Idaho Enters the High-Def TV World

It changes work, viewing, even makeup

By Joan Cartan-Hansen

Your old television set is a 4 by 3, 525-line marvel.  The screen is a basically a square. The quality of the picture and the sound has been acceptable, and the system of broadcasting an analog signal to a basic television worked well for decades.  However, this technology wasn’t perfect.  If you made the picture bigger, it lost detail. The quality of analog television’s audio was limited, and widescreen movies just didn’t fit. In order to see a Hollywood blockbuster properly on a basic analog TV, the film had to be letterboxed. But for most viewers, basic TV was just fine.

However, broadcast station owners thought analog television had another, more expensive flaw. Because an analog signal took up so much space on the spectrum, broadcasters had only one channel per market, one pipe if you will, to spit out their programming.  Remember, the frequency spectrum allocated for television signals is limited, highly coveted and very valuable.  So researchers started looking for other options.

In the 1990s, the Japanese developed the first commercial high definition television. This technology was digital.  Its televisions had a 16 by 9 aspect ratio and the picture was made up of 1,080 lines.  High Def television produced jaw-dropping quality video and better than CD quality sound.  The widescreen aspect ratio eliminated the need for letterboxing and you could blow the picture up to wall size and still have amazing detail.  In addition, a digital signal can be broken into multiple program streams, all in the space of a single channel.  It’s called multi-casting.  Now a true High Def signal has a lot of data, so it still takes up most of the space allocated to a channel.  But with the right technology, broadcasters can still send out a High Def channel and a couple of other SD or Standard Def channels.

Now, I could spend another week explaining the difference between SD and HD, 1080i vs. 1080p and up-converted vs. down-converted signals. But it is so complicated that I won’t do it here. Just accept that all futurists said this new High Def technology was television’s future, if we only had the courage to change.
But nobody jumped, at least not at first.  Converting to DTV, that is Digital Television, meant a huge financial commitment.  Just about everything at a station, from the transmitters to the control rooms to the cameras to the sets would have to be changed in order to deliver a High Def product. It also meant all of the viewing public would have to either buy new digital televisions or obtain converter boxes for their old analog sets in order to receive this new signal.

So considering the cost and inconvenience, why would Congress and the president vote to force everybody to convert to DTV?  They saw it as a win-win situation.  Broadcasters would get up to six channels where they now had just one and could get all that extra revenue. Viewers would get a fantastic picture and lots more choices. And to ease the pain for the individual television viewer, the government said it would provide citizens with coupons to cover the majority of the cost of converter boxes for their old analog televisions.   But here’s what I think clinched the deal. The government would get a lot of revenue from selling off the old analog spectrum space. So in 1997, Congress and President Bill Clinton passed legislation requiring broadcasters to shut off all analog television transmitters and go DTV by February 17, 2009.

Making the Change
Idaho Public Television was the first station in the state to produce and broadcast locally produced High Def programs. The timing was right for us to make the change. Our production switcher was purchased in 1976 and engineers now had a hard time finding replacement parts. So thanks to the good graces of the State of Idaho and viewers like you, we started changing over to High Def.  It wasn’t just a change of technology.  Moving to High Def meant we in production had to change how we did our jobs.  We built new sets designed for the wider screen.  We had to change lighting plans.  We bought new HD field cameras and editing bays, and in the process, discovered everything High Def costs more.

We were lucky in one respect.  Our talented videographers have been shooting widescreen (16 by 9) for a few years, but with High Def, they still had to re-think how they shot a scene, how they lit things.  The sheer quality and detail of the picture was a whole new reality.  Among other things, we found we could no longer get away with using burlap as a set background anymore.  Viewers can tell if the table is wood or just veneer. They can see the seam in the curtain.  Heck, they can see the dust on the curtain in High Def.  The new saying around our shop is: What you see is what the audience gets.

And because we don’t yet shoot everything in High Def, editing has become more complicated. When we edit, we sometimes draw from six different tape formats (eight if we have to go into the ¾ inch and 1 inch archival stock).   And not every tape machine takes every format, so our editors are constantly running around the building, routing video. And because we are lucky enough to have a wonderful library of archive tapes, we often have to deal with the difference in the aspect ratio.  The 4 by 3 video didn’t just go away.  So to make the 4 by 3 footage work in a 16 by 9 world, we first up-convert it to HD, then we either stretch it from top to bottom or pillar-box it.  Yes, that’s what they call keeping the original 4 by 3 aspect ratio and then either putting black or a graphic material on the right and left sides. We do all this stretching and pillar-ing so people or animals or whatever in the old 4 by 3 video don’t look shorter or wider.

Today, when we finish editing most of our shows, we output it in High Def for air. But, and this is a big but, until Feb. 17, 2009, all our locally produced shows also air on our regular analog service.  Master control operators have to down-convert and letterbox a version of every local program for the analog channels.  And while this isn’t a discussion about how the Web has changed what we do, I will mention that we also output a version of most of our programs to MP-4 for video IPODs, MP-3 audio-only files, three sizes of Windows Media files and will eventually output 3GPP files.

So how has High Def specifically changed my job?
It hasn’t changed the basics. I still need to start with a good story. I need to write to my pictures. I need to be a good reporter and do my homework. But when I first stepped before the new High Def cameras, a cold driving fear crept into my soul. Well, OK, it wasn’t quite that bad, but moving to High Def was definitely intimidating. I have to make sure my programs work well on a 52-inch High Def television and a three-inch cell phone screen. I do try to think twice before spending another couple extra thousand dollars on HD tape stock. I need to plan for more editing time and I need to deal with the consequences of what viewers will see in this amazingly clear and detailed picture.  And I personally now spend more time thinking about makeup than I used to. It is not that I am vain, but after the Press savaged Cameron Diaz following her first appearance on High Def, I figured I wouldn’t stand a chance without some help. So I volunteered to learn about High Def and makeup.

In the old analog world, on-camera talent used a foundation and powder and a slightly heavier hand with their makeup.  If you didn’t, and I mean this for both men and women, you would look pale, even ill.  But High Def cameras are so detailed that if you wore traditional television makeup, your viewers would actually see the granules of powder sitting on your skin. One anchor in Seattle said she cried after she went on her first High Def broadcast. Fortunately I have a boss who occasionally appears on camera and understood this dilemma. He agreed to bring in a High Def makeup expert to help our on-camera talent make the transition.

Where do we go from here?
While we have a year or so of experience producing and broadcasting in High Def, we here at Idaho Public Television are by no means unafraid. Idaho Public Television has a higher percentage of viewers who watch via an over-the-air signal than stations in other parts of the nation.  We pray people will get their converter boxes in time.  We hope satellite and cable companies will decide to carry our High Def broadcast signal after Feb. 17, 2009.  Right now, that’s not certain. Survival in this new world means change.  It is all a work-in-progress, kind of like High Def itself.  At the last big electronic show, researchers showed off the next big breakthrough: Ultra High Def!

Joan Cartan-Hansen is a producer, reporter and writer for Idaho Public Television. A former Press Club president, she is the current treasurer of the board for the Idaho Press Club.

High-definition TV facts

  • According to Nielsen figures, about 417,000 Idahoans could lose their local (over-the air) television service on Feb. 17, 2009.
  • Consumer Reports found 64 percent of its respondents were aware of the digital transition, but 74 percent had “major misconceptions” about what it actually involved.
  • 24 percent of respondents believed they would need to throw out all of their analog TV sets after February 2009.
  • If you have cable, you don’t need a converter box for your televisions so long as your cable system picks up your local stations’ DTV services.
  • If you have a satellite service, you might or might not get local stations after Feb. 17, 2009 depending upon if your service decides to carry the signals.
  • Where do you get your coupon for your digital converter box? Remember, you may need a converter box for each television in your house. Go to for an application.