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Cameras flex their resolution

If there's one message camera manufacturers hope to convey loud and clear at NAB 2001, it's that, despite very slow acceptance by consumers and broadcasters, HDTV is not dead.

"While as an industry we're still searching for the most viable and profitable application of digital television, I must say that reports of the death of HDTV have been greatly exaggerated," says Ed Grebow, deputy president of Sony Electronics. "I can't tell you that we're not frustrated by the incredibly slow acceptance of HD in the U.S. marketplace. But recently, there have been some signs of life. With the FCC, NAB and MSTV supporting 8-VSB modulation, there is good reason for manufacturers and broadcasters alike to move forward."

Nonetheless, the chicken-and-egg situation that has been impeding the growth of HDTV continues.

"There aren't a lot of home receivers where [consumers] can enjoy benefits of high definition, and broadcasters are waiting for the flood of people to buy home receivers," says Bob Estony, director of communications at Ikegami. "That's not happening. It's a catch-22 situation."

Juan Martinez, product marketing and development manager for JVC, believes that, as consumers slowly begin to adopt the new technology, broadcasters will make the investment, but it will take time.

"Broadcasters depend on ad revenue. HD-set sales are very low, so this means the audience is quite small and ratings are then quite low," Martinez says. "For broadcasters to change to HD, it means they have to create an new [infrastructure]. Upconversion and passing along a network feed for retransmission will continue until they see revenues. I think HDTV will take off around 2003."

Until that happens, JVC is attempting to ease broadcasters into the transition with solutions that allow broadcasters to produce in standard definition and upconvert for high definition.

"JVC is uniquely positioned for this," Martinez says. "Our D9 camcorders sample signals using 4:2:2," which "inherently has a higher resolution," so "the upconversion is much more convincing."

Jack Breitenbucher, vice president of Hitachi's Broadcast and Professional Group, believes that, despite slow set sales, more broadcasters would be willing to produce HDTV programming if it weren't so expensive.

"The problem is that right now its too costly and it's a major investment for broadcasters," he says. "[We're developing] cost-effective ways for broadcasters to get into this high-def format and generate revenue. Our new focus is to try to get that as cost effective as possible."

For Ikegami, the goal at NAB this year is simple: to help broadcasters face the ongoing transition to digital. "The broadcaster has this mandate, and they're concerned about how to do this," Estony says. "We're trying to work along with them in purchasing cameras that are flexible and can handle HDTV and NTSC."

24p Adds Flexibility

As broadcasters seek more flexible ways to produce HDTV, the digital 24 frame progressive (24p) high-definition production format is sure to generate some buzz at NAB. Although still in its infancy for broadcasting, many are touting the format, which is already popular among film producers, as the answer to flexible, cost-effective HDTV production.

The format, with progressive scanning and a 24-per-second frame rate, allows for easy downconversion to NTSC and a smooth transfer to 35mm film.

JVC, Panasonic, Philips and Sony are all showing their own version of the 24p camera, while Ikegami and Hitachi are still monitoring the market to determine demand.

Sony is convinced the demand is there. "The acceptance of 24p by program producers has exceeded even our own expectations," Grebow says. "Whether it be for motion picture feature production or prime time episodic television, 24p is firmly established throughout the world."

In fact, last June, Alliance Atlantis announced that it was producing the fourth season of Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict
using Sony's 24p HDW-F900 camera.

JVC also is seeing some interest among episodic television producers in the 24p format. The manufacturer is codeveloping a system with 20th Century Fox, the producer of the X-Files, that it will be showing privately at NAB.

"It's specifically for episodic television," says Martinez. "The big advantage is that it allows us to have a much higher color resolution and no subsampling," which causes artifacts. "So we have the best of both worlds."

Stuart English is vice president of marketing for Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems Co. He believes 24p is a perfect solution for many broadcast needs because it combines the "best of video with the best of film" in that you're recording onto tape what is essentially letterbox.

"Whichever discipline you're coming from, the camera can work in the way you are used to working in, and you can cross over," he claims.

English says that although episodic television production has been the testing ground for the use of 24p in the television industry, the format is suitable for a variety of applications, including sports. With 24p, photographers can "overcrank" or "undercrank" to alter the recorded speed of the action for special effects, such as slow motion.

In addition, shooting at 24 frames per second produces a "filmic" look that suits commercials, music videos, documentaries and theatrical productions, English says.

Although 24p is new to broadcasters, Panasonic has been developing and field-testing the format for years.

In fact, English says, many of the features of its new multi-format 24p camera stem from what Panasonic learned by producing Monday Night Football
in high definition with ABC in 1999.

The result, English says, is that they were able to improve the sensitivity and image processing of the camera. "There are some rigorous conditions that you cannot replicate in a lab," he explains.

The camera is expected to have a street value of about $65,000. English believes that offering a product at that price may encourage some broadcasters to produce in HD and downconvert for NTSC broadcast.

"You can tell if something is being produced in high def and downconverted," he says. "It's a clean NTSC feed and there's silkiness with the picture that's just not there" when you are producing in NTSC.

Let's Go to the Disk

While HDTV is still on the minds of many broadcasters, most are focusing on new ways to streamline production from acquisition to on-air playout.

Disk-based production is one solution that several camera manufacturers are offering this year. Disk-based solutions would allow broadcasters to acquire the video in a digital format and move the disk directly into the editing system, eliminating tape-transfer time.

"This tapeless format is a complete editing format," says Hitachi's Breitenbucher. Hitachi is offering a low-end disk-based camera that lists for just $2,000.

"It has a pro-sumer front-end," says Breitenbucher. "We're working on a more professional 3-CCD version."

JVC's Martinez believes that disk-based cameras can help broadcasters see "incredible" improvements in productivity.

"Broadcasters are some of the most conservative people on the planet, but they can see that disk can yield increases in productivity—because of the random access, you don't have to access the video linearly," he explains. "Frankly, you still need to archive, and I believe that anyone considering a disk solution has to take that into consideration."

According to Martinez, a disk-based camera offers the same picture quality as a DVCPRO camera. "The cost of media itself—the disk—is higher than tape, but the tape is consumable. The disk is reusable over many, many cycles, which can save you money over time."

Martinez says he expects that disk-based cameras will be priced similarly to tape-based cameras.