Next picture show

Steven Levy

The revolutionary technology that made television possible may itself be outmoded — by high-definition television (HDTV), which offers more than just a sharper, clearer picture. "We're talking about a different language, says one producer of HDTV programming, a different way the television medium will communicate." In the following selection, Steven Levy examines the unique features of , HDTV and speculates about the "high-definition world" it may usher in.

Leiy is an award winning journalist who has written for Rolling Stone and many other magazines, and who now writes a column for Macworld. He is the author of the best-selling book Hackers and of The Unicorn's Secret: Murder in the Age of Aquarius. He is also the author of Artificial Life (Pantheon, 1992).

Your current television is a pathetically obsolete artifact of a dead technology. A charmless antiquity. Those who know the future of video are amazed at your tolerance for its faults. It is the guest who came to dinner and stayed way past his welcome, growing old right there at the table, nose hairs and big ears and bad teeth — but people keep serving it meal after meal, making small talk as if the guest were Cary Grant in his prime. In this day of electronic wizardry, your set is an embarrassment. How you can sit for hours watching it — with its ghosts, its snow, its tinny sound, its tiny screen, its runny color, and its fuzzy picture — is beyond comprehension.

But lately some strange new video signals have been transmitted. Some have been beamed from antennas, others bounced off satellites, still others shot through coaxial cables. You didn't see any of them. Your current television, that one-eyed joke, doesn't begin to know what to do with them. But if you could receive these new signals, and see them as they were intended to be seen, you would finally understand what TV can be.

The world — your world — is now on a collision course with a revolutionary video technology. And it's going to change nearly everything.

The technology, of course, is high-definition television, or HDTV. Years before earning its inevitable status as a household item, hi-def is quickly becoming a household word. This is not due to the virtues of HDTV as much as its political, financial, and even military implications. People are calling it the economic battleground from which the victorious economy of the next century will emerge. Doom sayers predict that if the Japanese beat us here, we're down for the count. The American Electronics Association, one of a slew of self-interested organizations that have flacked tirelessly on the issue, has told Congress that if we lose out on this bonanza, "future improvements in our standard of living and maintenance of the balance between the leading economies of the world are threatened." For lack of hi-def patents, we will be plunged into the Third World!

You would think that HDTV represents as potent an advance as the atomic bomb. Actually, the technology itself isn't that revolutionary. It's not just a souped-up television set but a system of video advances. You can explain the differences in two words: better television. Some use a different shorthand, describing hi-def as a cinema experience at home. As Larry Carlson, an HBO vice-president, says, "People sitting in movie theaters are really watching HDTV."

This becomes apparent with a single glance at a hi-def monitor. Unlike the almost-square rectangle of a normal picture tube (the ratio of width to height is four to three), the HDTV monitor is wider, about five to three. Roughly the same shape as a movie screen. This is no coincidence. Studies conducted by NHK, the Japanese television network that pioneered hi-def, discovered that the "wide-aspect ratio" engaged the eye and the mind to the fullest extent. This particular shape apparently spurs not only a visual but also a psychic connection. "Five to three is the golden aspect ratio — the Greeks used it to build the Parthenon," says Bronwen Jones, a scientist and FCC consultant who has done extensive psycho-visual television-watching studies.

A second unmistakable trait of HDTV is its razor-sharp images. Television is transmitted by a series of horizontal lines (if you look closely at your screen, you can see them). Our current standard, called NTSC, uses 525 of these, not really enough to bring out details. And when you watch television with a large-screen monitor, the lines become all too visible, especially at close range. But HDTV commonly has more than 1,000 lines. Combined with advanced circuitry, the denser, more plentiful lines give television images the clarity of thirty-five-millimeter film.

The colors are true and vivid, so good that "a lot of people attribute a 3-D quality to it," says Corey Carbonara, the head of the New Video Technologies Project at Baylor University. Alan Levy, an HBO executive, is one of those people. "It's like looking out your window," he says. "It's got the immediacy of video with the clarity and intensity of a color transparency."

Even if you sit close, HDTV looks great. (The recommended distance for viewing HDTV is three times the screen height; with NTSC, anything less than five times the height looks awful.) The picture is so sharp that hi-def can be used for sensitive military applications (the Department of Defense has sunk $30 million into HDTV research) or detailed medical work. Individual frames can be isolated and printed as quality photographs. And the image can be blown up even to wall-size displays without losing its uncanny crispness. In fact, the experts say you don't really have HDTV unless you are watching a big screen, something like five feet by three feet. Or something the size of your wall.

The coup de grace is aural. Everybody agrees that HDTV will deliver the sound quality of a top notch compact disc player.

Put this stuff together and you have a couch potato's wet dream. Movies will look as good at home as they do in theaters. Sports events will drop fans in the center of courts, fields, and gridirons. Roseanne Barr will be enormous. And as Jim Carnes, an executive at the David Sarnoff Research Center, says, "MTV on HDTV is going to be dynamite."

"High-definition television is an unstoppable force," says Sam Bush, the editor of a trade publication called HDTV Newsletter. "It catches our fancy and makes us feel we're leaping into the twenty-first century with a powerful information tool."

Every segment of the entertainment industry is gearing up for the change. Hardware manufacturers are busily preparing designs for HDTV systems. Cable programmers like HBO are already experimenting with hi-def sports and entertainment productions. The film industry is awakening to the idea that HDTV might eventually displace film as its medium; two movies (though flops) have already been shot in the new form. And the television networks are preparing for a change even more jarring than the transition from black and white to color. "We see HDTV as the viewing medium of the next century," says Rupert Stow, director of production-systems analysis at CBS.

Indeed, the assumption is that once viewers get a look at high-definition television, they will realize the pitiful inadequacy of the current standard, adopted a decade before Milton Berle hit the airwaves. "Television is now stuck in the 1950s," says Mikhail Tsinberg, a research-department head at Philips Laboratories in Briarcliff Manor, New York. "Now it's time to upgrade the quality. "A generation used to technological innovation — the same folks who gobbled up compact-disc players in the eighties - will have a new battle cry in the nineties: I want my HDTV. They will see it, compare it with what they have now and buy it. Even if they have to pay thousands of dollars more for it.

True, some commentators wonder whether the rising hype for HDTV is not an example of "technology push," when marketers assume that just because an invention is technically dazzling, people will want it. The great Consumer Electronics Show in the sky is littered with the remains of such alleged sure things, from quadraphonic stereos to picture phones. "We've been doing consumer tests of certain HDTV systems," says Russell Neuman, a director at MIT’s Media Lab. "And it doesn't blow their socks off." But this is a minority opinion. Most people in the field, for obvious reasons, harbor no doubt that this is the future. So much so that they sometimes are stunned that anyone would even bother to question its manifest destiny.

"Is it inevitable?" asks one expert. "It's more than inevitable."

[To] David Niles ... "What's really important is that HDTV is a new style of picture that will change the face of the world."

As one of the few people involved in full-time production of HDTV programming — he runs Captain Video Studios in Paris and 1125 Productions in New York City — David Niles is one of the few people who can comment intelligently on the real future significance of hi-def. HDTV transmogrifies the cool medium of television into a sizzling, mesmerizing experience — one engaging the senses in a way that television never could.

"We're talking about a different language, a different way the medium will communicate," Niles says. "It's a wonderful chameleon in that it can imitate video and film V but cinema and video cannot imitate HDTV. Nothing can."

Niles uses as an example the 1987 Mike Tyson-Tyrell Biggs fight. As an experiment, HBO taped the fight (which it telecast live to subscribers using standard video) in hi-def. Unlike regular video, which needs all sorts of multicamera close-up and slow-motion shots and replays to maintain excitement, the HDTV version uses only a single camera, which occasionally zooms close to the two fighters but more often shows a substantial portion of the ring. But the intensity is terrific — the sorts of bone-jarring details that Martin Scorsese worked so hard to achieve in Raging Bull are easily realized in the rich, highly detailed color of high definition. Combined with high-quality stereo sound, the experience of sitting ringside is perhaps even a little too close for comfort.

It's easy to see how other sports will be covered on HDTV. "The increased field of view gives you more options," says Corey Carbonara of Baylor University. "In baseball, for instance, a shot behind home plate сад reveal all the players on base with extreme clarity. You'll see the event like a spectator."

Rock videos will change, too. "When you film a concert in high definition, you can capture the whole stage," says Barry Rebo, president of Rebo High Definition Studio. "You can sit on shots longer, look at relationships between players."

You can also use special effects that make traditional rock videos look somnambulant. Mind-bending visuals are much more easily performed with video than with film: Now they can easily and cheaply be done with the quality of film. (In fact, largely because of the savings involved, film-makers like Niles, Rebo, and Zbigniew Rybczynski are already using HDTV to make commercials and rock videos. Mick Jagger's video for "Let's Work" was one of the first.) When shown on HDTV equipment, effects can have incredible impact. "With normal television, I can show yoi anything and you wouldn't be scared," says Niles. "But with HDTV, I can scare the crap out of you in one shot."

Ultimately, HDTV will change the look of all television. Much of what we see on TV today is tailored to compensate for the medium's limitations. "The videography is done with that in mind," says William Scmeiber, director of the Advanced Television Research Program at MIT's Media Lab. "You're not going to line up a hundred dancing girls on-screen [because you wouldn't be able to see them]." So instead of dancing girls, we have the situation comedy, with its endless close-ups, its monotonous standard sets. But according to Corey Carbonara, "HDTV will cause a real significant change in those shows. The sets will have to be more carefully dressed. You can do story lines with past and future events, splitting the screen to do experimental narratives."

But some television shows may never go HDTV, some argue. "You don't want a theatrical situation every time you turn on the TV," says MIT's Schreiber. "Lots of television doesn't require high definition, like soap operas or news. Do you think people are going to turn on a ballet at three in the afternoon?" Even ultrabooster David Niles admits, "I don't want to see "Wheel of Fortune" in hi-def." But the probability is that "General Hospital," Dan Rather, and Vanna White are all destined to be wall-size. "If broadcasters are to remain competitive, we'll have to do it," says Rupert Stow of CBS. Advertisers, in particular, will demand that television use HDTV to the fullest — it is an adman's dream to have a commercial played across someone's wall with the message blasted in digital stereo. Unlike regular television, a tiny box in a room, HDTV cannot be ignored. Who can read a magazine in a movie theater? Ultimately, says Stow, "the whole experience of watching television is going to be different. It will be a cinema experience."

Will HDTV, with its ability to match the local Cineplex, keep the movie audience glued to the home viewing room to the exclusion of filmgoing?

Most experts don't think so, citing previous Chicken Littles in Hollywood who hit the panic button when television arrived and then wrongly tolled doom when cable hit the scene. The social experience of going out to a communal screen has always prevailed. But while HDTV will not destroy the movie theaters, it will affect the movies. "It may well change the kinds of films made," says John Dykstra, who supervised the creation of special effects for Star Wars. "We'll see an incredible increase in special effects, and films will more easily be able to portray fantasy."

These predictions won't be fulfilled until the next century. Meanwhile, plenty of people are eager to lie back to a wide-screen home viewing of E.T. now. When will they get their HDTV? How will they get it?

Everybody's got a different timetable. The industry associations have published reports predicting that HDTV won't reach a significant audience (about one-fourth of the viewing public) until around the year 2000. They note that color TV was around for well over ten years before a majority of viewers bought a color set. But HDTV Newsletter's Bush says that HDTV will be-here "sooner than the decade that everyone talks about." And go-go advocates like David Niles have no problem cutting that schedule in half. "HDTV in five years? Absolutely!" he proclaims. After all, Sony and other Japanese manufacturers are readying equipment for worldwide consumer sale within two years. And HBO is already planning its first broadcasts for the early nineties. There will be no problem in finding programming material. "Movies are HDTV," says HBO's Carlson.

A likely progression emerges. Early in the nineties will come the first HDTV monitors, accompanied by videocassette and videodisc players. "The first sets," says HBG's Alan Levy, "are going to be high end, very expensive, and bought by people who used to be called "the lunatic fringe." Now we call them "early adapters." These gadget freaks will invite envious friends over to see Lawrence of Arabia or the new Madonna video in hi-def. The seed will be planted."

Around 1992 or so, some cable systems will begin transmitting hi-def programming. Services like HBO will show not only movies but certain high-profile sports events in wide screen and stereo. Some producers of network television, protecting themselves for the future, will begin making their shows in hi-def.

It might not be until the middle of the decade that the system that the FCC chooses for HDTV broadcast is finally implemented. But at that point, production lines of HDTV components will begin to run full steam, and prices will start to drop. Eventually an HDTV set will cost only about 25 per cent more than today's state-of-the-art set. But it will still be expensive, because HDTV watchers will need very large tubes or projection televisions, which cost a few thousand dollars now and won't be getting any cheaper.

By the end of the decade, though, that cost problem may be solved. Several companies are working on flat-panel monitors, which will hang on your wall like a framed poster. William Glenn, director of the science and technology research center of the New York Institute of Technology: Dania, Florida, predicts that flat-panel: displays like the one he has invented will be plentiful before the turn of the century. The one he has in mind will be three feet by five feet and will cost only $1,500. When not in use as television receiver, it will display a vivid facsimile of you favorite painting.

By then this will be a high-definition world. Your living room will have the flavor of "The Jetsons," as the basic item of home furnishing will be something out of science fiction. "We believe HDTV is more than a television set," J. Richard Iverson, president of the American Electronics Association, said recently. "We think it is the beginning of the home information center — the home work station."

Yes, the prognosticators envision that our mindless entertainment will be mixed with enriching data, covering our walls and our consciousness. The line between compute and television will be as indeterminable as one of those 1,000 scan lines on the screen itself. The latest movie and the monthly phone bill will arrive at your house via that, same fiber-optic cable. It will be a future where kids no longer do homework while the TV drones, because the homework will be on the TV; where the local news rushes into our home with hi-def immediacy, infusing the usual fire-victim interviews with the impact of The Sorrow and the Pity; where we order our sports events like takeout Chinese food; where wall-size commercials and rock videos hold our senses hostage hour after hour, until we devote a corner of the screen to balancing our checkbook.

The banks themselves will probably be owned by the Japanese. If history is any indicator, they will dominate the consumer-electronics market no matter what roadblocks the FCC constructs. But who will care? Well have our HDTV.