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From Myth to Reality

When HDTV production equipment was first coming to light, the National Association of Broadcasters created a secondary exhibition at its annual convention known as "HDTV World."

A more apt name would have been "Your Worst Nightmare World," as demonstrations consisted of production cameras that cost more than $300,000 and videotape recorders that cost more than $200,000. For many broadcasters, particularly local ones, the reaction was the same: How in the world will anyone be able to afford to produce something in HDTV?

But that HDTV World is a distant memory, as the technology has moved from its own world to the greater universe of the NAB trade show. Most importantly, the cost of HDTV production gear has fallen so much that it is now only around 30% more expensive than standard-definition gear.

And HD equipment has expanded well beyond cameras, lenses and VTRs and into graphics, effects and editing.

Primetime dramas, movies for television and sports continue to be the main benefactors of HD technology. Reality and news programming continues to lag, with HD news probably four years away and HD reality TV about two years in the offing.

Of all the inroads made by HD, it's the format's displacement of 35-millimeter film that has most dramatically affected the market. Using HD video to shoot a scripted program is the norm, not the exception. And there is probably no better validation of the artistic and cost-savings benefit then the fact that HD production is now commonplace in Europe, even though there is currently no way for viewers to watch HDTV on that continent.

Shooting in HD extends the shelf life of product that otherwise would have been shot on standard-definition video and makes it attractive to global markets that have embraced HD broadcasting. In fact, Europe will soon be added to that list.

In January, the continent's first HDTV service, Euro1080, will be launched. That will bring the technology to homes and movie theaters across Europe.

Derek Grover, a digital imaging technician and director of photography based in Hollywood, has been one of the major drivers in the adoption of HD production gear, particularly for its use on sitcoms. "In the multi-camera episodic world, meaning sitcoms, it has completely taken over this year," said Grover.

It would have been hard to imagine that the price of equipment could have fallen so quickly, but the use of digital technology has helped manufacturers like Sony Corp., Panasonic and Thomson Grass Valley to continue to drive the manufacturing costs down.

Today, cameras and VTRs for HD can be found for less than $40,000. The upside, particularly for Sony Corp. and Panasonic, has been the establishment of solid footholds in the Hollywood community. Sony's DVCAM format has found believers for acquisition while Panasonic's D5 format is used to create the HD masters.

When it comes to using HD videotape to replace film, the main component is Sony's 24p format. The 1,080-line format has 24 progressive frames per second, which matches the frame rate of film. Its picture qualities are similar but it offers better depth of field than film (introducing its own set of challenges).

One thing it lacks is film's "grain," something that can be added in with the use of effects systems. HD video also can record at lower light levels, requiring a different approach to lighting than film.

The biggest asset HD has for the production unit is that it can save time. For example, at the end of each day of film shooting, the film is sent off to be developed for the creation of "dailies," so that the director and crew can make sure the shots were done properly. The use of HD videotape, however, obviates the need for the development process, allowing for instant playback on the set.

In fact, some producers say it creates a problem because the actors can look on as well and give their opinion on their performance and ask for it to be reshot even if the others are happy.

Another benefit is that because tape costs so much less than film, camera operators can keep shooting when previously they would stop in order to save film stock.

There is one note of caution. Showtime Networks Inc. vice president of production Mike Rauch said it's important that production executives don't look to HD as a way to save money.

"The danger with producers saying they want to shoot with HD so they can save money is it's simply not true," he said. The lighting issue, for example, can increase costs. But Rauch said transfer cost savings run about $50,000 an episode. In the end, the cost is about a wash between HD and film.

While HDTV viewers have appreciated the chance to see Ray Romano or James Gandolfini in HD during the past couple of seasons, the one area of HD production that excites the entire industry the most is sports. CBS led the way with its U.S. Open tennis, Masters golf and college football productions. But this fall HD sports will truly explode.

CBS is offering one HD National Football League telecast a week, ABC is rolling out Monday Night Football
in HD and ESPN HD continues to handle three or four high-definition productions a week.

Throw in three weekly HDTV Major League Baseball telecasts on In Demand's InHD channel, a rollout by the Fox Sports Net regional cable channels, and even National Basketball Association HD telecasts (plus HDNet's continuing HD sporting events), and the sports fan has plenty of options.

Much of the technical pressure falls on the shoulders of the owners of the HD mobile production trucks that handle the events. Companies like National Mobile Television and NEP Supershooters have built new HD trucks to meet the demand.

For these companies, the balancing act is to make sure the trucks they build will be busy every week. One way to ensure that is to make sure the trucks are multi-format capable, meaning they can handle the different HD resolutions (1080 line interlace or 720 progressive) and standard-definition resolutions that different networks use. A multimillion-dollar truck sitting in a parking lot waiting for business doesn't quite cut it.

"We're essentially running a Hertz rent-a-car business and our gear has to work everywhere," said NEP Supershooters senior vice president and general manager George Hoover. "We can't have a truck that can only do HD and not SD or 720p and not 1080i."

Both NMT (which built the truck that ABC Sports is using for MNF) and NEP (which built the truck used for ESPN's Sunday Night Football
telecasts) selected Thomson Grass Valley cameras for use in their new HD trucks because of that switchability function.

And it's not only the behind-the-scenes gear that has made the move to HD. Until this season, the 1st-and-10 marker seen on ABC and ESPN NFL telecasts couldn't be rendered on the HD feeds because it required additional computing power and some rewriting of the software code. Sportvision, manufacturer of the system, spent the off-season hitting its own version of the weight room, beefing up the capabilities so that HD viewers can have a nearly identical production as the standard-definition viewer.

It's that last point — having a production that's nearly identical to SD — that is probably the most important advance of them all. The Fox network has been reticent to broadcast its NFL and MLB telecasts in HD resolution because of the compromises that would have to be done in the production. For Fox, making sure the HD viewer has all the graphics and effects the SD viewer has is the priority.