05.26.2004 11:45 AM
Stuffing A Five-Pound Bag
Not all television programming is in HDTV yet. When that changes, there could be trouble.
For proof of the first statement, check program schedules. Few channels carry HDTV. Of those that do, some don’t carry all of their programming in HDTV. And then there’s what that HDTV programming is.
On HDNet, one may watch Charlie’s Angels, not the recent movies but the TV show first broadcast in 1976. Looking for something different? HDNet also offers Hogan’s Heroes, first broadcast in 1965. On the HDTV-heavy Voom satellite service, some of their exclusive HDTV content consists of even older Mr. Magoo cartoons.
Why the nostalgia? It’s simple. Anything shot on film is inherently high definition, and old TV shows and cartoons are inexpensive to carry.
This is nothing new. In the days before what we currently call HDTV, TV stations often broadcast programming based on whatever inexpensive films could be obtained—anything from obscure movies to promotional industrial and tourist-office programs.
Eventually, TV grew to fill all of the hours on all of its channels with what we can currently look up in our program guides. When color was introduced, it also started with sporadic and largely film-based programming, growing to dominate most hours on most channels.
HDTV is likely to follow the same path. Just as we currently need to use the adjectival “black-&-white” rather than “color” when referring to television programming, someday we’ll probably use “SDTV,” or the equivalent, more than HDTV. HDTV will be the norm. And that will be a problem.
Consider three digital stations: WCPX-DT, KQED-DT, and KJZZ-DT. WCPX is the PAX station in Chicago. In its digital transmissions it carries six SDTV multicast programs simultaneously: three different time zone feeds of PAX programming, Worship, Praise, and Total Living Network. It can do so because digital channels can carry up to 19.3 million bps, and a standard definition feed can be squeezed into perhaps three million.
Between 6am and 8pm, KQED-DT, San Francisco’s digital PBS station, carries multicast programming, too: Encore on channel 9.2, World on channel 9.3, Life on channel 9.4, and Kids on channel 9.5. In primetime, on channel 9.1, they carry PBS programming, which might be HDTV. HDTV is said to have five or six times as much information as SDTV, so it takes up more of a digital channel.
PBS’s HDTV programming has been, until recently, rather limited, so KQED-DT had no difficulty allocating its schedule to multicasting during the day and what little HDTV there was at night. But beginning last month, PBS announced the PBS HD channel—24 hours of widescreen and HDTV programming seven days a week. KQED-DT will not be able to carry four SDTV multicasts and HDTV simultaneously.
Then there’s KJZZ, once the UPN affiliate in Salt Lake City. It’s also integral to USDTV’s cable-like, over-the-air digital television service there. KJZZ-DT carries not only its own programming, but also ESPN, ESPN2, the Food Network, HGTV, and the USDTV program guide for USDTV subscribers,.
UPN is not the first network that leaps to mind when one thinks of HDTV, but they began distributing two shows that way this fall. Even with advanced compression applied to the USDTV subscription programming, it would be difficult (to say the least) to squeeze four SDTV simulcasts and HDTV programming into one U.S. digital broadcast channel, but, unlike KQED and KJZZ, USDTV can’t decide to cut off ESPN, ESPN2, the Food Network, and HGTV during primetime.
Today, with limited HDTV programming and few digital broadcast viewers, the problems are manageable. As for tomorrow, that’s another day.