To HD or not to HD: A Natural (History) Question

Although the DTV roll-out in the U.S. is proceeding at more of an evolutionary rather than revolutionary pace, high definition television appears to be destiny's child - destined to mature into a major force early in the next millennium. Because of...
August 1, 1999

Although the DTV roll-out in the U.S. is proceeding at more of an evolutionary rather than revolutionary pace, high definition television appears to be destiny’s child – destined to mature into a major force early in the next millennium. Because of this, every time a major natural history project is considered, HDTV’s inevitability begs the question: `To HD or not to HD?’ – particularly if the project is not likely to be broadcast for a few years.

Discovery, whose intention to launch a full-time HD channel in ’99 has been postponed, remains committed to soon creating an HD presence on the airwaves. Beginning this October, Discovery will launch a weekly series on DirecTV’s yet unnamed HD smorgasbord channel called Discovery HD Theater. It will feature an hour of signature programming, including natural history. ‘Natural history is at the core of the Discovery brand and will be a key component of our HD Theater,’ explains Charles Humbard, VP and GM of Showcase Networks and Advanced TV at Discovery Networks. ‘We expect it to comprise 50% to 60% of our HD mix. Destination and anthropological programs will also play a big role.’

According to Humbard, projects being considered for HD production undergo the same initial screening as all others, but programmers for each channel have been asked to flag dramatic and visually strong projects for potential HD delivery. ‘[The Advanced TV group doesn't] actually commission projects, but instead works with our programming people to identify appropriate projects. We also work closely with producers to work out the logistics of getting them produced in high definition. We offer technical and other advice to help insure that the images and sound are captured correctly for HD delivery.’

Programs shot primarily on Super 16 pose a particular challenge for Humbard. ‘At least half of our initial body of HD shows will be shot on Super 16, which is riskier than shooting 35mm. We prefer to work closely with producers shooting Super 16 to be sure that they shoot judiciously and steer clear of potential pitfalls. We like to get involved with producers early to be sure that everything possible is done to ensure we end up with a good hd program. However, it’s critical that all these shows work for our standard definition channels as well, which is where the majority of our viewers are.’

Humbard also intends to begin shooting programs in HD video. ‘Last year we commissioned our first HDcam production, a documentary on Niagara Falls. We’ll continue integrating HDcam into our production repertoire as we increase our HD library. Not only does HDcam footage look fabulous, but in many ways it is more realistic than film, giving more of a feeling of really being there. Achieving a close-to-reality experience is one of our underlying goals with HD.’

Humbard indicates that many shows will continue to be shot on Super 16 and mastered to HD on the Spirit Telecine, especially natural history. ‘We’re pretty impressed by the quality achievable from Super 16 via the Spirit and feel that it will play a significant role in our HD lineup. However, we still have to see how well Super 16 holds up after the extra compression required for transmission.’

Regardless of their origins, HD deliverables will play an expanding role at Discovery in the near future, according to Humbard, who cites the in-house produced The Leopard Son as one of their most successful HD productions. ‘We’ll show 10 to 12 titles on Discovery HD Theater this fall and another 35 to 40 next year. We expect that at least half of them will feature NH, which fully exploits the potential of high definition.’

There is also HD movement at PBS, albeit on a more piecemeal basis. WNET New York’s Nature strand is in the process of off-lining a sled dog episode, shot in HDcam, which will be mastered in HD – if WNET’s HD suite is completed on schedule this September. ‘Sled Dogs would be our first HD production,’ says supervising producer, Bill Murphy.

However, from the look of things at WNET, Sled Dog: An Alaskan Epic could be the first of many HD Nature shows shot on HDcam. This is due partly to its forthcoming HD on-line edit suite (with HDcam decks), and partly to WNET’s purchase of three HD camcorders. ‘We’ll have to submit a proposal internally in order to use the camcorders for our shows, but we hope to shoot at least a few shows per year. Hopefully, not having to budget for HDcam rentals will make it feasible to produce a few HD shows per year under our existing budget,’ explains Murphy.

Nature’s second HDcam production will be undertaken in an extreme environment – Antarctica. The show will focus on following penguins as they fish below the ice, but will include seals and other wildlife. ‘This should be an excellent test of how well HDcams can withstand temperature extremes. DigiBeta camcorders have performed well under similar conditions and we expect that the HDcams will also. We’re very excited about the Antarctica project, and we’ll monitor the results carefully.’ Interestingly, the producer of the penguin project is a newcomer to Nature, California’s photographer/cinematographer, Norbert Wu.

Murphy claims that WNET’s commitment to hd is not in response to pressure from PBS to begin delivering shows in HD. ‘While we’ve been asked to deliver shows in HD whenever possible, there’s been no pressure to do so…. nor additional funds. WNET wants to be a leader in HD production and we plan to work with our co-production partners and independent producers to do so. Currently though, we don’t have any additional budget for HD productions, but we can do all or most of the HD editing in-house, working with the producer, as we will with the Antarctica project. That should stretch budget dollars.’ Murphy anticipates producing several shows per year in HD by the 2001-2002 season, pending the successful outcome of projects currently underway.

At WGBH Boston, NOVA also has an HDcam show in production, Mapping the Universe, an astronomical doc by New York’s Tom Lucas. For parts of Universe, Lucas is working with HD animation and has chosen to work with an engineer, rather than an assistant cameraman, who monitors each shot and tweaks the camera for the best possible result.

WGBH also has a series of geographic specials under consideration for HD production. Seven Summits features the most majestic mountain peaks in the world, a subject which would exploit the visual power of HD. ‘This series will really put HDcam to the test, climbing to the top of the world’s tallest mountains. We hope to start production in winter 2000 with a two-year production schedule,’ explains NOVA senior producer, Alan Ritsko.

To date, the demand for HD programs by PBS has been slower than anticipated, perhaps due to the limited number of DTV-ready stations (currently eight), although several more are expected by year’s end. Currently, PBS is committed to airing at least one new HD special per month. While no NH programs have aired to date, Sahara, produced by Los Angeles’ Mandalay Media Arts, was scheduled to air in November during PBS’ second digital week, but has been postponed until April 2000 in order to be the first doc aired in true Dolby 5.1 surround sound.

Efforts are also underway to schedule more natural history, according to Mary Jane McKinven, director of science/natural history programming at PBS. ‘We have had discussions with some of our production partners about potential hd programs, including up-converting some ongoing programs like The Living Edens, shot on Super 16. As more PBS stations come on-line digitally, we’ll expand our HD program delivery, but our first commitment is to content. HD as a format can enhance program delivery, but it’s not our main concern.’

The pubcasters’ deliberate approach to commissioning hd programs has understandably impacted distributors with whom they work closely, like Washington’s Devillier Donegan Enterprises. Ronit Greenstein, associate producer at DDE/ABC Kane confirmed that, while there had been some discussions about delivering a few Living Edens in HD in the future, there were no firm plans to do so. ‘We’re still in the early stages of discussion. We’d like to do more programs in HD like Sahara, a two-hour special. We’re discussing HD with a few producers, but budgets are an issue.’

Barry Clark, producer of Sahara and long-time HD proponent, has not been waiting idly for broadcasters to beat a path to his door. ‘We’re committed to producing in high def and we’re pitching projects all the time, both one-offs and mini-series. We’re not bothered if broadcasters aren’t ready to pay a significant premium for HD programs because we’re not afraid to look them in the eye and say we’re going to produce in HD whether you can use it now or not. We’re prepared to deliver a US$700,000 HD show using some of our own funds and services if we have to, because we believe that HD is the future. However, we do expect distribution rights in exchange. We’re not afraid to walk away if we can’t negotiate a fair return on our investment. We try to check our passion at the door when we negotiate contracts.’

This head-on, pragmatic philosophy has paid off for Clark and his colleagues at Mandalay Media Arts, who have pioneered HD production from Super 35mm. ‘Many broadcasters say they want HD but don’t want to pay for it. Many of them assume that HD rights are included in the standard contract, but someone has to pay the added costs and whoever that is should benefit. We view broadcasters as partners in the fullest sense. If we provide the extra services needed to deliver in HD, at our expense, we expect additional benefit. That often entails tearing up the boiler-plate contract and starting from scratch by drafting one which works for both parties. We aren’t looking for immediate payback, but rather we’re creating assets which we hope will appreciate and provide a return over time,’ says Clark.

Barry Rebo, president of New York’s Rebo Associates, has also taken the long view with HD projects, which he has produced for nearly a decade. ‘The HD rights to some of the Wildlife Adventures shows are just becoming freed up and we’re in early negotiations with different broadcasters for them. There is definitely a scarcity of HD programming available right now, especially non-fiction series. Broadcasters clearly want the shows and have organized a consortium to acquire and exchange programming among themselves. Unfortunately, they haven’t been willing to pay realistic prices for HD programs because the audience is too small to attract large advertisers, and will be for some time. What’s needed is a creative approach to marketing and distribution in the interim, that facilitates fair payment for programs. Corporate sponsorship is one option.’

Rebo believes that the recent partnering of AT&T with NBC and cable giant TCI (to collectively transmit digital TV), plus CBS’ commitment to broadcast hd programming in primetime beginning late in ’99, as well as full-time HD programming by HBO and DirecTV, should help boost the digital TV audience, creating a viable market for advertisers. ‘Sports, movies and primetime dramas are going to bolster the HDTV audience base faster than docs, but natural history really demonstrates the beauty of HD. It may take awhile for the audience to reach critical mass, but when it does natural history will be in demand. I may have to keep Wildlife Adventures off the market until then. It doesn’t make sense to give the programs away.’

Even National Geographic (which produced one of the first natural history docs in HD, Okavango), is moving tentatively towards HDTV. ‘We’re testing the waters with different formats,’ said John Bowman, director of post production at NGTV. ‘There’s no single pathway to HD. In Tempest of the Deep, Michael de Gruy shot on 16, Super 16, 35mm and Beta SP. It was a great opportunity to see if all of these formats can work together well in high definition. We’ll also be testing HDcam in future projects. Every time we plan a new special or mini-series we raise the HD question.’

Like other players, Geo is waiting for the market to heat up before plunging in. ‘We feel that once the demand for HD picks up, broadcasters will be looking for our brand of programs. HD should play a big role in our future,’ Bowman adds. To date however, the response by broadcasters has been tepid. ‘Our [NG Specials] contract with NBC extends until the end of ’99 and we’ve reminded them periodically that Okavango is available in HD, but they haven’t expressed any interest so far,’ says Janice McKay, post production supervisor at NG Specials.

Given the lukewarm demand by broadcasters for natural history docs in HD, and for HD programming in general, it is no surprise that even major European players, like United Wildlife, are not diving headlong into hd productions. ‘We’ve been shooting and delivering widescreen pal masters to European broadcasters for the past few years,’ said Andrew Buchanan, head of development at United Wildlife. ‘While we’ve had some early discussions with some of our American partners about high def, none have specified HD deliverables, nor put any extra money into our pot to deliver them.’ He added, however, that UW was in the early stages of coproduction on a series to be shot mainly on HDcam (tentatively called Dinosaurs of the Deep), in collaboration with an individual PBS station. ‘We don’t have a market here for HD shows and have to rely on demand from the U.S. and Japan. Perhaps the technical standards still need to settle out before HD really takes off. After all, it took 15 years or so to establish a viable market for IMAX films. It may take bit longer for HD to get firmly established as well.’

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.