even low definition) Betacam or Umatic video. Case in point: Star Trek TNG, DS9, and Voyager are all stored on Betacam tapes.

Only since circa 2000 have shows started using HD Cam to capture and edit television production.
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Old 07-07-2008, 10:18 AM   #5  
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Originally Posted by electrictroy
Case in point: Star Trek TNG, DS9, and Voyager are all stored on Betacam tapes.


I call your Star Trek TNG and raise you Star Trek TOS! Your list is the exception, not the rule. Case in Point: Small-budget-very-classic-stuff like Star Trek The Original Series is already adapted to HD and looks freaking awesome! Fact is, most older programming is ripe for HD, and that includes very old movies from way back when

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Old 07-07-2008, 11:35 AM   #6  
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I call your Star Trek TNG and raise you Star Trek TOS! Your list is the exception, not the rule. Case in Point: Small-budget-very-classic-stuff like Star Trek The Original Series is already adapted to HD and looks freaking awesome! Fact is, most older programming is ripe for HD, and that includes very old movies from way back when
That is correct as most all movies (film) have a much higher resolution than 1920x1080 (excluding Star Trek which filmed most in a 4:3 format just for TV).
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Old 07-07-2008, 03:38 PM   #7  
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I call your Star Trek TNG and raise you Star Trek TOS! Your list is the exception, not the rule.
Disagree. Most television shows from circa 1965 to 2000 were recorded/edited on videotape.

Only a few shows (like TOS) were edited directly on film.
Only those few shows can be rescanned for HD.
They are the exception.

The majority of television shows were recorded on standard or low-definition videotape, and do not exist in HD. Repeat: They do not exist in HD.
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...that includes movies...
Yeah movies do exist in an HD format (film). They just need to rescanned. I wasn't really thinking of movies though. I was thinking of TV SHOWS which mostly exist only as videotape.
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Old 07-07-2008, 05:05 PM   #8  
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Quote:
Originally Posted by electrictroy

Only a few shows (like TOS) were edited directly on film.
Only those few shows can be rescanned for HD.
They are the exception.

The majority of television shows were recorded on standard or low-definition videotape, and do not exist in HD. Repeat: They do not exist in HD. Yeah movies do exist in an HD format (film). They just need to rescanned. I wasn't really thinking of movies though. I was thinking of TV SHOWS which mostly exist only as videotape.
Do you have actual proof the "majority" of these tv shows only exist in sd or lower? Tape only automatically means sd or lower?
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Old 07-07-2008, 05:53 PM   #9  
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Do you have actual proof the "majority" of these tv shows only exist in sd or lower? Tape only automatically means sd or lower?
For proof, all one needs to do is review the history of video recording on magnetic tape (plus review of the "making of" documentaries included as DVD extras, or books). The dominant methods of storage from the 1960s to modern times were:

- 2 inch Quad
- 3/4 inch Umatic
- 1/2 inch Betacam

...all of which are analog NTSC formats (i.e. standard definition). The first High Definition storage was not available until circa 2000. Read more here about tape formats here: http://www.videointerchange.com


Of course film was always an option, but the majority of television shows used videotape because it was cheaper to acquire & easier to edit. Almost every show in my DVD collection was recorded and stored on old-style NTSC videotape. EXAMPLE: Star Trek TNG. The show was filmed. The models were taped with Betacam. Then the two were integrated using a video-editing studio (i.e. tapes) and the final product stored on a Betacam Master. i.e. Standard Definition.

ANOTHER example: Twilight Zone season 2. In order to save money, they captured the actors direct to videotape. Therefore TZ season 2 only exists in a standard definition format.

No HD for these old shows.

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Old 07-07-2008, 07:21 PM   #10  
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Originally Posted by electrictroy
No HD for these old shows.
Seeing what it did for such a budget show as TOS, thats a real shame most other shows cant ever see the same treatment...my bad for thinking it was possible with most others of that era.
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Old 07-07-2008, 11:54 PM   #11  
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A lot of TV was shot and edited on film and a lot was shot on video--it depended on the type of show and budget. In some cases the shows that were shot on film were only preserved on video, though, so the film master is no longer available.

ST:TNG was a special case because the effects were shot on video, as video effects at that time were as good as film effects and cheaper and quicker to produce than film effects (just compare the steps in a film-based blue-screen travelling matte shot with chromakey!). Even though live action was on film and could be scanned to HD, the effects shots were basically at SD resolution and would need to be recreated in HD and every episode would have to be re-edited from scratch, as the final edited version only exists as SD video as Electrictroy noted.

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Old 07-08-2008, 05:30 AM   #12  
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(just compare the steps in a film-based blue-screen travelling matte shot with chromakey!).
Almost all of the Original Doctor Who used chromakeying and storage direct to videotape. It only exists as standard definition.
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Old 07-08-2008, 08:16 AM   #13  
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A lot of programming won't ever be released in true HD, but so what? Many thousands of TV shows and tens of thousands of movies have been maintained in a form that can be transfered to HD so we have a lot of programming, more than anybody can watch that is suitable for an HD release. Favorite programs that can't be released on HD only means it will have to be viewed like it was always viewed, in SD. I am impressed with how wonderful many of the older films and TV shows look in HD.

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Old 07-08-2008, 05:10 PM   #14  
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Watching the X-Files in standard definition on a large HD display would be no fun.
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Old 07-19-2008, 12:30 PM   #15  
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thanks man i needed it !!
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