Tuning into HD
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 2 (Feb 2005)

Tuning into HD

If you were one of the lucky few who owned a high-definition television a couple of years ago, you no doubt experienced some frustration over the limited number of programs available that could take advantage of your TV’s prodigious pixel power.

Back then, it was clear that HDTV was on the rise. Some 40 network television shows and a smattering of sports and special events were being shot and si-mulcast in HD, cable networks such as HBO and Showtime were broadcasting some movies in HD, and a few pioneers like HDNet and the Discovery Channel HD were supplying high-def content.

The supply was large enough to make industry pundits optimistic about the future of HDTV. But it wasn’t necessarily large enough to make HD viewers feel as though they were getting the full value of their investment. And, since the size of the HD audience numbered just over a couple hundred thousand, some wondered if the industry was facing a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Would the amount of HD programming have to increase before more consumers bought HD TVs? Or would more consumers have to buy HD TVs before the television industry would invest in more HD programming?

Today, some 24 months later, the happy reality is that the numbers on both sides of the equation have increased dramatically. According to Aditya Kishore, senior media and entertainment analyst at Boston-based research firm The Yankee Group, more than 12.1 million homes in the US were projected to have an HD monitor by the end of 2004. “That’s a substantial number,” he notes. “It’s not quite a mass market, but it’s starting to reach critical mass.” Looking ahead, Kishore projects that the number will grow to 59.3 million by 2008.

Meanwhile, the number of hours of HD programming has exploded as well. Today, says Kishore, the majority of prime-time programming on the top three networks is now being simulcast in HD. Most sporting events and concerts are now offered in HD, and in September, the fourth network, Fox, jumped into the high-def waters with its HD simulcast of the Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series.

“But the big change in the past 18 months or so has been the number of cable networks offering HD,” says Kishore. “Discovery, HBO, and Showtime were early pioneers, but now ESPN, Starz, Bravo, TNT, and Comcast SportsNet are all following suit. And USA Network and A&E Television Networks are developing HD content as well.”

Even Mark Cuban’s HDNet, which built its success on being the first all-HD television network, has found itself facing some stiff competition, most notably from VOOM, a new satellite television service developed by Cablevision Systems through its Rainbow DBS division. This new 130-channel satellite television service includes 39 HD channels, 21 of which are exclusive to VOOM. The 39 channels provide both movie and non-movie programming, and there’s even an HDNews channel that delivers 24/7 news, sports, weather, and more in the 1080i HD format.

In March, the company says it will dramatically increase its number of channels to 350, with 70 of those scheduled to be devoted to HD programming.

“We’ve clearly seen an increase in the adoption of HD this past year by all types of industry people,” says Kishore. “We’re seeing investment in HD from cable and satellite operators, the networks, and the broadcast stations. Pretty much across the board people have accepted that HD is coming, and they are looking for ways to get in front of the wave.”

Perhaps no company’s experience better epitomizes the recent explosion in HD programming than that of ESPN. Last month’s launch of ESPN2 HD capped a spectacular 22 months for the company, during which it not only launched two HD sports services but also opened the doors of a new, state-of-the-art, 120,000-square-foot Digital Center located on ESPN’s campus headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. The center is one of the most technically sophisticated HD facilities in the world, and with its opening, ESPN instantly became one of the television industry’s most visible leaders in the ongoing transition to high-definition video.

In announcing the launch of its first HD sports service, ESPN HD, back in April 2003, ESPN president George Bodenheimer called sports a key driver of HDTV technology and promised that ESPN would be making “a significant commitment to spur the growth of high-definition television.”
ESPN’s HD SkyCam (left) is one of the many HD cameras ESPN uses when shooting live events, such as this NFL game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos (below).

It was no idle promise. Last March, the Academy of Digital Television Pioneers presented ESPN HD a 2003 Award of Distinction for its contribution to the cause of HDTV, and in 2004, ESPN HD delivered more than 185 originally produced events in HD. Now, with the launch of ESPN2 HD, the company says it will be able to provide viewers with more than 2000 originally produced programs in 2005, which will add up to more than 6000 hours of HD programming, all of which will be delivered in the 720p HD format.

The thing that makes it all possible is the new ESPN Digital Center, which is the world’s first fully tapeless, integrated digital HD production facility of such magnitude. “Since 1979, we’ve primarily been a videotape house,” explains Chuck Pagano, ESPN senior vice president of technology and engineering operations. “Our original facility had somewhere north of 600 videotape machines, which we used to record all our feeds from sporting events around the world. We recorded everything on tape, edited on tape, and then dubbed it over if we needed to repurpose it on different outlets.”

In contrast, Pagano says, the new Digital Center, which is about double the size of the old facility, has only 35 videotape machines. Now everything is recorded to 68 Quantel sQ digital video servers, and each video file is associated with metadata, such as team names, dates, times, and rosters. Those files then become instantly available via the facility’s high-speed 100Gb/sec network to editors throughout the facility equipped with Quantel editing and viewing stations. Once edited, the files are then shipped back to the servers, where they can be played out directly to the control rooms.

“This is an enormous change for us because we are really changing the way we do our production work flow internally. And given the tonnage we deal with, that’s a major undertaking,” says Pagano. “Because many people can have access to a file at the same time, we are going to be able to collaborate better, which is going to lead to better storytelling. It’ll be easier for people to customize a clip for their particular need, and we’ll be able to repurpose video clips without having to do dubs. We’ll also be able to get stories to air faster.”

As of press time, only two of the three studios that will occupy the Digital Center were completed, but those are already being used to broadcast various ESPN shows, such as SportsCenter and NFL Countdown. And like the center itself, the studios are masterpieces of technology.
In June, SportsCenter became the first program to be broadcast from ESPN’s new 120,000-square-foot Digital Center. This fully integrated, tapeless, digital HD production facility represents a huge step along the HD path for ESPN and the television i

The 5000-square-foot SportsCenter studio, for example, contains 13 Barco projectors and 11 plasma and LCD panels for effects, video projections, and over-the-shoulder shots. The floor of the studio, which was built with the help of Disney Imagineering, was designed so that light could shoot up through the panels to create a variety of special effects. And behind the anchor desk sits a wall of privacy glass, which can be turned instantly transparent, translucent, or opaque. The high-tech glass can be used to dramatically change the look of the set or serve as a background for graphics and animations created with VizRT software and Pinnacle Deko3000 HD character generator.

“We do some really neat effects with the glass,” enthuses Pagano. “We can do a lot more with it than we could just using chroma-key technology. And it’s not a virtual effect. It’s sitting right there on the stage.”

According to Pagano, the ability to easily convert between HD and SD formats, and to output both simultaneously, were key factors in selecting the Quantel servers. “We don’t have to edit twice, once in SD format and once in HD format,” says Pagano. “We shoot in HD, and we store in HD. The only thing we have to do when we shoot in HD is protect the center of the frame for the 4:3 format so that we’ll be safe when the signal is down-converted.”
The new HD production capabilities that ESPN has built into its new Digital Center are based on the unique Resolution Transparency capabilities of Quantel’s sQ Server.

This ability is something Quantel calls Resolution Transparency, and it’s a technology that the company unveiled just this past year. “Resolution Transparency allows SD and HD pictures to be mixed at will within the server,” says Quantel broadcast marketing manager Norma Rouse. “SD is up-rezzed on the fly for HD playout, and HD is down-rezzed on the fly for SD. The net result is that Resolution Transparency removes all the potential hassles of the multiresolution world.” The success of the ESPN implementation, Rouse adds, is generating enormous interest in HD among other sports broadcasters around the world.

Also expected to drive HD production in the television community is Avid Technology, which has long been a dominant force in TV production. In fact, many of Avid’s customers have already made the move to HD, and just this past October, the company announced that 28 television shows for the 2004-2005 season were finished in HD using its Avid DS Nitris system. That figure represents a 40-percent increase over the number of programs created with the DS family in the previous season.

Avid user Bill Watt, executive vice president of operations for Modern VideoFilm, a Burbank, California, postproduction house, also has seen an increased interest in HD on TV, noting that while only a third of the prime-time shows the group had worked on in 2003 were finished in HD, that figure jumped to nearly 90 percent in 2004. Among those are Desperate Housewives, Joey, Malcolm in the Middle, and Joan of Arcadia, all of which are simulcast in HD.

But as popular as HD has become, Avid believes that its new DNxHD 10-bit encoding technology will boost HD adoption even further. The big advantage that DNxHD brings to the table is its ability to create smaller file sizes that require less storage and can be moved easily over networks that have a lower bandwidth.
This NLE production suite at ModernVideo Film includes an Avid DS Nitris system, which the company uses for HD postproduction work. The facility has seen a big increase in the demand for HD services in the past 14 months.

Until now, explains Alan Hoff, director of post product management at Avid, many people have wanted to work exclusively with an uncompressed HD format because of the quality of the imagery. The problem, however, is that there is a lot of overhead associated with uncompressed HD. “It creates a huge amount of data to work with,” he says, “so you have to invest heavily in storage and expensive networks.”

DNxHD is designed to solve that problem. Whereas uncompressed HD media has bandwidth requirements of nearly 1.2Gb/sec, Avid DNxHD requires only 220Mb/sec. And it is capable of supporting 720p resolution at 60 frames per second (fps) as well as 1080p/i at 30, 25, and 24 fps.

“We designed DNxHD to work on Ethernet,” says David Schleifer, vice president of broadcast and work groups at Avid. “This way, you don’t have to tie your facility together with expensive fiber-channel networking. You can just tie in with Gigabit Ethernet. In addition, you can store a movie using just 100GB or 120GB of storage rather than having to use terabytes of storage.” What that means, Schleifer adds, is that DNxHD is not only going to make HD production more affordable, it is also going to enable people to work more collaboratively in a distributed work flow because file size no longer presents an obstacle to sharing data.

According to Hoff, DNxHD holds up to multiple generations and iterations in postproduction. “It was developed as a 4:2:2, 10-bit or 8-bit, full-raster format, so people would not be able to distinguish between uncompressed HD quality and DNxHD quality.”

Since its introduction in April, the DNxHD codec has gained in popularity, according to Avid. In fact, postproduction teams used the technology while working on Fox’s Casino and ABC’s The Benefactor-the first two prime-time reality television shows to be aired in HD.

“Reality shows generate almost twice the amount of footage as a typical drama, making both the storage-requirement space and the cost prohibitive,” says Bill Admans, senior finishing editor at Matchframe Video, which served as the post facility for The Benefactor. “The image quality of DNxHD is ideal for the high-end finishing work-such as color correction and motion-tracked blurring-that we did for the show. Yet its bandwidth was low enough to enable us to keep five episodes in various stages of production at the same time.”

As you’d expect, transitioning from SD to HD production comes with its share of challenges. On the acquisition front, videographers need to master the art of shooting in 16:9 while protecting the middle of the frame for 4:3. They also need to adjust to HD’s narrower depth of field, and take into account changes in lighting that are needed in order to accommodate the increasing importance that color correction plays in HD.

On the postproduction side, there can be a greater need for retouching because of HD’s increased clarity. And if you’ve never worked with 24p frame rates before-or worked with original footage that contains multiple frame rates-there are technical issues you’ll need to be aware of.

Despite those challenges, one of the most surprising comments coming from those who’ve already made the transition is that making the switch from SD to HD is not as harrowing an experience as many people expect. ESPN’s Pagano, for example, notes that the biggest challenge is simply getting familiar with the features of the new equipment and getting comfortable with new ways of working. “It’s the little things that you deal with every day,” he says, “like when you are looking for a file on your computer. You know it’s in there somewhere, but you don’t know where it is. With videotape, you have a tangible piece of tape to hold onto. So getting the tools to help you, making sure you know where things are, and managing your resources have been among the more time-consuming challenges.”

Jerry Steinberg, vice president of field operations for Fox, is similarly understated about making the HD transition, saying one of the great lessons he’s learned is that people shouldn’t make too much of it. “There can be a lot of anxiety connected with doing something new, but it’s really just a matter of getting used to the equipment,” he says. “As the smoke clears and the anxiety goes away, you realize that basically you are still just doing television. You are just moving around more pixels.”
Some 28 TV shows for the 2004-05 season were finished in HD using the Avid DS Nitris system. That represents a 40-percent increase in the number of programs created with the DS family during the previous season.

That certainly has to be comforting news to those in the television industry who have yet to make the move to HD, as well as to the rapidly swelling ranks of HDTV viewers who are eagerly awaiting the day when every television program can be viewed in full HD glory.

Stephen Porter is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and a freelance writer who covers video, graphics, and digital content creation technologies and applications. He can be reached at sporter@gsinet.net.