FUTURE TV: THE BIG PICTURE

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Barry Rebo is a patient man. Rebo, the founder of New York-based Rebo Studio, North America's first high-definition television production company, has been in the HDTV business since the Reagan years, a simpler time when communists were still scary and the networks didn't take Fox too seriously.

In 1986, Rebo bought the first Sony HD camera and editing package and seemed poised for the high-def revolution. And then came the Bush years, the Clinton years, and more Clinton years. Some revolutions, it appears, occur at a glacial pace.

Running a hand over his stubble -- now including a shade of gray, befitting a television pioneer -- Rebo patiently explains why he still believes high-def is going to happen, and soon -- a confidence that, for the first time, the government, broadcasters, TV manufacturers and even advertisers are beginning to share.

"The global trend is toward wide-screen, high-resolution television," says Rebo. "Nothing is going to stop that trend. And, by the year 2000, we'll see specialized high-def programming services broadcasting within the digital mix."

This November, in fact, a handful of stations in the top 10 markets are scheduled to begin broadcasting a digital signal alongside their analog NTSC signal. HD programming is now only a few small steps away. Offering twice the resolution of current broadcast signals (1,125 lines of resolution vs. 525), HD produces a picture quality about four times as sharp as traditional TV, and renders colors clearer and truer than ever before. HD also changes the size of the picture. Instead of the 4:3 'square' dimensions of today's box, HD sets display a 16:9 widescreen format and offer six-channel Dolby surround sound.

Though the terms are often interchanged, Digital TV and HDTV are not synonymous. DTV is simply the type of broadcast signal -- digital -- while HD refers to one of many possible content formats -- in this case, widescreen, super high-res. Think of the digital format as the raw materials of the signal. HD, on the other hand, is one of many possible end products. The digital signal can actually be configured for a variety of content venues: HDTV, standard TV, even simply a stock ticker.

When DTV debuts later this year, for instance, most of the content will be not be HD, but simply standard-definition programming broadcast via a digital signal. Pundits like broadcast engineer and HDTV guru Mark Schubin are careful to point out that "there is no government requirement, whether by law or regulation, for any station to ever transmit any HDTV at any time." Networks could choose to use the improved compression capabilities of a digital signal to broadcast four channels of SDTV, rather than just one of HD. Still, most expect at least some HD programming and are starting to get ready for the new format.

So, what does all of this mean for the advertising world? In the short term, not much will change, says Dean Winkler, president of Post Perfect, a premier production house in New York. DTV presents nothing but a clearer picture and better sound. High-def, on the other hand, with the 16:9 aspect ratio, offers a whole new set of challenges and opportunities. Since most spots are shot on 35mm film, already a high-def medium, shooting for the widescreen will introduce the biggest change to most directors and production companies.

Some believe that will be the harbinger of an entirely different high-def aesthetic: less MTV, more Ingmar Bergman. "The way TV is now, we go to great lengths to hold viewers' attention," says David Perry, director of broadcast production at Saatchi & Saatchi/New York. "HD is a very different medium. The screen is a third wider. More horizontal space will enable us to tell stories with less camera movement, without having to constantly cut back and forth."

Though most agree that 35mm is a great and economical high-def medium that will continue to dominate commercial work, some are experimenting with HD video. Procter & Gamble, working with Saatchi & Saatchi/New York and Rhinoceros Editorial & Post, also in the Big Apple, just finished one of the first spots originated on high-def video, for its Mountain Spring Fragrance Tide with bleach brand.

The spot, which was also downconverted to run as a standard-def commercial, was designed to take full advantage of the power of the medium, says James Gosney, associate director of commercial production at P&G. "With the wider screen, the outdoors, the snow-capped mountains and pine trees are a lot more interesting with the depth of HD," he says.

While production won't change too much, post-production is a whole different animal. Much to the chagrin of nearly all involved, the FCC chose to let broadcasters determine their own formats, rather than set an industry standard. Surprise: the networks couldn't agree. Spots, then, will have to be finished as a standard 4:3 version as well as a 16:9 HD version in potentially up to 18 different formats. Call it a high-def jam.

The main formats being considered are 1,080-line interlaced (CBS & NBC), 720-line progressive (ABC) and 480-line progressive (Fox). For the intrepid, interlacing refers to the process of slicing the transmission signal into even and odd halves before sending it from the broadcast tower. TV sets then recombine the halves to transmit a complete frame. Progressive, the system used by computer monitors, refers to the scanning method in which every line is sequential. That uses more bandwidth but generally produces a better picture.

Until broadcasters decide to work with a standard format, advertisers will have to finish a variety of versions. Post houses have developed a workable solution for the format issue. "If we prepare a resolution-independent master at the highest resolution possible, we can then create masters for all the different formats -- theaters, PAL, NTSC and on and on," says Ron Heidt, digital effects supervisor at Crawford Communications in Atlanta. "The color correction is better, even the standard master comes out better."

As for reformatting existing spots, some of the options, none ideal, are to go back to the film master and pan-and-scan a widescreen version, or create a letterbox, blocking the top and bottom portions of the screen, or simply stretch the 4:3 version across the widescreen. "We've transferred lots of spots," says Tim Spitzer, director of high-definition and data services at The Tape House in New York. "There is very little difference for the most part. All worked and most held up phenomenally."

With HD beginning to move onto the advertiser and agency agenda, however reluctantly, high-def pioneer Barry Rebo is beginning to feel that his patience may just pay off after all. "I think people will be astounded," he says, waxing optimistic about the impact of high-def. "TV is that communal fire. It's not

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