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Great Picture, So-So Sound

HDTV televisions, networks and programs are all being sold on the basis of a crystal-clear picture, but even when the picture measures up to that expectation, the quality of the audio may not.

“It's the same story that has been going on since television started,” said John Beattie, post-production audio supervisor for the Outdoor Channel. The picture comes first, he says, and the audio is an afterthought.

Like many cable networks, the Outdoor Channel serves up a high-definition video signal but has not made the leap to producing the accompanying soundtrack to the Dolby Digital 5.1 standard (five surround-sound channels, plus one for low-frequency sound effects).

While he would like to change that, he said, “right now I'd be faking it” because the sound isn't recorded to that standard during production of Outdoor Channel shows.

HDTV still has made a difference in how Beattie does his job. A lot of his work involves cleaning up audio recorded in the field—for example, toning down the sound of an outboard motor on one of the channel's fishing shows, and leaving just enough to set the scene, while making sure dialog is still audible.

Previously, he would often remind himself to stop fussing over some minor audio glitch because the audience wouldn't be listening over studio-quality speakers and the equipment they did have would tend to hide small problems. “You'd find yourself asking, 'Is anybody really going to hear this?' But now, with the better speakers, they probably can,” Beattie said.

In general, made-for-television programming will never quite measure up to the quality of sound delivered with a major motion picture, says Shelly Palmer, chairman of the Advanced Media Committee of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and managing director of Advanced Media Ventures Group LLC.

High-note standards

And even motion picture sound loses something when transmitted through a television set, given that home theaters don't really replicate the acoustics of a movie theater.

Still, major network programming largely is being produced to the Dolby 5.1 standard, and production values in general are rising. “More people are doing what they can, learning to do it better, and learning to appreciate it,” Palmer says.

However, most of the money today is still in standard-definition programming, so that's what content producers tend to concentrate on, says Dale Rochon, an Arbitron product manager and former Verizon FiOS engineer who is active in the standards efforts related to video and audio encoding.

“If you're the producer of the program, you're going to produce for the spot of the market that's going to give you the best dollars in return, which is standard-definition in stereo. Then, if you have the luxury to do so, you can add the 5.1 and the higher-quality video,” he says.

Even when audio is produced to a high standard, however, it may not always be delivered to the consumer in its full glory. Speaking from Denver, where he was attending a technical meeting of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, Rochon pointed out that movies that are available on DVD in Dolby 5.1 are often delivered to consumers via cable as two-speaker stereo. Different cable, telecom and satellite operators are all making different cost-versus-quality trade-offs as they “try to squeeze every dollar from the bandwidth to the home,” Rochon said.

Befuddled in High-Def

“Right now, there's a lot of switching back and forth between stereo and 5.1,” Rochon said. “Things will change in 2009 when everything is HD.”

HDTV is still new enough that many consumers are dazzled by the picture and not paying a lot of attention to the audio. But that, like everything else in the post-analog age, will change, too. For example, Rochon suggests the Outdoor Channel would do well to prepare for the day when competitors are offering fishing shows with higher-quality audio, allowing fans of those shows to make a direct comparison.

That's something that made an impression on Rochon once he was able to experience hockey games on HDNet versus the same game on a local channel.

“When you're watching it on HDNet, you can hear the puck go past and hear people crashing into the boards behind you—it's just a whole different experience,” Rochon says. “But unless you're exposed to it, you don't know—you're just looking for the picture.”

“I'm the audio guy, so of course I want to do surround-sound,” Beattie says.

As for whether the Outdoor Channel's viewers care about the difference that will make, he admits, “I don't think you can know. People had no idea they were missing HD until they had it. In the not-too-distant future, I think this is going to be kind of the norm. In a tech field like broadcasting, you constantly have to be looking into the future.” Or else, Beattie points out, “You wake up one morning and find you've been left behind.”