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Exposition Shows HD Broadcasts Will Get Better

29 Oct, 2008 By: Chris Tribbey

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Amid purely technical presentations about delivering broadcasts in 1080p Oct. 28 at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) exposition, casual consumers may (or may not) have been surprised to glean this about high-definition: Most of the high-definition they see isn’t the best picture available. And it probably won’t be for awhile.

The tech-savvy viewers and cinema videophiles have always known this. Nearly all high-def transmissions (satellite, streaming, IPTV) are 720p or 1080i video, often billed as “Full HD,” when that’s not accurate.

“We confuse the market and we confuse the consumers … [it’s] all half-truths,” said Hans Hoffman with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), arguing that current high-def broadcasts can be noticeably deficient in vertical resolution compared to 1080p, “especially when it comes to motion.”

Ian Trow, with media company Thomson, agreed that the way high-definition is pitched to consumers can be deceiving: 1080 is a higher number than 720, so it must be the best thing out there.

“Some customers are certainly aware of the marketing spin,” he said.

Despite the fact just a couple of paid service providers — DirectTV and Dish Network PPV/VOD — have just now begun to offer1080p high-def movies, it’s still not the best the industry can offer, Hoffman said. Hoffman said the broadcast industry needs to start laying the groundwork for giving consumers video with higher frame rates.

Frame rate is the measure for how many consecutive images are produced per second. For example, Blu-ray Disc content is streamed at 1080p24 (24 frames per second), the long-standing exposure rate for 35 mm cameras. Hoffman and other SMPTE speakers say the industry’s future may well lie in delivering 1080p50-60, something more and more new HDTVs are starting to handle.

Indeed, the Digital Video Broadcasting Project (DVB), an international digital delivery standards group, has expressed its support for the broadcast of higher frame rates, Hoffman said, along with the people behind the MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 compression used for Blu-ray (the Video Coding Experts Group and Moving Picture Experts Group, or MPEG).

“ … A lot of people who see 1080i see the picture quality is compromised by those frame rates,” Trow said.

But a lot is standing in the way of broadcasting the best high-def around to consumers. Many HDTVs already in households “can’t cope” with 1080p50-60 signals, Hoffman said, and most current receivers and set-top boxes will only output to 1080i. And that all may be putting the cart before the horse — the ability to get 1080p50-60 to homes is still problematic.

Trow wrote in an August paper studying MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 that it had “adequate picture quality … for both 720p and 1080i broadcast applications at bit rates ranging from 8 Mbps to 12 Mbps.” The current infrastructure can easily handle 720p, in terms of delivering quality with available bandwidth.

To get 1080p50-60 quality to consumers, however, Hoffman said broadcasters would have to deliver content (and consumers would have to receive it) at a higher bit rate. Currently most content providers would need a huge investment in the United States to guarantee what would be needed, based on current compression tools, Hoffman speculated. SMPTE has created a committee to address these issues.

And then there’s consumer interest. If not enough paying customers notice the differences between 720p, 1080i, and 1080p, why should broadcasters make the effort of buying new high-def equipment and investing in better infrastructure?

“What we present,” Hoffman said, “must be really perceptible.”

Mark Sauerwald, technical marketing manager for National Semiconductor Corp., said the biggest obstacle between high-def fans and having more than PPV movies in 1080p50-60 is money.

“Within the video industry, they’re very conservative,” he said. “… They need to lay out more fiber optics instead of copper, but the cost to do it is the obstacle that needs to be overcome. Fiber tends to work better over longer distances for cable companies, and has less signal degradation than copper cable, but is very expensive in comparison.

The delivery of 1080p content on Dish Network did earn a thumbs up from Sound & Vision Magazine reporter Brent Butterworth earlier this month. While not as crisp as the picture in Blu-ray, and without the advanced audio offerings for Blu-ray, Butterworth was impressed by the fact it was a viable high-def option.

“ … Even though Dish Network's 1080p service may not deliver a wealth of exciting entertainment options right now, it at least appears to be a harbinger of good things to come,” he wrote.

When announcing the service this summer, Dish Network touted their trend-setting changes: “Our latest system upgrade coupled with the introduction of TurboHD further strengthens our position as the leader in digital television and high-definition television,” said Charlie Ergen, Dish Network chairman, CEO and president. “We know that once consumers start watching their favorite TV shows in high-definition, their viewing habits change and their preference switches to all-HD programming.”

But while Dish is using the MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 to transmit all its content — standard and high-definition — something new might be needed to compress content and keep available bandwidth from disappearing.

“The aim is to be able to provide a sufficient enough image quality difference [between] 720p or 1080i,” Hoffman said. “It is possible … [but] with cable I fear it won’t happen.”

And it’s something the EBU has been touting for years. A May 2005 report from the group concluded, “While a range of different production formats for exchange is available today, only a 1080 lines progressive format at either 50 or 60 Hz could provide a worldwide basis for program production and exchange.”

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