The Wide, Wider World

In television circles, the 2006 World Cup will be remembered as the broadcast event that turned HDTV into a global reality.

“We’re not putting a toe in the water. We’re putting our whole foot in,” says Paul Cheesbrough, head of technology for production and technology direction, BBC. “We want to get a lot of consumer feedback on HD uptake in the UK so we can figure out whether we move ahead quickly or slowly.”

The BBC has been producing all of its top programming in high-definition since 2003 for optimum image quality (and shelf life), but it was BSkyB’s decision last fall to go HD that pushed both the BBC and UK pay-TV provider NTL to broadcast HDTV.

And Britain isn’t alone. French, German and Italian networks in Europe are going HD for the World Cup, and Brazil and Guatemala in Central and South America are also making the move, in part because the massive popularity of soccer could lead to a quick uptake in HDTV.

That’s good for the world’s viewers and also for U.S. media outlets, which probably will see prices for HD equipment drop as the market for the gear expands around the world.

Bryan Burns, ESPN VP, strategic business planning and development, has spent much of the past three years advocating the benefits of HD at industry trade shows and events. “International growth,” he says, “will contribute to additional efficiencies for equipment production, set manufacturing and syndication opportunities.”

To date, much of the potential customer base has been focused in the U.S. and Japan, the two leading broadcasters of HD content. With Europe and now Central and South America moving to high-def, “more customers mean a faster return [on engineering investments] and more cash to invest in new-product development,” says Grass Valley Chief Technology Officer Ray Baldock. “Faster product development is often made possible by repurposing and repackaging core technologies. It is more attractive to do this in a market where there is growing demand.”

And there is also demand for new products. For example, the World Cup matches are being produced by Host Broadcast Services (the Swiss company that won the contract to build, staff and produce the core multilateral feed sent to 300 broadcasters around the globe) in 1080i, a resolution familiar to the U.S. But the Europeans broadcast at 50 frames per second, while the U.S. broadcasts at 60 frames per second. The result? ESPN and ABC Sports had to find a converter box that would add those 10 additional frames without affecting the viewer’s experience. Even more converter devices are likely to be built to help U.S. and European broadcasters share HD content more easily.

“There’s a very marked jump in interest in HD throughout Europe, especially in the past six months,” says Bill Lovell, head of the digital department for UK-based equipment-rental house ARRI Media.

Like many rental and production houses in the UK, ARRI Media is expanding its product line thanks to high-def. The company is providing HD high-speed cameras that are shooting 20 World Cup games at up to 300 progressive frames per second for slow-motion playback. When it is played back at regular broadcast-frame rates, viewers get a slow-motion view of the action.

“It looks like a regular camera but records the frames on a hard drive in the camera that can hold 11 seconds of video,” says Lovell. “An operator in the production truck then controls it with a VTR [videotape recorder]-like jog shuttle.”

Gearhouse Broadcast, a key provider of technology services for the World Cup, is building two high-def remote production trucks. Says Technical Director Kevin Moorhouse, “About 60% of our work is still standard-definition. While I don’t think HD will explode into Europe, once viewers start seeing HD, they’ll want to get it, and that will drive demand.”

Not surprisingly, those nations just jumping into HD should expect some of the growing pains experienced in the U.S. In Europe, HD is an option, not a requirement of the digital-TV transition (in fact, the reason for the move to DTV in Europe and elsewhere is mainly for multicasting, not HD). That means consumers will need to be motivated to buy HD sets for picture-quality reasons.

“There is confusion in the marketplace already about issues like buying an HD set alone doesn’t give you an HD picture,” says Cheesbrough, echoing marketing challenges that have existed stateside for nearly a decade. “Also, UK broadcasters have been delivering widescreen to consumers for 10 years, so there is less of a visible need to change.”

That could leave it up to TV sports to provide the impetus for high-def. “Sports is the most compelling content to showcase the advantages of HD,” says Baldock. “The ability to cover a wider field of view but with good clarity and resolution has been a key factor in moving the consumer market to HD.”