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The NewsHour Switches to High-Definition Broadcasting Format

December 14, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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The NewsHour is moving from standard-definition video to the higher-definition HD video format. Jeffrey Brown goes behind the scenes at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer to explain the technology and its impact on viewers.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, starting next week, the NewsHour will have a new look, part of a national change in television technology. Jeffrey Brown explains.

JEFFREY BROWN: Once upon a time, the TV viewing experience looked like this. A big change came with color. The first national broadcast was the 1954 Tournament of Roses Parade.

TV ANNOUNCER: … Big Ten representatives meet UCLA in the Rose Bowl on this New Year’s Day.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, television technology is going through a new revolution, one that can be seen in store showrooms and, already for some of you, in your own homes.

Beginning Monday, the NewsHour jumps into this new era, broadcasting in what’s called high-definition, or HD. Steve Howard is the director of our nightly broadcast.

STEVE HOWARD, Director, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: And HD in general is exciting, because it’s a wide-screen format, it’s higher resolution, it’s a more vivid picture, it has better color. It’s the wave of the future. I mean, that’s the way television is going.

Television's digital upgrade

Steve Howard
Director, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
You get a much better feel, a three-dimensional feel for where those people are in space.

JEFFREY BROWN: Television is, in fact, going digital. The country is now in the process of switching from analog to digital broadcasting, and HD is the best form of digital television available.

It differs from analog standard definition, the format we've all watched or used forever, in some key ways. For example, it's a wide-screen, rectangular format, 16 units wide by 9 units high, compared to the 4 by 3 picture of standard definition.

There's more digital information -- dots and lines -- packed in the HD picture, making for a sharper image. There's also enhanced sound. The idea: to enhance the viewing experience.

STEVE HOWARD: You get a much better feel, a three-dimensional feel for where those people are in space. And if my job as a director is to bring people into an interview as if they were sitting there, as if they could control in a little electric chair where they were going to listen to the interview, and I hope that that's what my job is, I can now do that in a more compelling and a captivating, I hope, way.

JEFFREY BROWN: The first HDTVs went on sale in 1998, part of a decades-long technological overhaul.

RICHARD WILEY, Former Chairman, FCC: The nice thing about the U.S. effort was we went where the best technology went.

JEFFREY BROWN: Former FCC Chairman Dick Wiley says the big changes began in the 1980s, when foreign competitors were moving fast.

RICHARD WILEY: The FCC discovered in 1987 that Japan and Western Europe had been working for about 10 years on advanced analog television, high-definition television, if you will. And they wanted to jumpstart the U.S. effort.

So I was asked to head an industry advisory committee to recommend a new transmission standard to replace the existing standard set back in 1941. Along the way, we discovered that digital transmission was actually possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: During the last decade, networks, including PBS, have begun to broadcast both analog and digital channels. Last year, President Bush signed legislation that requires broadcasters to end their analog transmission by February 17, 2009. After that, all television will be digital television, and that is having wide-ranging consequences.

LINDA WINSLOW, Executive Producer, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: I don't think we're going to know until we actually go on the air that night what all is involved in adapting to this. And I do think we're going to be in a period of transition for a while, while we figure out how to do it well and how to make the pictures work with the technology that we've got.

JEFFREY BROWN: Executive producer Linda Winslow, who helped Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil shape the earliest look of the program, has been trying to prepare for the latest change. She joined the rest of the staff in training sessions where new equipment and technologies were explained.

STEVE HOWARD: Just getting to HD, you're manufacturing a bunch of lines. Then you're blowing those lines up.

JEFFREY BROWN: And potential problems were explored.

NEWSHOUR STAFFER: A lot of these things sound like there's a possibility that it could take more time actually in the edit room. So is there going to be a way for us to start getting in the edit room even earlier?

MARGARET WARNER: You're saying we should, in the field, if we're overseas, and we're trying to send a piece that night, we should still shoot it in 16:9 high-def?

Changes to the production process

Chris Dee
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
This old set, albeit it served us very well for the last nine years and on a standard-definition television looks fine, on a high-definition television, you will see the scratches, and the scores, and the nicks, and the fading, and whatnot.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the switch to HD affects every part of our production process. Camera and sound technicians are being trained to use the new lighter HD cameras and to frame shots differently for the more panoramic feel of HD. Editors are learning to work on new machines and to accommodate 35,000 hours of archival footage in the traditional, non-HD format.

It's been a long journey for the NewsHour, from two-inch tape, to one-inch to, three-quarter inch, to the beta tape we're using today, to the new small, lightweight disc that crews will use to shoot sharper HD images to edit and broadcast to you.

Our graphics department is working to build up a new database of higher quality HD images. And, yes, with the eye-popping HD look, where every blemish and piece of lint stands out, our makeup artist must ensure that correspondents and guests look their best.

There's also the NewsHour's set. The old one has been taken down, and a new one that accommodates HD's wider picture put in its place over the course of the last couple of weeks. And HD's detail is also a consideration there.

Chris Dee is director of production operations for the NewsHour.

CHRIS DEE, Director of Production Operations, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: This old set, albeit it served us very well for the last nine years and on a standard-definition television looks fine, on a high-definition television, you will see the scratches, and the scores, and the nicks, and the fading, and whatnot.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, all this is being coordinated in a new state-of-the-art control room that allows the director and his team to pull off a more sophisticated look and sound.

WETA in Washington, where the NewsHour broadcast originates, got funding for this transition from PBS and the U.S. Commerce Department. PBS also negotiated a deal with manufacturers that allows local stations to purchase new HD equipment at a significant discount.

How the switch affects viewers

Richard Wiley
Former Chairman, FCC
You're going to see a lot more ads, PSA, public service announcements. We've got to get the word out. We have now another 14 months to get it done, and there are a lot of people working to make sure this isn't a consumer train wreck.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how does all this affect you? It's very much on our minds.

LINDA WINSLOW: Our viewers come to us because they expect information. They expect quiet conversation. They expect tough questions about important issues, and that we don't have to change. We don't have to stop doing that.

What we also try not to do is distract them with things cluttering up the screen, things crawling along the bottom of the screen, or things changing in their images. I think there's going to be a certain amount of change that will be instantly visible on the home screen and potentially disorienting, and I'm concerned about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: For those of you, the majority who don't yet have HD-ready sets, the picture we send out will be "down-converted," a technical term that means it will be altered to fit your standard-definition sets. You'll see what's called a "letterbox effect," with black bars on the top and bottom of the screen.

STEVE HOWARD: It's a format that everyone is really familiar with. As you rent DVDs now and as movies come out, they come out in this letterbox format. And so that format allows the person who is on a standard-definition television, we simply can fit the visual space, the 16:9 space, into a 4 by 3 TV set.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, in addition to films, a number of TV programs are already presented in letterbox, including "Frontline" on PBS.

Another change everyone might notice, a "pillar box effect," with columns down both sides of the screen for video that comes from non-HD sources. Again, it's about blending different formats during the transition.

Of course, if you don't have an HD set, what you won't see is the crisp, new HD picture we'll be broadcasting. According to one recent study, the number of homes in the U.S. with high-definition TVs has doubled in the past two years, to 25 percent. And the Consumer Electronics Association predicts that sales of HDTVs this year should reach more than 20 million by the end of the holiday season.

And for all of you with older sets? If you want to move to a digital picture now, you have several options. If you subscribe to a cable or satellite service, you may have to upgrade your set top box. If you use an antenna, you can buy a converter like this, which costs about $60.

Starting January 1st, every household is eligible to apply to an agency at the Commerce Department by calling 1-888-DTV-2009 for two $40 coupons towards their purchase.

Finally, of course, you can buy a new set, one that gives you a digital picture or one that is also HD-ready. Prices have been falling and are expected to continue.

Again, you don't have to do anything right now, but if you're not digital yet, you will have to do something by the deadline for the final switch to digital TV on February 17, 2009. That date is coming soon enough, and there are fears galore that the public isn't ready.

RICHARD WILEY: It's very important for us to get the word out, particularly to lower-income homes, to people who perhaps don't speak English as their first language, and I know the government is very interested in that. I know the industry is very interested.

You're going to see a lot more ads, PSA, public service announcements. We've got to get the word out. We have now another 14 months to get it done, and there are a lot of people working to make sure this isn't a consumer train wreck.

The NewsHour's countdown to HD

Linda Winslow
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
I want the NewsHour to have a long, long life. I think, therefore, it's good for it to be on the cutting edge of whatever new technology is available.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, for the NewsHour, the challenge is twofold.

LINDA WINSLOW: I want the NewsHour to have a long, long life. I think, therefore, it's good for it to be on the cutting edge of whatever new technology is available.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the trick for us, I guess, is still to marry that technology with what we're trying to do?

LINDA WINSLOW: To stay true to what our mission is, which is to report the news.

JEFFREY BROWN: How all this plays out in the short run, beginning Monday, is being worked out even as we air this report. Director Steve Howard is hoping all the parts will come together.

You don't know until you flip the switch?

STEVE HOWARD: Exactly. Exactly. So if all the rehearsals and all of the testing of this and testing of that and everything is nothing like, "Five, four, three, two, one. You're on the air."

Here comes Jim on 30.

JIM LEHRER: We have a fact sheet about HD on our Web site where you can learn about the new technology. And you can pose questions to NewsHour director Steve Howard and others about the HD conversion in an online forum. It's all at PBS.org.