In higher definition

Factual programming is showing the value of HDTV beyond more pixels and bigger screens. E&T gets square eyes.

HDTV. It makes TV drama look like a Hollywood movie. It makes TV sports feel like you are in the crowd. It makes news coverage much more 'real'.

These common descriptions of the benefits of high-definition television (HDTV) all talk about scaling up today's viewing experience rather than offering something new. Sometimes they just topple into absurdity. Such comparisons are doing little to promote the uptake of HDTV.

Evangelists for the format worry that consumers view it as 'the same old, same old, with knobs on'. The Blu-Ray Disc community got a jolt in early August when an ABI Research survey found that 40 per cent of the American public did not perceive that great a quality difference between 1080-line progressive-scan 'full-HD' offerings and 480-line standard-definition (SD) DVDs.

Yet HDTV is offering something beyond incremental improvements in quality. The most exciting applications of the format are happening in what remains a low-profile genre, despite the fact that viewers have gobbled up its output for decades. We are talking about documentaries and other branches of 'factual' programming (as distinct from news and current affairs). In short - Sir David Attenborough and Michael Palin.

Attenborough is particularly relevant, because of his role as narrator of 2006's 'Planet Earth', one of the highest rating HDTV series to date and one of the next-generation DVD market's few bestsellers.

If any programme can convince a sceptical couch potato to trade up to HDTV, this is it - and the reason is simple. Across eleven 50-minute episodes, the series uses both HD and digital production techniques to show our world in such a vivid and immersive way that it changes how you respond to the programme. This is new.

Money, money, money

There's one huge obstacle facing any attempt to portray 'Planet Earth' as a template for the future of HD, and that's cost. The show was reportedly budgeted at around £15m and was in production for five years. Even as HD production costs decline, the notion of TV schedules being populated with similar programming is fantasy. Only the biggest US TV network dramas cost $3m per hour, and these budgets are being slashed as audiences and advertising income fragment in the digital broadcasting era.

So can factual programming continue to be HD's pathfinder genre while evolving on more realistic budgets? According to some of the prime movers behind 'Planet Earth', the answer is a very definite 'Yes'.

The series was co-produced by a trio of natural history's usual suspects: two public broadcasters, the UK's BBC and Japan's NHK, plus the US multichannel giant Discovery Communications. All three have been in the vanguard of HDTV research, although when it comes to the financial and logistical side of these shows, Discovery probably has the broadest experience.

"We launched HD Theater in 2002, when the number of HD sets wasn't in the hundreds, but it was still probably in the few thousands," says John Honeycutt, the company's executive vice president and chief media technology officer. "The other thing we did was that we really went for it in terms of quality. It wasn't just a commercial channel, it was a platform to showcase the capability of HD."

At the time, an entirely HD channel was a sizeable risk. The US decision to move all terrestrial broadcasts to digital distribution was one thing, but while this shift would finally enable HDTV, there were still doubts over how readily the public would adopt the technology.

Growing in HD

Despite this, Discovery has since added HD versions of the flagship Discovery Channel, as well as Animal Planet and The Science Channel.

"As you grow, inevitably economics comes into it more," says Honeycutt. "Where we are lucky is that we are out of what was our experimental mode and we are into an optimisation mode."

So it is now rare for footage to come back poorly calibrated, although just three years ago that happened frequently. Having overcome the difficulties of shooting footage, Honeycutt's team can focus on the infrastructure involved in producing programmes in hostile environments. Perhaps most important of all, Discovery has assembled a lot of reusable expertise. To capitalise on that, the company has codified what it has learned about HD into a tiered production strategy.

"We now come at things with the assumption that it's going to be done in HD, although that won't necessarily happen. The question is framed more as, 'We're going to do this in HD, aren't we?', than, 'Can we do this in HD rather than SD?'" says Honeycutt. "But serious judgements still need to be made. It's like you're planning for a show that goes out at 9pm or 10pm primetime, and then for one that's part of daytime: according to those criteria there are various assumptions you will make about budgets, production values and so on. HD is the same.

"We have come up with a system called, 'Gold, Silver, Bronze'. The great thing about it is that everybody wins a medal. It's not that we're singling things out and saying they're not important. We're just saying we have to treat them differently."

The system establishes guidelines for choices such as the type of camera, the resolution, the audio standard and so on, going right through the range of technical tools that a production might need.

"The goal then is to produce as much as we can in the 'silver' range, because we've found that gives the most value. However, there will be cases where we are going to go that extra mile and invest because it's a franchise show or because we believe that the subject matter warrants it, and then we will go 'gold'," says Honeycutt.

"Bronze doesn't mean that we are less interested in the show. Often the constraints that force that decision are environmental. Take a show like 'Deadliest Catch' [Discovery's ratings hit about Alaskan crab fishing]. It's shot in the Bering Sea under incredibly extreme conditions.

"So you have considerations about the safety of the crew. You wouldn't give those camera operators shoulder-mounted kit because they're on deck, working in these gigantic waves and you've just taken away a huge amount of their peripheral vision. Instead you want to use the smaller cameras, the 'bronze' HDV format equipment with LCD viewfinders.

"On top of that, you're going to lose every camera on that shoot. It's not just the risk of accidents and physical damage - the saltwater just eats away at the cameras. So you're going to choose the cameras that are closer to $10,000 than $100,000."

Starting out

On the creative side, Dan Korn, vice president and head of factual programming for Discovery in the UK, also welcomes the new system. "You do need the framework to know not just whether or not a programme is going to work, but how you're going to do that. With HD, we're still writing the rule book, which is great in a lot of ways, but obviously if you can take what knowledge you do have and use it, it helps."

Honeycutt also acknowledges that there are significant gaps in terms of how the technology is advancing. Something akin to Moore's Law is pushing HD camera technology.

"I wouldn't say it was as formal as Moore's Law in giving you certain improvements over a fixed period of time, but we can see the cost of camera equipment coming down," says Honeycutt. "A pretty good example is the EX line on Sony's XDCAM - that was a 'bronze' type camera, but it's now getting to the point where you've got a small form factor and terrific imaging quality that's becoming 'silver' in quality but not in cost.

"However, you don't see that across the board. In post-production, the costs can still get very high. Rendering and CGI are expensive. Moving content across different editing platforms is hard work - we've no problem with people's 'secret sauce', but there's far too much proprietary technology in there. Then, there are still some areas that we are only just starting to really address."

In that category, Honeycutt cites three examples with progressively broader impact.

"We want to move towards more tapeless acquisition and distribution," he says, "and that is the trend in cameras today. But there are issues. With a lot of our programmes, you're looking at very small teams - if you have a [survival expert such as] Bear Grylls or a Josh Bernstein working in the middle of nowhere, there's maybe a cameraman and a sound recordist as well, and that's it. We can't add a field support tech."

What Discovery wants are reliable field servers, so that it can get the most out of storage - other forms of memory may be tumbling in price, but a 16GB card for Panasonic's P2 HDTV system costs $900. "You need to know that when you put that stuff in the [server], transfer it and hit 'erase', that that is what happens, that you're not losing footage. And you don't need to be an IT expert to do that," says Honeycutt. "We've seen some working prototypes along the right lines, but nothing as a product yet."

A second critical area is metadata, in other words data about the data that has been recorded. Discovery is introducing a metadata scheme for its internal digital media center, imposing some control over the vast amount of content that many of the company's shows generate. For each of the ships involved in 'Deadliest Catch', for example, 5,000 hours of footage will be generated every season, which gets boiled down to make 12 42-minute episodes.

"It's got a shooting ratio of hundreds to one, and you have to capture a massive amount of footage. Cameras are always rolling to capture that unbelievable moment when they're throwing a buoy out and it gets wrapped around somebody's leg, or the crabpot comes in and its chock-full of crabs. You can't stage that stuff," says Honeycutt.

"But now you have all this footage. How do you best handle it? The key here is metadata. The more metadata we can capture in the field about what is relevant about a section of content, the better a starting point we have from which we can cull down what we need, against something that can be deeper archived or put into a cheaper type of storage."

Even with the metadata scheme launching, Honeycutt admits that Discovery is "not there yet", but he is optimistic.

"I'm really proud of the metadata model because it was a company-wide effort," he says. "We have a common way of talking about our content. Everything from genre to descriptive terms through technical descriptions has been published. The key is that we have been tight enough in defining what we want and what we need for this to work."

Finally, we get onto Honeycutt's ambitions for the near future - and some of what he will be looking for at IBC.

"One thing I keep saying to all our technical teams, right across the world, is that I'd like 2008 to be the last year when we make investments for closed [proprietary] editing suites," says Honeycutt. "Post-production is still one of the places that's costing us a lot and one way we're going to manage that is by moving to the desktop."

Progress in terms of cutting the costs of HDTV brings with it two positive signs for the future - the scope to start addressing more problems along the production chain, and evidence of growing maturity in the form.

"All HD, all broadcasts - that's the horizon," says Honeycutt. "I wouldn't guess when we will get there, but it will happen."

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