High-Def Gets a Wake-Up Call

It looks like NBC’s Today show is finally going to be bested by arch-rival Good Morning America on ABC—not necessarily in the ratings, which remain a battleground, but in the move to high-definition broadcasting. GMA plans to launch its HD effort in September; Today likely won’t make the move until early next year. CBS, preserving its traditional non-combatant status in the warfare between Today and GMA, does not currently plan to introduce HD on The Early Show, according to a spokesperson.

GMA’s embrace of HD is an important milestone for the still-fledgling broadcast medium. Weekday network programming in HDTV has been nonexistent, with the exception of CBS’ HD broadcasts of The Young and the Restless. The costs associated with HD production, typically adding an average 15% to a program’s production budget, and the belief that the heavily female daytime audience is not clamoring for HD (most HD programming centers on sports and movies, both which have strong appeal to male viewers) have made weekdays a virtually HD-free zone. But ABC says it has detected a burgeoning interest among daytime viewers in the broadcasts.


“Our goal is to not be ahead of or behind the curve, but rather to meet the consumer demand,” says Preston Davis, president of ABC Operations & Engineering, who’s presiding over the transition. “We want to provide a high-quality HD experience in the morning for the growing HD audience.”

Today executive producer Jim Bell says the NBC morning newscast doesn’t have a definite timetable for going HD but is eyeing Today’s relocation to Torino, Italy, for the Winter Olympics in February as a time when engineers could convert the show’s New York facility to HD. “For now,” Bell says, “we’re curious to see how everyone else makes the move to HD.”

GMA Weekend Edition executive producer John Green says the decision to make the move was prompted by what the network saw during the HD broadcast of President Bush’s inauguration in January. “We had never seen Washington pop so much on the screen. It was such a huge difference that we looked at each other and said we had to go HD.”

Numbers coming from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) support broadcasters’ sense of a growing potential appetite for HD. The CEA expects sales of 20 million HD-ready sets this year, for a total of 50 million in U.S. households by the end of next year. Those estimates are bolstered by the FCC’s recent ruling mandating that all sets larger than 25 inches should be capable of receiving over-the-air DTV and HDTV signals.

GMA’s Green believes that going HD now, when the audience is smaller, is the wisest route: “We want to get the kinks out so viewers will get something flawless as soon as they make the move to HD.”

And there are a few potential kinks. HD introduces new technical issues, such as synchronization problems and the routing and cabling needs dictated by bandwidth-hungry signals. GMA will add new cameras, production switchers, routing switchers and other signal-processing gear. The fiber circuit between the GMA facility in Times Square and ABC’s control room on West 66th Street will also be upgraded.

Unlike NBC, with its plan to make the switch during Today’s Olympics sojourn, ABC will have to work with GMA in residence. The solution: Install a production truck with standard-definition (SD) equipment in Times Square to serve as a temporary home for the production crew while the GMA control room and facilities are converted to HD. If the city approves the permits, GMA’s technical facility will be parked on the street for the month of August.


Davis says some of the equipment has already been chosen, including Sony HD cameras, a Sony MVS8000A production switcher (with MVE8000A digital video effects) and a Sony HDSX5800 router. Although HD cameras in the field are rare right now, Davis is hopeful about the new generation of HDV camcorders, which cost less than $6,000 and offer near-HD resolution. “You don’t have the choice of lenses or other professional features available in larger cameras, but images hold up very well,” he says. “It’s a very good bridge between SD and large-format HD cameras.”

GMA is likely to become a more visual-oriented production in HD, Green says. “At its essence, morning TV is a medium where people don’t have a chance to stop and watch. They’re brushing their teeth or getting the kids ready for school. But we’re hoping that, with HD, the visuals will be so good that we’ll stop them in their tracks and they’ll have no choice but to watch.” Times Square itself will provide plenty of HD-ripe images, he says, adding that “The Weekend Window,” a Sunday-morning segment that just gazes for 2.5 minutes at the beauty of the natural world, “will punch out even more in HD.”

Although some on-air TV talent panic at the thought of HD’s pitiless clarity focusing attention on their physical imperfections, Davis says the network has already run some HD tests and all concerned are satisfied with the results. “The issue of talent looking older is a non-issue,” he says, adding, “We’ve talked with all the anchors, and none of them has expressed any concerns.”