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HDTV Gone Today, Here Tomorrow?

It's ready aim, aim, aim, aim... all over again By Charlie White
Is anybody eager to dive into HDTV? As I read the tea leaves, there are signs pointing to an onslaught of HDTV in the near future. But there are a few details that could trip it up, at least slow it down a little, so this isn't a sure thing that'll be happening by next week by any means. But I'm rooting for HD, and look forward to working with it on a regular basis. Paradoxically, whenever HDTV becomes the rule rather than the exception, I know there will be some of us who long for the comfortable old shoes that are standard definition video, our old pals PAL and NTSC.

When the prospect of HDTV in every edit suite comes to mind, we've been in ready, aim, aim, aim, aim... mode for the past four years or more. Yet now I'm seeing signs that something is actually starting to move forward. Starting just before NAB in April, 2002, FCC Chairman Powell goosed broadcasters -- not really busting them for not getting HDTV together soon enough -- but urging them to roll out DTV and stop shirking deadlines. After all, the government did give an extra frequency to these TVcasters a few years ago, and expects some action, sometime. More encouragingly, the FCC, just this past week, took a couple of extra steps in the right direction as well, in two separate actions. One requires that most TV sets contain a DTV tuner by 2007, another demands pirate-proof digital television. All of these are positive signs, but are mainly DTV (Digital Television) urgings, not HDTV.

Even so, once the digital foot is in the door of US households, HDTV can't be far behind. One aspect of the HDTV acceptance conundrum that looked like it was going to be a bone of contention for a long time was price-gouging on the part of HDTV set manufacturers. As a barometer of the progress of the TV set side of the HDTV equation, I take a look at the Best Buy and Circuit City ad inserts in each Sunday newspaper, and I regularly notice the prices for HDTV sets steadily declining. Just last weekend, I noticed an HDTV set on sale out here on the lonesome, wind-swept prairie for $899. As another gauge of HDTV's eminent domain, I think of my own personal timetable for HDTV, which will put any HDTV purchase on hold until there is a reasonably priced HD TiVo-like recorder and HD-DVD player available. That's going to take at least another year. The other two parts of my HDTV trip-wire are already in place: Enough content available over satellite (cable is still dragging its collective feet), and the aforementioned reasonably-priced HDTV monitors. Both of these latter categories could stand some improvement, but are getting close to viability.

The sticking points of HDTV proliferation are still like Super Glue, though. For example, the FCC talks about anti-piracy measures for all flavors of DTV, "broadcast flags" that can allow program providers to control what happens to their content. In theory, that sounds like a good idea, but hackers will crack whatever scheme they dream up, and users will cry foul when they can't even record a newscast to play back later. The plan involves putting these copy detection devices into all new TV sets and audio/video equipment. If this harebrained scheme is implemented, I picture a world where TV sets and computers equipped with the new protection devices don't sell at all. Years later, the resulting landscape of ancient TVs and computers would resemble the streets of Havana today, teeming with 50s-era cars held together with chewing gum, Scotch tape and bailing wire. I don't think the electronics and computer manufacturers would stand for that goofy scenario for a single minute. But the deadlock will continue until that illusive solution to this piracy paranoia is found. It's going to take a bullet-proof digital rights management scheme to quell content creators' nearly-universal horror at the prospect of digital buccaneers cranking out perfect copies of their valuable content, and then distributing those pristine digital programs far and wide without any copy protection (or profits for the creators) whatsoever.

But the bright spot for us digital video editors: The major television networks leading the way with HDTV programming. With CBS and ABC now broadcasting all their prime time comedies and dramas in HD, and NBC catching up with 10 prime time HD productions this fall, there's actually some programming potentially available, if only there were someone out there who could receive it. I had to laugh the other day when I heard a local broadcaster talking about how there are so few takers of his HDTV signal, he knows each viewer on a first-name basis. But it's getting nearer to the point where all the networks will be producing the vast majority of their programming in HD, while still easily dumbing down the programs to standard definition until the old-fashioned way of doing things is dead. The next step is getting cable and satellite providers, as well as broadcasters, to pass through all of these bandwidth-hogging signals. The HD bandwagon is starting to roll, though, and soon viewers will be able to receive a plethora of HD in lots of different forms wherever they are.

So, if you're editing material for the networks, or aspire to, HDTV is in your near-future, if it isn't front and center already. The unfortunate aspect of this is that going HD will seem like a step backward for editors who are basking in the awesome power of cheapo DV, where multiple layers of real time effects can be manipulated with the greatest of ease. With a changeover to HD, these halcyon days will be gone. The obvious advantage of standard definition editing is its rock-bottom cost of entry. If you have a pretty good computer, a DV camcorder and some software, you're in, with full broadcast quality. It's easy -- just add talent. That's why, at this point, so many erstwhile high-end edit gear purveyors are in such dire financial straits, laying off employees left and right. Nobody wants to pay a zillion dollars for video quality similar to that which you can easily obtain down at the local Wal-Mart. On the other hand, maybe the coming onslaught of HDTV will be these big-ticket digi-vid purveyors' salvation. If they last that long.

Beginning two years ago, when budgeting my cooking series in preparation for pitch sessions to prospective underwriters (translated: begging for money), I would regularly spec-out the costs of producing the shows in HD. My pitch was that the shows would have greater shelf life, and those succulent French sauces and steaming, mouth-watering gourmet concoctions would be even more so under the precise and super-sharp eye of HD. But then I gave up on all that, because every time I started pitching the HD concept, the money bags and bean counters would balk. Nobody wanted to pay an arm and a leg to be the first kid on the block with a new toy that hadn't even generated much excitement yet. Nobody was willing to be the forward-looking visionary in the circles where I ply my wares. However, now I'm considering adding the HD pitch back into the routine. Maybe this time, HD really is right over that horizon, around that next corner. I'm rooting for it. Are you?

Charlie White, your humble storytellerCharlie White has been writing about new media and digital video since it was the laughingstock of the television industry. A technology journalist and columnist for the past eight years, White is also an Emmy-winning producer, video editor and shot-calling PBS TV director with 28 years broadcast experience. Talk back -- Send Chazz a note at [email protected].

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