Making a move to HD

The high definition revolution has been a darling topic of TV insiders for years. Until recently, however, doc-makers felt left behind, grumbling that the buyers for HD-originated content were few while the challenges (read: expenses) of shooting and editing in hd were many. It's a sentiment that was voiced by respondents to a recent RealScreen survey. Of industry people polled, 13% said the majority of their doc slate is HD content, whereas 81% said only some - if any - of what they produce or distribute is in HD. As one respondent commented, 'I can't afford to get into HD and have no incentive to do so.' Although the point is valid, several trends suggest this appraisal is overly pessimistic.
May 1, 2004

The high definition revolution has been a darling topic of TV insiders for years. Until recently, however, doc-makers felt left behind, grumbling that the buyers for HD-originated content were few while the challenges (read: expenses) of shooting and editing in hd were many. It’s a sentiment that was voiced by respondents to a recent RealScreen survey. Of industry people polled, 13% said the majority of their doc slate is HD content, whereas 81% said only some – if any – of what they produce or distribute is in HD. As one respondent commented, ‘I can’t afford to get into HD and have no incentive to do so.’ Although the point is valid, several trends suggest this appraisal is overly pessimistic.

The most notable change to the HD market is the uptick in buyer interest. The number of TV broadcasters entering the high-def market is increasing – especially in Japan and North America, and to a lesser extent Australia – as satellite, cable and even terrestrial channels slowly boost their reliance on the medium as a way to win over consumers who are purchasing hd-enabled digital TVs in greater numbers as unit prices fall. Additionally, media companies are meeting government mandates to upgrade their operations to digital transmission, and HD programming is being offered as premium content.

To help producers supply this demand, some television outlets are extending specific HD financing. And, in the case of broadcasters looking forward to their own migration to HD transmissions, are paying premiums for, or being granted de facto rights options to, the HD version of productions they help make.

Japan’s NHK and the US’s Discovery HD Theater are well-known early backers of HD doc-making, but others in the international production business are getting into HD too. After a decade-long drive into sidelines like spin-off channels and interactive programming, European broadcasters are re-considering investment in HD – especially now, as consumer electronics manufacturers push HD-enabled TVs around the world. The BBC and Germany’s ZDF are joining the rollout of HD doc-making, albeit in a very small way. And, in January, Euro1080 became the first pan-European HD satcaster. To win viewers, the channel is focusing on documentaries (Incidentally, Euro 1080 is backed by HD-set maker Pioneer).

The contention that HD is prohibitively expensive is also waning as the cost of using HD cameras and editing systems is dropping, particularly in North America. Confirms Carl Hall, MD of London-based prodco/distributor Parthenon Entertainment, ‘Prices are going in the right direction.’

It is a trend that was obvious at the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual April tradeshow in Las Vegas, where hundreds of lower-priced hd products from companies such as JVC Professional (whose current market tag is ‘Affordable HD’) were announced. Manufacturers are no longer competing to be first in HD – they are fighting to win a share of the growing professional market.

Hall also notes that the global rollout of hd means high-def content offers a greater return on investment for doc-makers. As demand grows – demand that will include alternative revenue streams such as video delivered over the Internet and HD DVDs (which are both far along their development paths) – so too does the revenue documentary filmmakers will reap down the road. After revealing that Parthenon has five HD wildlife specials in production and another five in pre-production, Hall says: ‘Fundamentally, hd is the future of my company.’

Making strides by stepping up

According to a report released in April by In-Stat/MDR, over 4 million households around the world currently receive and watch high-definition TV programming. The Scottsdale, US-based research company predicts that number will increase by 2 million this year, and reach 45 million by 2008.

The vast majority of today’s viewers are in just three regions. Japan (2 million) and North America (1.5 million) are the largest, followed by Australia (approximately 500,000). The two main Aussie carriers of doc programming – pubcasters ABC and SBS Television – are permitted by the Australian Broadcasting Authority to carry less expensive, up-converted SD programs since their funding is state controlled. Neither offer HD-specific license fees. Outside of these three areas, In-Stat/MDR finds HD services are limited and, where available, are only experimental.

Despite the small number of viewers globally, competition for their attention is growing. This is seen most acutely in the US, which is poised for a huge jump in HD viewers. There, 19 broadcasters, including five major factual programmers – Discovery’s HD Theater, PBS, A&E, Bravo and HBO – are inching up their HD schedules (several sports channels as well as US nets ABC CBS and NBC, carry HD shows, but rarely finance indie docs).

PBS has done well to position itself to capture an HD audience. In March the pubcaster launched PBS HD Channel, a venture made possible by the conversion of its central program distribution headquarters to digital, as well as the digital upgrade of 236 PBS affiliate stations. As with many HD channels, the content is currently a mixture of HD-originated and up-converted SD fare. Its schedule mirrors that of PBS as a whole: a mixture of ‘must carry’ national programming and additional HD shows that, along with local programming, affiliates are permitted to slot in as they see fit.

Still, PBS decides to greenlight hd projects based on a program’s budget. Says Margaret Drain, VP of PBS national programming at Boston-based WGBH, one of the affiliates that acts as a program gateway for the pubcaster: ‘Whether or not we do an HD program depends on the cost.’ She continues, ‘The cost of HD has been ranging from seven percent to 10% additional budget expenses, in terms of US production. That includes everything from shooting through to post. That is much less than it was a few years ago; it used to be 15% to 18%.’

WGBH has completed 26 hours of HD docs for carriage nationally since 1999, and has 14 more hours on its current slate. Like other broadcasters, it does not maintain a dedicated HD doc-financing envelope, and instead uses money earmarked for non-fiction to pay the extra HD costs. To win wgbh’s support of an HD project, indies must show that the doc will look outstanding, and that they can produce it on a tight budget. Explains Drain, ‘If an HD production is going to have 10% inflation [over a conventional budget], the producer must look to squeeze other line items.’ Which items? ‘Every single one,’ she says.

HD Theater, the high-res spinoff launched by Discovery Networks in November 2002, is seeking indie proposals that it could help step up to HD, notes Shana Vickers, the channel’s manager of production and development. HD Theater doesn’t take direct submissions. Instead, Vickers opts to buy in on HD friendly projects being developed by other Discovery channels. More specifically, she’s looking for ‘classic eye candy – proposals that feature landscapes, aerial photography and detailed images that look fantastic in HD.’

Vickers continues, ‘The producer who submitted the idea is asked to create an hd upgrade budget, which is essentially one more column in the budget that takes those line items [such as hd equipment rental fees] that increase when you pump up a project to HD.’ If the budget is approved, the other Discovery networks get the down-converted version and HD Theater airs the HD version.

In Europe, forward-looking channels such as the BBC and ZDF are getting involved with HD docs, despite not currently transmitting in HD, because they hope to increase their hd production know-how. ‘Broadcasters are preparing for the day that they will carry HD docs,’ observes Hall.

According to Nikolas Huëlbusch, the head of doc copros at ZDF Enterprises, the Mainz, Germany-based broadcaster’s commercial arm, ZDF joins HD coproductions for two reasons: ‘To have timeless archive programs that we can broadcast in HD in the future, and to attract international co-financing for high-budget fare.’ And, of course, to obtain SD programs it can transmit immediately. Huëlbusch adds ZDF Enterprises has about 35 hours of HD content in its catalog.

At the moment, most of ZDF’s international co-financing comes from NHK, the Japanese pubcaster that is a top financier of HD docs. In Japan and North America, HD equipment is becoming cheaper to rent, lowering the relative bar to entry into the HD production industry and increasing an independent’s incentive to undertake its first HD production. However, in other territories, including Europe, costs remain higher. NHK is among the HD broadcasters offering a helping hand to producers operating in those regions, extending the incentive to tackle HD there as well.

‘NHK provides extra financing for indie projects in financially challenging territories,’ says Takahiro Hamano, a production executive in NHK’s satellite and Hi-Vision [HD] broadcasting department. Hamano explains this is part of NHK’s campaign to help foster the global acceptance of HD, a technology the pubcaster invented.

Talent TV, based in London, is one doc prodco that has received extra help from NHK. Notes MD Tony Humphreys, ‘They made it possible for us to deliver product in HD, by either reflecting the budgets that are needed, or by providing equipment. For example, we were able to access HD cameras from NHK’s London office.’ He adds, ‘Knowing that gives us encouragement.’ Talent’s first NHK HD doc was Turner’s Return, a one-hour art history project completed in 2002 for approximately £60,000 ($106,000), a low amount that indicates the sizeable savings offered by their use of NHK’s equipment, Humphreys explains.

WGBH and Discovery also acknowledge that producing in HD – though less expensive than it once was – remains a budget-financing challenge for many indies. So, to help bridge the funding gap, they are sometimes willing to go out on a financial limb. Observes Drain, ‘If you are going to go into this new world of technology you have to take some risk, and we are willing to take some risk.’

The long view

One of the oft-touted benefits of producing in HD has been ‘future-proofing’, the belief that a program’s shelf-life will be extended if it is mastered in HD, thereby enabling more lucrative returns on back catalog titles as hd becomes more widely accepted. In light of the slow-but-steady rollout of HDTV globally, there is another growing incentive for doc-makers. Explains Hall, ‘Broadcasters are taking V rights, even if they haven’t yet got the ability to broadcast in HD. They are paying extra license premiums for them, which is great news.’

That is a distribution trend that indies should look to exploit, notes Ellen Windemuth, MD of Amsterdam-based prodco/distrib Off The Fence. She is increasingly coproducing and co-financing HD-originated docs with broadcasters that are preparing for the day when they get into HD transmissions. ‘[Non-HD] broadcasters that I’ve been working with include Austria’s ORF, Italy’s La7, the UK’s Five, and Germany’s NDR, WDR and BR,’ says Windemuth. ‘Although it is not yet an instrumental part of the contract, [these types of deals] allow broadcasters to come back for the HD version in the future, when their broadcast standards change.’ She continues, ‘I am explicitly excluded from making a separate sale into [an sd partner's] territory for an hd version.’

While many broadcasters, facing the challenge of upgrading complex operations, are not rushing into HD, they are moving towards that goal. Observes Hall, ‘Eventually, most broadcasters around the world are going to offer some kind of HD content. If you think of the shelf-life of docs, then it makes sense that I do all my nature productions in HD; if I didn’t, I’d be curbing their shelf-life.’ He continues, ‘That’s where HD makes the difference.’

Today, like other premium-priced products, the HD label connotes quality and commands interest. As Kip Spidell, head of production at Toronto-based prodco Ellis Vision puts it, ‘The cachet of HD is helping our projects’ sales potential.’

A compendium of high def heavyhitters:

EURO 1080

Launched in January and supported by hd television manufacturer Pioneer, Euro1080 carries two channels: one for music, sports and doc programs and one for entertainment, cultural or sporting events (carried either live or live-to-tape). The Hove, Belgium-based satcaster faces a tough challenge, as no broadcasters in the 350 million-person market currently offer regular HD programming, and HD TVs remain pricey on the continent, ranging from †2,500 to †7,500 (US$3,000 to $9,000). ‘Only a couple of thousand households have an hdtv set,’ says Euro1080 executive Terry Verbiest.

Genres: Travel, fashion, nature and wildlife, arts, music, lifestyle

Programming budget: †12.5 million ($15 million)

Origin: 20% commission, 30% copro, 50% acquisition

Market reach: About 100,000 homes across Europe by the end of 2004


Three years old this September, HDNet was the first nationally available US network to broadcast all of its programming in 1080i. Its schedule is modeled after the original terrestrial network template – lots of everything, with a preference for high-rating primetime fare and sports. About 30% of its primetime offerings is news and docs. It has one slot specifically for indie one-offs, called ‘HDNet InFocus.’ Launched in April, it runs weekly at 10 p.m. on Tuesdays.

Genres: Travel, entertainment, current events, US culture

Origin: 60% in-house, 20% copro, 20% acquisition

Market reach: Carried by more than 30 satellite and cable providers in the US

HD Theater

Discovery’s 19-month-old HD outlet has been working hard to boost consumer up-take of HD. As part of that drive, last Christmas it entered into a cross-promotion deal with US electronics chain Circuit City. HDTV tubes at 600 Circuit City stores exclusively featured HD Theater programming while the chain received ad space and time on the net. It was a smart move, as a total of 640,000 HD-compatible digital TVs were sold last December.

Genres: A diversity of non-fiction, especially lifestyle series (e.g., Trading Spaces, American Chopper).

Programming budget: Discovery HD Theater offers financing as a percentage on top of the standard definition budget support offered by its sister operations (Animal Planet, TLC, Discovery Channel, etcetera).

Origin: 65% commissions and copros, 35% acquisitions

Market reach: Carried by virtually all US satellite and cable providers


Between April 2003 and March 2004, NHK was involved in 39 international coproductions, of which 37 were in Hi-Vision. BS-hi is the public broadcaster’s 24-hour HDTV channel. It offers programs in every genre, but has eight strands devoted to documentaries. Weekly, these amount to about 12 hours of programming.

Genres: Natural history, science, ancient history, current affairs, history

Origin: NHK acquires about 250 hours of foreign-produced documentaries in a year, including singles and series.

Market reach: Approximately 600,000 Japanese homes

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.