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High-Def Dan

At first glance, Dan Rather’s decision to join HDNet seems an unlikely marriage. But for high-def viewers the move grabbed their attention like they were “stuck with hat pins” (to quote Rather himself), as it brings one of the TV news industry’s true luminaries to an HD-only outlet. So what is a 74-year old news veteran going to do with all the extra HD resolution? Rather discusses his career twist with Ken Kerschbaumer, B&C HD Update editor.

Q: Were you familiar with HDNet before they reached out to you?

A: I was familiar with some of their programs like World Report. One of the things I didn’t know was that they had so much news infrastructure. They have news people in 65 cities around the world, and 35 in this country. And while it’s not nearly the resources of NBC, CBS or CNN, it’s a lot more than I knew about.

Q: What do you think of being able to work in HD?

A: HD is a cover-all phrase. There’s HD and then there is better HD. And what I like about HD Net is that it uses the premium, platinum HD standard. It has a sharpness, vividness and, most importantly, depth in its transmission that doesn’t distort the picture. And when you see HDNet coverage of an Iraqi election or the Space Shuttle launch you quickly recognize the difference.

Q: HDNet’s new programs like World Report use images to tell the story. Will HD change the way you approach reporting?

A: As a life-long reporter I think good reporting and good writing are the bedrock of the craft. But we’ll be able to report news in a way it has never been before because the picture is so much better. I always say beware of anecdotal evidence but a number of people tell me they watch nothing but HD.

Q: Dan Rather Reports doesn’t begin until October. Have you begun working in HD to get used to the medium?

A: We have and the vision of the program has changed. When I first spoke with [owners] Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner I told them I was looking for the likes of Bill Paley in the early 1930s or Ted Turner in 1979, which is to say someone with financial resources who has a vision of news as public service and part of democracy. At the first meeting I told them that was what I was looking for and Mark picked up on it and gets it.

Q: So does that mean you would be in Israel right now covering the Israel/Lebanon conflict?

A: Absolutely. The day it became apparent Israel was responding with tremendous force [HDNet GM] Phil Garvin asked me, if it was October would I be willing to go, and I told him I would have already been there.

Q: Where do you think HD ranks compared to previous technological changes?

A: New technology and platforms, including HD and the Internet, give tremendous opportunity for more value to news consumer. The four developments that made TV news what it is are, foremost, jet travel, satellites, portable and even smaller videotapes and computers. I’ve seen new technology improve news before: with Murrow it was the potential of radio. And Ted Turner early on saw how satellites could be put to use. And now, in the first edge of the 21st century there are all kinds of new technology being developed, like the Internet, HD and beyond, that can be added with good writing, reporting and a determination for quality. And Cuban and Wagner have already demonstrated that determination.

One of the things TV does best is take the viewer. It’s the proverbial magic carpet and with HD the viewer can get up close and personal and see unadorned images. You don’t need to style it up: if the viewer were there it would be what they would see.

Q: Because the number of HD viewers is still fairly small, there are no HD Nielsen ratings. And without ratings you don’t have the pressure CBS, CNN or Fox News have. What kind of freedom does that give you?

A: You’ve touched on an important point. With all of TV, and this also goes for radio and print, the imperative is to produce ratings and demographics. And I’m not going to exempt myself from the criticism that there is a lowering of standards, where the undertow dumbs everything down. And that means the titillating and sensational news is covered at the expense of what’s important. But with Dan Rather Reports, ratings and demos don’t matter. So it’s a relief and release to be able to concentrate on the quality of the news.