High-Def Meets Low-Cost

Until very recently, conventional wisdom held that only those with deep pockets could afford HDTV production. A high-definition–capable camera and recording deck cost at least $80,000, and—while far less than the $200,000 price tag of a decade ago—that was high enough to prevent HD production from moving beyond prime time programming and network sports broadcasts.

But today, small local broadcasters, production companies and even independent producers can afford to create content in HD, thanks in part to Sony’s HVR-Z1U camcorder, introduced late last year, and JVC’s GY-HD100U camera. The former uses the HDV format—a high-def version of the low-cost consumer DV format—and costs about $4,900. JVC’s camcorder, introduced at NAB earlier this year, costs slightly more, but, along with the HVR-Z1U, it has opened the door to affordable HD production.

In the next few weeks, high-definition will gather even more momentum as networks move to meet the needs of the quickly growing HD-viewer base, which is expected to hit 15 million by year-end (up from 11 million last year). By the time the NFL regular season kicks off early next month, broadcast outlets will have shown 55 preseason games in high-definition. The Late Show With David Letterman makes its HD debut Aug. 29, ESPN2 HD will be available over DirecTV beginning Sept. 8, and Good Morning America brings HD to the morning news show segment in a matter of weeks.

“Knowing what the price point is, we’re definitely interested in seeing how [HDV] looks and providing some guidance to producers of our programs,” says Scripps Networks VP of Production Dave Metz, who’s gearing up HGTV and Food Network for a high-definition launch in the first half of 2006.



While HDV is expanding high-definition on the low end, Sony is doing it on the high end as well. The YES Network, which began broadcasting Yankees baseball games in HD this season and expects to do the same for New Jersey Nets basketball games this fall, is shooting its games in 1080-line progressive and using Sony HDCAM-SR decks, a high-ticket item (about $8,000) usually reserved for mastering prime time programming. On a typical telecast, YES will use 15 HD cameras and tape decks, an equipment complement that gives the crew considerable resources to get the shots it wants.

“The transition to HD isn’t cheap,” says YES Network Director of Operations Ed Delaney. “You can do a game with five cameras, but it’s all a matter of what kind of quality you want to deliver.”

While HDV allows those with more-modest budgets to enter the high-def game, the wealthier swear by the higher-end cameras, such as HDCAM and Panasonic’s Varicam. “HDCAM’s strengths are clearness and clarity, with quality detail right down to the pixel level,” says Gene Brookhart, VP of operations, The Outdoor Channel. He’s using 11 HDCAM systems and two Varicam systems—those offering more flexibility in frame rates—on more than 100 hours of HD programming each month.

As more networks jump headlong into high-definition, program producers are following. High Noon Entertainment in Denver, one of 15 companies that produce content for HGTV and Food Network, will provide more than 375 hours of HD content—including versions of Unwrapped, Generation Renovation and Designer Finals—for Scripps. Four HDCAM decks make it possible to get four streams of content onto the server at once, and 40 viewing stations are on hand for logging shots. The facility now has 28 HD offline editing rooms and only six standard-definition rooms.

“We’re shooting on HDCAM in the field and dumping the content on an Avid Unity storage system,” says High Noon Entertainment CEO Jim Berger.

To be sure, high-definition does pose considerable challenges, particularly when it comes to lighting, set design and makeup, according to many who have made the move. “Working in HD lets you capture rich detail and beauty, but you also capture things you may not want to see on-screen,” says High Noon Co-COO Chris Wheeler. “It has the potential to be warts and all—literally—if you don’t handle it right.”

More Editing Time

HD also lengthens the editing process, making time management more important. Berger says working in HD can add as much as half a day to the editing of a 30-minute program because it takes longer to create graphics and to ingest material. Moving to HD production, he points out, is about more than just buying cameras and decks. Anything that isn’t broadcast live needs to be edited, and producers find themselves facing a range of editing options that is nearly as wide as the shooting ones.

Scripps is leaning toward Avid’s Symphony Nitris for editing, Metz says, and while he expects about 25% of his systems to be HD-capable by the end of the year, he is proceeding with caution. “From a technical standpoint, everything is still unfolding,” he says. “There are issues around the HD technical specs, like which format to use, and you need to sort those out before you can build an entire soup-to-nuts HD facility.”

50 Million Viewers Next Year

Those that are making the jump can take comfort in the fact that, by mastering its nuances today—when audiences are relatively small—they’ll have an advantage when high-def viewers swell to the 50 million forecast by the end of next year.

“The cost difference is minimal compared to what we get out of it, which is a chance for our team to work on a high-quality project,” says WNBC New York President/General Manager Frank Comerford of his station’s high-def NFL broadcasts. “We’ve had a lot of expenses in going digital, and now we have to figure out how to use the signal.”