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HD Production: Technology More Accessible

By | November 1, 2009

      For years, high-definition TV (HDTV) was known as “tomorrow’s” technology within broadcasting circles. While standards mostly were set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in the late 1980s and its technical feasibility was demonstrated decades ago when broadcasting was still in the age of analog transmissions, HDTV often was talked of as something that would only see the light of day in an elusive tomorrow. But receding costs in acquisition, production, transmission and distribution are helping HDTV finally come of age.

      The development and adoption of HDTV, in fact, has been hampered by exorbitant costs throughout the broadcasting chain. Excessive bandwidth requirements for signal transmission coupled with prohibitive manufacturing costs of broadcast technology such as cameras, studios and associated equipment, kept HDTV away from the world’s living rooms for years. Yet, the technology kept moving, albeit slowly, in early adopting countries such as Japan and the United States while also making important steps forward in more complicated environments such as Europe. Finally, after years of developments, there are now signs that HDTV might be on the verge of breaking into mainstream television markets in most developed countries.

      On the whole, there are signs that HDTV growth is picking up speed in all developed television markets, driven largely by competition from other forms of entertainment. “Television is under threat from other media such as Blu-ray discs that offer picture and sound quality well above that of traditional television analogue and digital transmissions,” says Klaus Weber, director of marketing for camera products at Grass Valley. “The Internet is also moving into HD. IPTV operators are launching HD programming and most of the movie trailers available today on the Internet are in HD. Even social media sites such as YouTube are going HD,” he says.

      In a way, all this was to be expected, as it is long overdue. Television has not really had a generational change since color standards were defined in the 1950s and 1960s. While there have been significant improvements since — such as the shift from analog to digital — the underlying broadcasting formats have not really changed.

      Perhaps this situation could have continued had the latest generation of digital media not fundamentally changed viewers’ expectations of home entertainment, and as a consumer-driven industry, TV needs to embrace state-of-the-art technology to deliver the latest visual effects that can catch the eye of a public. Yet, as in every situation, demand alone is not enough to have growth in the marketplace. A robust supply side should also be there to support production. So far, this has been the question hanging over HD: Is HD as a technology ready to support an extensive and reasonably priced content production side? Signs are that the industry might have reached that point.


      An Age of Transition

      An extensive sale of HD equipment, however, does not necessarily translate into HD transmissions and programming reaching the screen. In fact, it would be a mistake to overestimate the ease and speed of transition from SD to HD, as in most markets, the majority of the broadcasting infrastructure is still in SD and it will take years for it to be completely replaced. Several factors, however, come to help. Most equipment sold today has both HD and SD outputs modes, thus allowing for gradual replacement of equipment. For example, it is possible to replace SD cameras with HD ones without having to substitute other equipment such as studio components or outside broadcast vans. In other words, this means that HD equipment is actually still largely used in SD mode.

      “Content itself poses one of the largest challenges facing broadcasters as they migrate their operations to HD,” says Neil Maycock, chief marketing officer for Snell & Wilcox. “Realistically, they will have to work with content in both SD and HD content for years to come. Therefore, broadcasters will require solutions that will enable them to work efficiently in this hybrid environment and still produce the highest-quality output for the viewer.”

      While this analysis is widely shared within the industry, some make a point of distinguishing between different segments of the broadcasting sector. “It’s important to distinguish between contribution and distribution,” says Keith Dunford, vice president of Fujitsu’s video solutions group. “Television is an industry in transition, and in a year or two, acquisitions in markets such as the United States and Europe will be done entirely in more efficient AVC (H.264) HD encoding. Yet, in distribution this transition is not taking place at the same speed,” he says.

      Traditionally, pricing has been seen as a major factor hampering migration to HD, though some argue that while this was certainly true years ago, it is more of a misconception today. “As far as pricing is concerned, today HD is at levels that SD was around five years ago. But it should also be considered that SD has become quickly cheaper due to extensive competition and somewhat to falling demand,” says Dunford. “Had HD not hit the market, SD would have continued to be far more expensive than it is now. This has the effect of making HD appear to be more expensive than it actually is.”

      Several companies are making HD available in the marketplace, driving down the cost of equipment as well as of transmission and distribution. Not only are TV sets becoming cheaper, but cameras, compression and studio equipment and all associated technology, also are becoming more affordable. All this is quickly changing the market, making it possible for HD content to be produced remotely and transmitted to a studio for production. For the satellite industry, of course, this means that HD satellite newsgathering (SNG) and outside broadcast production is finally becoming a reality.


      No Longer Special

      In the past, the application of HD was largely limited to special events, in deployment that were often little less than trials. However, the broadcasting industry seems to have gone beyond the time of trials now. As costs have been reduced significantly on the contribution side, making it possible for HD equipment to be deployed and used extensively in the field, HD is now moving to more mainstream productions. Customer demand, of course, remains at the heart of these changes.

      “Today, watching remotes that are shot in HD on larger flat-panel TVs is an experience that consumers are demanding, and a complementary, superior audio experience is also expected, with more audio channels in use than ever and surround sound products no longer optional,” says Stan Moote, vice president of corporate development at Harris Corp.

      Interestingly, this service now is being delivered in a cost-effective manner. “While HD AVC encoding is seen as a complex technology and requires a bandwidth of 1530 megabits per second on the contribution side for high-grade video, some high-performance encoders have proven to be very adequate for short segment newsgathering at 5 to 6 megabits per second — the same bandwidth previously used for SD news. Performance and cost were an issue in the past,” says Fujitsu’s Dunford. “The Fujitsu IP-9500 AVC MPEG-4 encoder, for example, allows you to move from SD to HD with limited costs. A SD carrier needs 6.6 megahertz of bandwidth. It is now possible to replace SD with HD within same 6.6 megahertz. This means that operators can use the same infrastructure to transition from SD to HD, with a pay back time of six months to one year, even for small broadcasters,” he says.

      Technological advancements in signal compression and modulation, in fact, have resulted in systems supporting HD within the limits of SD broadcasting requirement. The result is a robust signal without degradation. “With demand for HD content growing exponentially, studios increasingly have to upgrade contribution links from SD to HD within the existing wireline or satellite bandwidth. Content owners and service providers alike also demand the highest quality possible, especially for major event coverage. For that reason I believe 2010 will be the year of 1080p,” says Arnaud Perrier, senior product marketing manager, encoders, Harmonic Inc.

      Major events, however, are still used as a springboard to mark the launch of HD transmission in a particular market. In Germany, for example, HD is set to be launched in February on the occasion of the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. The country’s two state channels, ZDF and ARD, will begin simulcasting the event’s coverage in SD and HD and will continue HD transmissions thereafter. Most German commercial broadcasters are set to follow their example in the following months. “In the beginning, not all content will be HD, Maybe 30 percent of the total will be in HD while the rest will be upconverted from SD,” says Dieter Hoeler of the Grass Valley Group. “However, as content in HD becomes the norm, this percentage is certainly set to increase.”


      Small is Getting Smaller

      The underlying industry transition from SD to HD also is having an impact upon the design of SNG vans. “The migration from SD to HD may be the last major format conversion we see in our industry, and without question it has had a tremendous impact on SNG operations,” says Maycock. “As the migration to HD progresses, SNG operations, in particular, play a large role in helping broadcasters manage the wide varieties of SD and HD formats that will continue to exist for some time. An SNG vehicle’s ability to manage and convert any format into high-quality HD output can create efficiencies that will impact the entire operation and help ensure the best-possible viewing experience for the audience,” he says.

      As HD cameras and lenses have decreased in size, the industry is producing technology to support lighter acquisition equipment. “We are seeing a trend of vans (and trucks) being outfitted with optical-enabled cross- and down-conversion products. Fiber-optics is being used to feed the vans directly, allowing for longer cable lengths than normally available with coax for higher HD data rates,” says Moote. “Production trucks are typically going 100 percent HD for internal switching and routing operations, with center-cut, down-conversion products delivering SD feeds when required. Cross-conversion equipment is a must for remotes, as both 720p and 1080i formats are in use.”

      As vans get smaller, smaller equipment that can be accommodated in reduced space also is appearing in the market. “Besides technology, the trend towards smaller OB vehicles can’t be ignored, and it’s clear that double up in the equipment racks is a good idea,” says Ashley Dove, product marketing director for Vislink News and Entertainment.


      An Opportunity

      As the sale of flat screen TVs picks up and viewers are getting used to high resolution media, many broadcasters around the world have been moving into HD. In this environment, the remaining broadcasters also do not seem to have much choice: To be in the first league they need to be in HD as their competitors. HD, however, is not just a catch up game for broadcasters. It’s also a great opportunity. Commercial broadcasters looking at HD for possible new source of revenues. Commercials in HD certainly look better, and broadcasters can justify charging their clients extra for airtime. They are also charging viewers extra for HD content, often in the form of higher rates.

      The coming of age of HD, however, is far more than a technological shift to a better broadcasting system. It also extends to companies’ position in the market, questioning their fundamentals. “The transition to HD is often an opportunity to rethink the entire organization from the top down. Before thinking equipment and video formats, it is always healthy to talk about how an organization is going to benefit from it business wise and quality wise,” says Raoul Cospen, director of marketing at Dalet.

      In fact, HD is challenging broadcasters forcing them to think of a future suddenly dawning on them. The ability to support a range of signal and file types and to integrate these formats seamlessly into existing operations already has become the status quo for many broadcasters. “At the same time, operators are looking to expand their capabilities to support new content delivery platforms such as mobile devices. Therefore, conversion solutions must focus on the ability to handle a wide range of formats from 3G to low resolution for mobile delivery,” says Maycock.

      The nature of broadcasting is such that it is forever attracted to cutting-edge technology, looking for the next big thing. However, as the industry is already turning its attention to what is expected to be the next big thing, i.e., 3-D HD, perhaps it would wiser for the moment to sit down and enjoy HD in our living rooms. As far as revolutions go, this is not a bad one to watch.

      Giovanni Verlini is a communication executive and freelance journalist based in Europe. Email: giovanniverlini@hotmail.

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