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Extended Interview: NewsHour’s Chris Dee and WETA’s Christopher Lane

December 14, 2007 at 5:40 PM EDT

QUESTION: We’re seeing the set being taken down, a new one coming in this week. Why? Why is this related to high definition?

CHRIS DEE, NewsHour director of production operations: I think that it’s a set that’s been up for nine years. And it’s a set that was designed around standard-definition television 4:3 format for the last nine years, and of course the NewsHour has been shooting in that format for the last 33 years. But today is a new day. We’re going to debut the new set and the new format of the program in HD [high definition] on Dec. 17.

Shooting in HD requires a lot more focus and detail, or should I say a lot more focus and detail shows up in the picture. So this old set, albeit it served us very well for the last nine years, on standard definition television looks fine. On a high-definition television you will see the scratches, the scores, and the nicks, and the fading and what not, as well as the color imagery that you find in an HD picture is much greater than that of what the standard definition picture was. So we want to take advantage of that to produce a new look that is similar to the NewsHour, keeping in tradition with the NewsHour and the stately look we have, but leverage the real estate, the width of the picture, being that high-definition is wider, has greater color point, and certainly has more depth and definition to it. Thus, a new set is required in tandem with the new format.

Digital television and HD

Chris Dee
NewsHour, production operations director
All the networks are doing HD in one format or another, but the NewsHour is special in the sense that it's a one-hour program.

QUESTION: Then I'll ask you, Chris Lane, the general question, why HD? Why is it better?

CHRISTOPHER LANE, WETA vice president of engineering: It's better technically for a number of reasons. This is what the public was promised back when the idea of getting rid of analog airwaves and replacing them with digital -- the big selling point was that the industry was going to go to high definition. And so that was the original reason for all of this change. Now, I just think it's more compelling programming. If you watch anything in high definition, it's really hard to then watch an old 4:3 analog picture. This brings you right into whatever you're watching, so that's the real reason for the home viewer. I don't know anybody in the industry who is excited about having to do all this, but it's what direction we're going in. The payoff is there.

QUESTION: Where are we in relation to others in the industry? NBC is doing something, ABC is doing something, but they're different than what we're doing.

CHRIS DEE: I think we're running with the pack, so to speak. All the networks are doing HD in one format or another, but the NewsHour is special in the sense that it's a one-hour program. First of all, there aren't too many one-hour primetime, news-time programs. But I'd say we're neck-and-neck with the transition to HD within the industry worldwide. I wouldn't say that we're in the forefront, but we're certainly, by no stretch of the imagination, behind.

The NewsHour is the first one-hour news program to shoot in native high definition and we will broadcast in native high definition in this 16:9 aspect ratio. And what 16:9 means is that the picture is wider to the viewer at home than the square-type television sets they've been looking at for the last 40 to 50 years.

The NewsHour will natively broadcast, and what that means is we'll show the entire aspect ratio of the program in 16:9, however there are going to be many viewers that will still watch on SD televisions, so when we do a term called down-convert from HD to SD, what will happen is there will be a letterbox effect on the top and bottom, black bars on the top and bottom of the screen that the SD viewer will see at home. And that is so they will see the entire picture encapsulated within that letterbox at home. There will be no need to do something called center cut, which a lot of the networks are doing when they up-convert. They're just lopping of the left and right side of the picture.

The NewsHour and PBS chose not to do that for integrity reasons. We want to show the entire picture to the viewer at home. We don't want to distort, we don't want to leave anything out. Being that it's news, it's important that what we shoot in the field, and the interviews and all of that comes back and the viewers see what was produced. There is no reason we see for us to manipulate those images into something they are not.

Help for the consumer

Christopher Lane
WETA, vice president of engineering
I think consumers are going to be helped along by the fact the manufacturers are not going to continue to manufacture 4:3 TVs.

QUESTION: Chris Lane, explain a little history lesson. Why now?

CHRISTOPHER LANE: PBS has actually been involved in experimenting with HD for a long time. They were part of the model test station with NBC. We did some early 9/11 anniversary shows in HD, we did some early inaugurations in HD, we partnered with NHK [Japan Broadcasting Corporation] at the 2004 conventions and their HD feed, we've had NHK in the studio, so we've done a lot of experimenting. The industry is at a point where it's the time to do it.

The facility itself is old in terms of the infrastructure and the equipment. Last year we did the router and intercom system in preparation for this. The router is the nervous system, everything we do feeds to the router. We were at a point where it didn't make sense to just replace the old analog SD equipment with new digital SD equipment. It just doesn't make any sense. It was just a good place in what the consumer is expecting, what the industry is doing, and where we are with the show to just go ahead and do it all. The difficulty is we're doing it all at once. The time is right to do it, and that's why we're doing it.

QUESTION: Problems?

CHRISTOPHER LANE: The biggest problem we sort of run into--in the old analog world, pretty much you could assume if you bought one piece of equipment from one manufacturer and another piece of equipment from another manufacturer, you could plug it in and it would work. Nowadays there's no guarantee because much of this is a computer-based, file-transfer, file-based system. Your system may work off of another file-format from the system you're trying to hook to, and so you then have to get a third-party box that sort of interprets for both sides to connect them together. And that's one of the problems you run into. The manufacturer's equipment will work fine in his system, but it won't always integrate with somebody else's.

QUESTION: What do you say to a viewer who tunes in on the 17th and says, "Hey, it looks different. I'm not totally comfortable with that."

CHRISTOPHER LANE: One of the things that's going to happen is by next year we have to turn off the analog transmitter. So people are going to have to buy either a new TV set or contract with a cable company or somebody else to give them a signal in a way they get view it. So I think over time consumers are going to buy the right TV. For instance, if you call Vios for installation of their cable in your house, they're giving away a TV right now. They'll give you the television. So I think consumers are going to be helped along by the fact the manufacturers are not going to continue to manufacture 4:3 TVs. The cable providers and satellite providers are making it easier by doing things like giving you a TV. If you buy this service, we'll give you a TV. And the prices are going down and down. I think it's going to be huge, especially this year at Christmas. People are going to buy these TVs.

CHRIS DEE: I heard an interesting perspective from some friends of mine: "I'm gonna get an HDTV, I'm kind of excited about it," because they're going get rid of this giant TV they have that's very deep and very bulky and doesn't fit within their living space. So now they're looking at this migration to HDTV. I can hang it on the wall, and it's almost like a piece of art work. And not only can I watch TV on it, but I can play some of my family home stills on it, and the TV set can be more integrated in their living environment. And at the same time you get a much more vibrant picture with a lot more real estate and much larger picture.