All the signs suggest that HD is about to come of age. Once the preserve of high-end drama and docu-dramas, broader broadcast genres such as comedy, general factual programming and even reality shows are now starting to be filmed in HD.
Co-production demands, especially for US consumption, remain the prime motivation for HD delivery but a number of producers are also experimenting with the format, aware that the day (set as 2010 by the BBC) is not far off when the majority of commissions switch to HD.
Yet if you accept the message of market leaders Panasonic and Sony, then HD is already pervasive and the only way to stay cutting edge. HD costs are coming down all the time, they argue. It provides a superior viewer experience. And with more than 100 HDTV channels set to launch in Europe over the next few years why not preserve content as an HD master maximising distribution options now and in the future?
While these arguments are strong, the reality is that until domestic HD channels come to air or broadcasters can be persuaded to help fund the premium that HD still commands, SD will continue to dominate.
“Without a doubt we’ve seen increased demand for HD but we’ve also seen sustained demand for SD equipment as well,” reports Adrian Bleasdale, who runs equipment supplier Provision. It is a view supported across the hire sector. HD is indeed on the agenda should the project warrant it but few companies have opted to produce everything in the format.
“If you’ve got material for international sale or with any kind of shelf life then you’d be mad not to shoot in HD,” argues Parthenon Entertainment managing director Carl Hall. “Shooting SD will only give you a possible shelf life of five years. You can’t supply Discovery or National Geographic without it being HD and they won’t accept up-rezzed content. That’s thousands of hours of programming that needs to be replaced with HD origination. As bandwidth opens up for domestic HD channels, the same transitional process will take place.”
Parthenon, which makes 75 hours annually, has all but made HD standard across its output and archive. However, it can control post-production costs since it owns all its own facilities. Hall says: “If producers also own overseas or ancillary rights it makes perfect sense to front the additional cost themselves. You may not get any extra for the sale but the chances of making a sale are greatly enhanced.”
The BBC’s HD channel has been greenlit, ITV1 plans to spend £10m in the run-up to an HD launch next year and Channel 4 will simulcast its full schedule on HD using Sky’s platform next month. All these plans could mean that subsequent series of primetime shows are commissioned in HD.
“There are already murmurings among broadcasters about what the cost differences would be for producing HD over SD, but they haven’t confirmed anything yet,” notes Jane Wilson, head of production at RDF, which switched C4’s Scrapheap Challenge to HD this year.
Nonetheless, the majority of satellite and cable channels aren’t going to insist on HD anytime soon.
“With high-end factual or a series, we would probably shoot HD from now on because the picture quality is stunning and you can exploit new revenue streams,” notes Tern TV creative director Harry Bell, who recently oversaw the firm’s first HD project, Great British Journeys for BBC2.
“But for the bulk of our programming, which is made for daytime, we would only shoot HD if it made financial sense.”
HD use remains genre-specific but a working knowledge of the format is widespread, giving more producers the confidence to select it on a project-by-project basis. Looking at HD in action across drama, reality, comedy and natural history, highlights the different ways how producers are getting to grips with the format.