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CHAPTER ONE: NEW WAVE TV
"It has been said that television holds the promise of being the medium that can bring the peoples of far places emotionally face to face with one another's manners, customs and problems, and thereby make them understand that they are all essentially human."1
This chapter looks at the current movement of technological growth in media: the choices we have, the race for a new standard and the importance of new media on the media-makers themselves. There is a big commotion about a new kind of TV. But in the chaos there are issues that should be closely examined before a new standard is selected. Viewers' needs, the quality that is attainable and technological status are all aspects that need to be considered. Will a new standard render obsolete the existing production, transmission and reception devices? It has been hypothesized that the next television standard may be good enough and look good enough to wipe film off the face of the planet. These issues should be considered, but as usual, economics will be the prime determinant.
There are presently at least fourteen proposals for improved resolution television that have been submitted to the FCC for approval. At the most basic level these systems fall into two categories, those that are compatible and those that aren't, (compatible means that you don't have to go out and buy a new TV set to continue receiving the same quality image that you get now). To break it down a bit further, there are systems that are 1) incompatible with NTSC, 2) compatible with NTSC but requiring more than one 6-MHz channel, and 3) compatible with NTSC and using just one 6-MHz channel.2
The most widely known and only system that has actually made it to production is the Japan Broadcasting Corporation's (NHK) High-definition Television (HDTV), which began development around 1970. Although not originally intended as a production medium, it has acheived that status in Japan and the US. NHK's HDTV production standard has 1125 scanning lines per frame, 60 fields per second, 2:1 interlaced scanning and a 16:9 aspect ratio. This 1125-line HDTV, though incompatible with existing systems, is essentially an upgraded version of the present National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) broadcasting system.
TABLE 1- 189KB, "High-definition television update", R.K. Jurgen, IEEE Spectrum, (April, 1988)
Why the hurry to select a new standard? Most consumers are not knocking down walls to have ATV. Many of them haven't even heard of it yet. The answer is economics. "The first receiver to market will set the de facto standard." (W.F. Scheiber, M.I.T.)3 At its start, high-definition television (HDTV) was presented as the quantum leap to theatre quality video. However, on the road to theatre quality video, HDTV has hit a number of roadblocks. NHK had hoped to see their 1125-line system set a worldwide standard. But this will not happen. The Europeans voted against the incompatible system and have been developing their own version of ATV. It is probable that 35mm film will remain the only worldwide standard. Brenda Fox of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) states, "We're beyond the point of having a universal (television) standard. It's been dismissed."4 As for the United States, HDTV met with mixed reactions. Objections were based partly on fear of an economic monopoly by the Japanese. If the Sony 1125 HDTV does succeed, it could take over the American market causing major upheaval to the U.S. industry. Some fear that 1125-line sytem will take over first in the VCR and videodisc domain, and that consumers will be so enthralled by the quality of the image they will stop watching network television and the broadcasters will be out of work. Additionally, should NHK's 1125 HDTV become the new standard it would put all current equipment into obsolescence.
There are a few production houses worldwide that produce high-definition programs. At present this is a very expensive and unwieldy production method necessitating a down conversion (transfer) to the 525-line NTSC standard for transmission.
A lot of money is being spent in this race to make high quality television. NHK's HDTV, even with its pitfalls, is touted by many as the answer to our dreams in terms of picture quality. Some claim that it has much higher resolution than projected 35mm motion picture film, especially by the time the picture reaches our neighborhood theatre.5 But then maybe it's not a technical question of resolution but rather a question of aesthetics.
Should a new television standard be adopted, what will it mean to the media community? "In view of the large number of parties involved, and the overwhelmingly economic nature of their interests, it is clear that decisions about Advanced TV Systems (ATV) are mainly about jobs and money, and only marginally about beautiful pictures."6 It is time to look at the importance of aesthetics. Film director George Lucas was quoted by Variety as saying, "We're going in for a period of high quality theaters. There's going to be a bigger interest in good presentation. The whole issue of high resolution video and the whole video process and how a film is linked to them- I think eventually we will move into that realm. Video technology has really advanced over film technology in all areas except resolution."7 There is much talk of high definition video replacing film since, with all of the significant technological advances in video, film in comparison appears to be standing still. But perhaps the question isn't about whether one medium advances and one stands still. Perhaps the question is, "What kind of artistic and aesthetic forms will be created from these new developments in video?" Brenda Fox of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) said that in Washington, DC, a reverse trend is taking place. Big screen theatres are being built again because the public doesn't like the small screens.8 This indicates that aesthetics are indeed important to the viewing public.
Guiseppe Rotunno, ASC, was cinematographer on the first full length feature to originate in HDTV, Julia and Julia . He said he wanted to try something new. Ironically, or maybe not, he says he prefers the the transfer to film (which is how the film is being distributed for theatres) and not the tape.9 Harry Mathias, cinematographer of twenty years, reports that he is not an enemy of high definition but of short sighted solutions to it.10 Many people within the media industry are concerned that much is being sacrificed for short term goals. As one ABC engineer put it, "We figure that NTSC is an experiment and it hasn't finished yet." Consensus seems to be that HDTV will be great for special effects in the film industry. The effects are said to be of better quality than film, especially in multi-layer compositing, and to take less time, which in post production, equals money. Hollywood is not yet shaking in its boots for fear of being replaced by a new video technology. Speaking for the production community at large, veteran cinematographer Harry Mathias said, "I don't think that the marketplace is asking for HDTV right now...Everybody has an open mind at best."11
1"Historical Sketch of Televisions Progress", L.R. Lankes, SMPTE, 51 (1948), excerpted from A History of Motion Pictures and Television, edited by R. Fielding (U. of CA Press, 1967)
2"High-definition television update", R.K. Jurgen, IEEE Spectrum, (April, 1988)
3 M.I.T. Communications Forum, "The Politics of HDTV", April 21, 1988
4 M.I.T. Communications Forum, "The Politics of HDTV", April 21, 1988
5 "Resolution Requirements for HDTV: based upon the performance of 35mm motion picture films," A. Kaiser, H.W. Mahler, and R.H. McMann, Television: Journal of the Royal Television Society, (April 1985)
6 "Advanced Television Systems for the United States: Getting There from Here", W.F. Shcreiber, April 1988
7 "HDTV: The Sharper Image," Christine Bunish, In Motion
8 M.I.T. Communications Forum, "The Politics of HDTV", April 21, 1988
9 "HDTV: The Artists Speak", N. Lee, p85, American Cinematographer, (September, 1987)
10 "Interview From Hollywood", HDTV Newsletter, 2, #4, p22 (Advanced Television Publishing, 1987)
11 "Interview From Hollywood", HDTV Newsletter, 2, #4, p22 (Advanced Television Publishing, 1987)
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