Wide Open Future

The stillness of night gives way to the soft light of morning in the heart of the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park. Dark purple clouds roll over the mountains and the herd of bison below. As the sun slowly rises, a mist forms above the herd, and the valley floor is delicately illuminated. It's a new day in the valley, and a new day for Discovery HD.

Since September, the channel’s viewers have been treated to Sunrise Earth, an hour-long program that gives them a chance to see something special: sunrise at the nation’s most beautiful spots—without having to get up at 5 a.m. to do it (the show airs at 7 a.m.). It’s also the kind of treat that makes consumers happy that they ponied up the extra bucks for an extra-big, extra-clear HD picture.

Discovery is one of the biggest bettors in an expensive gamble by TV manufacturers, networks and retailers that the tipping point for HDTV is at hand. The percentage of homes tuning in to HDTV programs is poised to make a big leap beginning in 2006: from 30% of all homes to about 50% of all U.S. homes by the end of 2007, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. That’s more than 50 million HDTV sets by 2007.

Right now, only about 3 million homes have high-definition TV, though many millions more think they do (see related story, page 26).

This Christmas selling season should give HDTV an essential push.

The price for an average HDTV set will come down to around $1,300. (They’re still not cheap, but a bargain hunter can get lucky: Sanyo, for example, sells a 32-inch HDTV tube-based monitor for $699.) The Consumer Electronics Association predicts that about 6 million HDTV sets will be sold this year—which will just about double the number of HDTV sets in operation nationwide. Another 9 million will be sold in 2005.

When that happens, even more HDTV programming—limited now by high cost and a lack of advertising revenue—will start to flow onto networks. The 40 or so cable and broadcast networks currently dipping their toes in the HDTV waters will dive in with continuous programming.

“When 15 million homes start tuning in with HDTV sets, you’ll start seeing the shift,” says John Hendricks, Discovery Channel founder and a digital-TV prophet. Then Nielsen will start tracking what’s on. “Everybody will be waking up. When that happens, everyone will be desperate for a feed, but they won’t be able to get the bandwidth.”

The growth is happening for retailers. “We’re seeing people come in with a much better idea of what they want,” says Ed Maloney, president of Jackson, Miss.-based Cowboy Maloney’s. “They go to a friend’s house and see HD, and it’s a combination of word of mouth and 'word of eye.’ That sells a lot of sets.” In terms of dollars, he says, HDTV sales at his stores are growing about 20% a year.

Although it’s mostly the major broadcast networks and cable movie and sports channels sending out HDTV now, another wave of as many as 30 networks will step up to HD in 2005, predicts Mike Antonovich, vice president of global sales and marketing for satellite provider PanAmSat, which already operates a high-def satellite service it calls the “HD neighborhood.”

But there is also confusion. “Extended-definition” (EDTV) flat-panel plasma and LCD digital TVs—which are not necessarily high-resolution units—are now the rage, and some consumers seem willing to sacrifice picture quality for aesthetics, especially as prices fall.

But retailers maintain that the high-definition picture is hands-down better—and consumers will inevitably catch on.

Maloney wonders, why not go whole hog? “If you’re going to spend all that money for an 'extended-definition’ TV plasma screen, spend a little bit more and get an HD set,” says Maloney. “Why spend something on a 'high-look’ technology but not the high-performance technology?”

The movement on retail sales floors is prodding programmers to get going. Now more than ever, all aspects of TV production, from sunrises to sports, are adapting to HDTV production. Directors, camera crews, makeup artists and, of course, talent are rethinking the way they tell stories, shoot scenes and do business.

Sunrise Earth producer Dave Conover, for example, shot 23 sunrises with Compass Light, his production company. Crews of four went to various locations with two new Sony F900 cameras each to capture a world awakening. The show is already catching on; a second season is in the works.

Shooting in high-definition is expensive, costing 25% more than standard-definition (SD) on average. With so few viewers, hardly any advertisers have signed up to sponsor broadcasts.

Still, trailblazing networks like Discovery and HBO—the latter now airs 70% of its schedule in high-definition—consider the expense an investment for the future.

Conover says high-definition scenes deliver the same thrill that viewers experienced more than a half century ago when TV sets were first marketed. “What captured their attention was the magical access to a place on the planet that isn’t just outside their window,” he says. “And that’s the goal of Sunrise Earth: to use HD’s resolution and brilliance to make something as simple as a sunrise compelling to viewers.”

Nature documentaries aren’t the only shows playing with the new format. It takes only a few seconds for CSI’s “look” to sink in. The combination of lighting and color saturation gives the show a unique tone, and each of the three CSIs has its own color palette: CSI: NY gets an icy-blue tone; CSI: Miami is flecked in orange; and the original CSI, set in Las Vegas, is a story told in hints of green.

“We use different color palettes to differentiate storylines,” says CSI executive producer Danny Cannon. Some scenes get different degrees of vividness. “A frightening storyline will be de-saturated while a more ironic storyline might be more saturated.” The result are neon signs that pop, building exteriors that give a greater sense of decay, and a clarity in fog or mist that just deepens the dread.

Makeup: Compressor and a Hand-Held Nozzle

The extra detail that HDTV video allows puts more pressure not only on set design and lighting but also on actors and even news anchors. Many fear that HDTV will allow every unsightly scar or blemish to be blown out of proportion: There’s nothing like a close-up on a 60-inch HDTV to make a shaving nick look like a bloody gash.

Helping on-air talent put their best face forward has always fallen to the makeup team. The solution? Put aside creams and embrace air brushes made by companies like TempTu and Dynair. Air brushes use compressed air to apply makeup in aerosol form via compressor and a hand-held nozzle with a pressure button. It takes a couple of weeks for anchors to fully embrace the technique, but the result is a foundation that fills wrinkles more effectively.

“It should be used for the foundation and to replace women’s blush because it’s so natural-looking and makes the skin look flawless,” says ESPN makeup artist Annie Bean, who gets the network’s anchor talent ready for ESPN-HD telecasts. “Then you can do what you’ve always done for the eyes and lips.”

The key is getting the skin tone right, which means plenty of testing with lighting. “Without the right lighting, it will look terrible,” says Bean. “Just make sure you start on the process way before you ever actually go to air.”

Softer lights also soften HDTV’s harsh close-ups, she adds, noting, “It puts more pressure on the director of photography.”

For all the improvements, there is still one issue that all HDTV producers of events are grappling with: how to take full advantage of HD’s widescreen 16:9 picture (16 units wide by 9 units high).

With 95% of the viewing audience still watching on standard-def sets (4:3 ratio, or four units wide by three units high), producers try to frame a shot so all the action takes place within the standard frame, generally rendering widescreen an afterthought.

CSI’s Cannon, however, stays focused on widescreen production. “We only compensate slightly for standard TV when we lose certain parts of a face,” he says. “But we don’t let standard TV hinder us.” There’s also a business reason for that: CSI has significant DVD sales, and consumers are accepting of the letterboxing required on a standard TV.

More important, high-definition DVDs are on the horizon. By the end of next year, four Hollywood studios—Paramount, Warner, Universal and New Line—will begin selling high-definition DVDs in the HD-DVD format (see related story on page 22). Players are expected to cost about $1,000, and their introduction will complete the HD-content circle and open up another HD revenue stream.

While Cannon and those involved in TV dramas can serve both widescreen and standard-def viewers fairly easily, live- and sports-event producers aren’t so lucky. Because the SD and HD broadcasts are derived from the same camera positions, the advantage of widescreen is never fully realized. Football fans watching a widescreen version could see the safety blitz develop if producers framed for widescreen. But they don’t.

Jed Drake, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer, says tennis matches could be shot with a camera perched high at center court as opposed to behind the baseline. “Moving to only widescreen productions isn’t an 'if,’” he adds, “but a 'when.’”

No More Big Analog Sets

When NBA Entertainment covers games in HD, it shoots them in widescreen and letterboxes them for standard viewers. But instead of having black bars on the top and bottom of the screen, it moves the picture to the top of the screen and places graphics at the bottom. The viewer at home doesn’t even know it’s letterboxed.

“This way, we give the SD viewer a bit of a look into the future,” says Steve Hellmuth, NBA senior vice president, operations and technology.

As the sports leagues and networks try to figure out their HDTV programming over the next two years, one thing is certain: The audience will grow at an unprecedented rate. “We’re well past the early-adopter stage,” says Jenny Miller, director of industry trends for CEA.

One big contributor to the momentum: By the end of 2006, every TV larger than 13 inches will have both an analog and a digital tuner. “When that happens, there will no longer be analog TV sets” over 13 inches for sale, Miller says.

Millions of analog sets, of course, will continue to be in use for years to come. As 2007 dawns, the picture will finally be in focus: HDTV has arrived.