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TV industry frets over high definition

High-definition gear doesn't come cheap. And that's just one of the things clouding the HD picture for broadcasters.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

LAS VEGAS--Just like consumers, TV broadcasters are worried about the costs of high-definition television.

Shoppers may only have to sweat over the $1,500 price tag of a 32-inch LCD (liquid crystal display) TV set. Smallish production companies and independent TV stations, on the other hand, are fretting over HD cameras that can set them back $80,000.

The federal government's requirement that broadcasters move to digital TV signals within three years had scores of tiny production houses, public broadcasting stations and university communications departments pacing the aisles at the National Association of Broadcasters 2006 electronics media conference here this week. They attended the event with an eye toward investing in new HD equipment or finding a way to put off upgrading for another year.

Meanwhile, the companies--such as Sony, Avid and Apple Computer--that provide digital tools to the TV production industry are trying to ease old-school TV executives into high definition by offering low prices on equipment and software that's compatible with older models and formats. Nonetheless, broadcasters say it's hard to form an HD strategy when there are still so many questions about technology, price and the public's desire for HD content.

"There are 140,000 people here, and they're all trying to figure out how to get HD-ready," said Scott Jacobs, general manager of VideoDailies, a Chicago-based start-up that specializes in digitizing videotape overnight. "What we have is lots of options and alternatives but no clear path."

Unlike the public, TV stations can't wait forever to make a decision about HD.

Last February, President Bush signed into law a requirement that all over-the-air broadcasters must switch from transmitting analog TV signals to digital TV by Feb. 17, 2009. That deadline has rattled big-time network chiefs as well as administrators from small production companies.

A digital signal has the potential to be much clearer than analog, whether it's received via cable or over the air. High-definition television (HDTV) offers the highest resolution available, above standard-definition and enhanced-definition TV.

"The public wants this, and we're going to be ready."
--Bill Burson, Georgia Public Broadcasting IT department

After decades of using analog, the switch to digital prompted Bill Burson, assistant director of information technology for Georgia Public Broadcasting, to attend his first NAB conference since 1997.

Burson said his group, which represents nine viewer-supported TV stations, is moving forward with a plan to spend $32 million within the next two years to convert to HD. "I knew it was time when I started seeing high-definition televisions in Wal-Mart," Burson said. "The public wants this, and we're going to be ready."

Taking a slower approach to HD is the University of Tennessee. Brad Prosise, post-production specialist and videographer at the school's Video and Photography Center, traveled here this week on a fact-finding mission for the video program and the school's football team.

Typically one of the nation's powerhouse football programs, Tennessee is concerned that ESPN and other sports broadcasters will begin requesting high-definition footage of the Volunteers and there won't be any, Prosise said.

The school is also considering an overhaul of its 10-employee production studio. Working within the video and photography program, the studio is designed to train students in video broadcast but is also a for-hire business that has tackled productions worth $100,000, Prosise said.

"Training broadcast students to work in HD is vital," he said.

Holding back on HD
But not everybody is embracing high definition.

"We're just not getting any calls for HD," said Scott Herrick, director of videography at Vital Video Production Group. "We're still working with (videotape). I don't think the business is going to move over until the public does, and I just don't see it happening."

Herrick said he couldn't justify paying for a top-quality HD camera with such little demand for content. Headquartered in Cleveland, Vital Video works mainly for hospitals that need training videos. He isn't worried if the market switches quickly. Should a customer ever request HD, that person can rent a camera from one of the professional camera shops in Los Angeles, he said.

"Until Joe Public is interested, I don't know that we're going to do a thing with HD," Herrick said.

Avid, one of the biggest names in editing tools, wants to make the jump to HD easier. The company offers steep discounts to universities that wish to give their students instructions in the latest products from the company.

Patrick McLean, Avid's senior product manager, said the Xpress Pro software, which allows people to edit on standard or high definition (on both Macintosh or Windows) is priced for independent videographers and filmmakers.

Sony understands the reluctance of some executives to plunk down big money for new equipment, said Bob Ott, vice president of optical and network systems at Sony Electronics. He still tells people: "HD isn't coming. It's here."

Nonetheless, Sony offers the HD Cam, which shoots in both high and standard definition, Ott said. That way, television stations can continue to work in standard definition and they'll be equipped to upgrade when the time comes.

"The HD Cam is future proof," he said.


Correction: This story misstated the kind of signal the federal government is requiring broadcasters to switch to. They must move to digital signals.