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Extended Interview: NewsHour Director Steve Howard

December 10, 2007 at 5:39 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve, why is this exciting for you? What’s the promise here of HD?

STEVE HOWARD, Director, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: I think with respect to the NewsHour, it gives the NewsHour an opportunity, it gives me an opportunity working for the NewsHour, to bring to the audience a different kind of experience, which I hope will involve them emotionally with the stories in a different way, perhaps more so adding onto what that emotional involvement is now. I think that’s a very important part of what the NewsHour does. We spend enough time on a story for people to become involved in other people’s lives, and this is a way for us to visually, with a new visual space, to bring people into those stories in a different way.

If you had a set from the 1950s, you could still tune in pictures, and the reason is because when they went to color, one of the mandates by the FCC was that system, that new color system, had to be compatible with the old black and white system, so old sets. So Mom and Dad didn’t have to go out and throw away their brand new probably $25 television set and buy a new color set. This is a whole different experience. This is a brand new television set. For the broadcaster, it’s an enormous expense. We can’t use the old equipment.

So it’s a whole new world. I mean, it’s just everything. It’s like, kind of like you had never driven a car before. You’d been using a horse and buggy and some guy; you walk out in your driveway and there’s a car setting there–what do I do with that?

JEFFREY BROWN: You have to build a new set because you have new cameras.

STEVE HOWARD: Well, and partly, and partly also because I have a new visual space that isn’t–that the old set was built for the 3:4-4:3 standard definition space.

JEFFREY BROWN: Visual space. I mean, that’s the key phrase you keep using. But explain what you mean by that.

STEVE HOWARD: I now have a 16:9 wide screen format. Movies are shot in a format similar to that. And in the past I’ve been–the little tiny, you know, 4:3 screens that we’ve all lived with since the 1950s. Opening up that space now allows me to for instance, in an interview, I could put somebody on this side of the screen and somebody on this side of the screen, and you get a much better feel, a three-dimensional feel for where those people are in space.

And so we had to build a new set that gave me that space that I need, that visual space, the backgrounds and the set pieces and so forth, and by the way, upgrade the graphics and so forth that are on the set so that they look good in HD, in this higher resolution.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what’s the biggest difference for the viewer?

STEVE HOWARD: I hope we have done all this work for some reason. I hope that people will see the program in a new, more compelling, more captivating, more engaging way, and that while our goal, our mission on the NewsHour is not necessarily to make, you know, fast moving, high content pictures and whatever. You know, the content of the program itself is the important thing. On the other hand, if something is compelling in its content and we can enhance that by also giving them a compelling visual space of that piece, we’ve completed the picture. We’ve made it more complete, more emotional.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, for this transition period when most people still have the old sets, one of the important decisions was how to present the HD style on the old set. And we’re going with what you call letterbox. During the transition, people who don’t have the HD sets yet, of course, are going to see our program, shot in HD, but they’re going to see it in letterbox.

STEVE HOWARD: I think, you know, most movies are being released in both the full-screen 4:3 format for people who are uncomfortable with that letterbox. But most motion pictures are released in the letterbox format either exclusively, or in addition to it.

Now, if you took some tape or something and stuck it over the top and bottom, you know, you would have a little made it yourself 16:9-television set. But you said, as you know not too many people have it, but it is becoming increasingly popular to buy, and particularly at these holiday seasons and so forth, to buy these sets as the next set for the family, and the price has come way down from those early days.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but I want to help the people who are watching on December 17th and afterwards, and it’s a little jarring to see, hey my whole screen is not being used for the first time when I watch the NewsHour. They might be used to it in some other shows, but they will not have seen our show, or other news shows, in that style, in that format. One alternative was what you told us is called a center cut.

STEVE HOWARD: A center cut is the way a lot of these programs are done that either originated in the 16:9 format, or attached to some part of the chain of events. And what that is, as a director I would shoot interviews protecting the center of the screen. So I would not do something on the far left and the far right that was not in the middle of the screen, and that center then is cut out and broadcast as the 4:3 version of the program, full screen, top and bottom, through letterbox.

But you give up something in doing that because you’re not using the wide-screen format. So the letterbox gives us the opportunity to use that entire space on both the HD feed and on the SD [4:3] feed. And, of course, it comes up, and people read in the news about directors who are up in arms because somebody is changing their movie, and Lawrence of Arabia is not supposed to be talking to the guy off camera, because, of course, they’re not; you’re doing a panning scan. They’re center cutting in the movie, if you will, and missing part of what the director intended for you to see.

JEFFREY BROWN: But for those viewers who are sort of worried or jarred by this new look, what’s the director tell them?

STEVE HOWARD: I tell them–I’ll probably get requests for money now–go buy a new set. Or, you know, it’s not going to be that long before these television sets are going to be cheap enough that-and you are going to want to replace your television set periodically anyway–that an HD set, a wide-screen set is going to be a natural evolvement.

JEFFREY BROWN: And once they have it, you feel good about what this allows you to do and them to see.

STEVE HOWARD: I believe so. I believe we can capture new audiences with this technology–younger people, viewers who have not been viewers of the NewsHour before. I think that this might be an attraction to some of those people. And I think that the older viewers will be thrilled at the new look.