The Future of Anime: HDTV

by Justin Sevakis, Sep 8th 1998




This month, the world will get its first look at HDTV, the new digital broadcasting standard. The five largest media markets in the country will see digital HDTV broadcasting for the first time. But what will this mean for us otaku?

By now, almost everyone has heard of HDTV and the prospects of a big, clear picture that's almost as good as a movie in their own living room. However, up until now, no one has discussed the effects this will have on anime, or the animation industry in general.

In the long run, HDTV will be a Godsend. NTSC, the current analog video standard, started to show its age back in the 70's. The format was established in 1941, and colorized in the early 50's. Other new additions to the signal standard have been made since then, including ghost correction, sync pulses, and a few other things that we all take for granted, but for the most part, it's a standard whose time has come.

The Technical

No where is this more apparent than in fansub circles, although to a lesser extent than it used to be. Us fansub veterans remember the days when happiness was a fansub you were actually able to read the subtitles on, usually from some hack-house like Canada-based Arctic Animation. After about five generations, the color smear became very apparent, as any use of yellows or reds in the picture began to smear off of the black and white underlying image. Good sound was a luxury. Static was a fact of life.

But all of these things are problems with NTSC. The fact that you can barely make out PBS with a cheezy little antenna on a rainy day, the fact that you can't copy a tape more than three generations without some noticeable loss, the fact that you have to watch carefully what kinds of tapes and cables you use to minimize signal loss, all of these problems stem from the limitations of a format that is over fifty years old.

The nicest things about the new HDTV standard is that there are four possible resolutions to choose from. The first, known as SDTV, or "Standard Definition Television," is equal in resolution to a modern DVD (640x480 pixels, or 720x480 for widescreen), and takes up about a quarter of the 6 MBPS (millions of bits per second) allocated to one channel. So, you could have up to four SDTV shows going AT ONCE on one signal. Confusing? Absolutely. Due to the general lack of technical savvy among the public, one has to wonder if this will catch on. Some companies worry that having four channels will cannibalize their market, but others say that this will make it possible to provide programming to more niche markets.

If one wants to take up ALL of the 6 MBPS of bandwidth, all one has to do is broadcast a high-definition picture. 1920 by 1080 pixels in resolution (for widescreen mode), with full Dolby Digital AC-3 home theater-quality audio, multiple audio tracks, and of course, MPEG 2 compression, same that is currently being used so successfully in DVD's.

The History

The United States was not even a factor in development of new television technologies, having given up the entire industry to Japan and Europe in the 1970's. In 1987, then-FCC chairman Richard Wiley was asked to chair a new committee to propose a replacement to the aging NTSC format. 23 new candidates (all of them analog format) were proposed by the various companies (one of which became a standard in Japan). Things changed drastically on June 1, 1990 when General Instruments, best known for Cable television boxes, introduced an entirely digital standard.

Now, this was revolutionary, because prior to this introduction it was generally thought that digital was too far into the future to be implemented, since compression technology would not allow enough digital data to be sent to make up an entire high-resolution picture over only one channel. However, with the introduction of the MPEG-2 format, development took off.

While other countries were reluctant to get away from their analog roots, the American FCC decided that digital was most certainly the wave of the future, and in 1996, finally decided on the "Grand Alliance Standard", a format stemmed from the General Instruments television and implementing concepts from the other 22 candidates, resulting in a remarkably flexible system. The standard is the first to use "progressive" displays (a constant on-off progression to new frames, like film and computer monitors), which was implemented for compatibility with those devices. Existing formats use interlaced, which alternates two fields that change, making up every other line of resolution. (The highest resolution had to have this at the highest frame rate due to the amount of space consumed by such a large picture.) Today, the United States is helping other countries (including Japan) adopt the new digital standard.

The Industry

The deployment of HDTV is a vast undertaking, since everything conventional about television is being reinvented. The FCC assigned a new "virgin" spectrum of broadcast channels to the format, and is trading the new broadcast channels for the old ones. (For a short time, carriers will have both so as to phase in the new format, after which the old channels will be returned to the FCC for use in other ways, including the possibility of digital radio.)

The worst part about HDTV is that a new set and all-new equipment is required to take advantage of the new format. (Set-top boxes will be available for converting signals to traditional NTSC format for older TV's, but the better quality will be lost.) The TV stations are going to bear the most cost in the transition. Since none of their current equipment can be used in the new standard, all new cameras, transmitters, VCR's, editors, and monitors will have to be purchased (one single broadcast VCR can cost as much as $20,000). TV stations will also have to upgrade news sets because the existing ones look really flimsy and fake in the new higher resolution.

Obviously, this has created a backlash among smaller stations. Independent stations will have to make the switch by a certain date (which has yet to realistically be decided) or risk losing their FCC license. Opponents argue that the format requires antennas to be too carefully aligned, a point made moot by the fact that 70% of the American public watch their local broadcast stations through rebroadcast cable providers. These stations, according to Wiley, is in the vast minority.

The need to broadcast two signals, one digital and one analog, simultaneously, could be very challenging. Wiley emphasizes that the FCC "wants to do NOTHING to disturb existing television," making simulcasting absolutely necessary. The bigger challenge is in the future. The HDTV format will have to be updated every time someone wants to use a new type of data compression to carry the signal, which means that all the hardware will have to be upgraded AGAIN.

The Consumers

A picture of a consumer HDTVHobbyists and the insanely rich can upgrade now, but a good HDTV set costs anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 US. Further, the units require two roof-mounted carefully-aligned aerial antennas to get any digital picture at all, and with only one or two channels available even in the biggest media markets (DSS dish owners can subscribe to a premium HDTV channel), and no broadcast channels anywhere else, and without even a VCR, DVD, or Laserdisc equivalent for the new format, the sets at this point are fancy doorstops. (Well, okay, they still function as regular TV's, but those can be had for so cheap lately...)

The ultimate test of the new standard will be after the implementation of all of the features desired in the format. The motion picture industry, as always, is pushing for copy protection, which will mandate the use of the "Firewire" (IEEE-1394) interconnect standard, but this movement is starting to slow down. (Yes, that's right, they haven't even decided an interconnect standard yet, although Sony's recently unveiled format is starting to attract others.)

Just how much this will all cost consumers is hearsay at this point, because no one knows how cheap the TV's will get, and when consumer VCR's will even be made available. (JVC has already released W-VHS for widescreen HDTV recordings, but that's being aimed at broadcasters right now.) It is very possible that there won't even be a VCR, but a disc-based system, much like recordable DVD's that we all dream of.

Regardless, we're probably going to have to endure the painful metamorphosis similar to what the industry did in the late 70's and early 80's with home video standards. (Everyone remembers Beta, but anyone remember RCA Select-A-Vision Videodiscs?) Some people will choose wrong and get burned and a few of those will probably sour on the idea of even going towards HDTV for a while, but they'll come around.

The Programming

This is probably the last thing to worry about. Since the early 90's, most sitcoms have been shot on traditional 35mm film, just like movies. Libraries of TV shows will be available, as will new, pristine-quality transfers of older shows and movies. (Being able to capture at film's existing frame rate will make this easier.) Of course, old video programming will still be of use, although it won't look nearly as good.

DVD's are expected to be compatible with the SDTV format, but video tapes and laserdiscs will have to be converted to a digital format. However, all of this is moot until a home video unit of some kind is made available, which is some years away...

The Otaku

No, I haven't forgotten that this is Anime News Network. Since all anime is shot on film, this means that studios can pump more out for cheaper, since film-to-video conversion will be cheaper. Existing films that can only now be seen letterboxed will be able to be seen at home in all the richness and detail of the theater. Cable channels will be able to play multiple reruns at once, and if that holds true for video as well, we could be seeing entire TV series on one disc.

TV shows, in order to be in their native 24 frames per second, will have to be re-transferred from their original print, which is impossible for some shows, since these no longer exist, or have had a lot of work done on them after they were converted to film. In this case, the existing video picture will just have to be converted to a digital format, like current DVD's. So this makes DVD the ultimate storage device right now! (If you didn't already have a reason to by a unit, this might be a reason.)

Otaku is the least of the concerns of the big companies. They are willing to sacrifice the most money for the best quality — really, joining the ranks of the videophiles as the only group to really be a sure thing when it comes to conversion. Since Japan will likely use a similar HDTV format, future imports will be feasible, but region encoding might mean that hardware trickery will be necessary.
HDTV is certainly awe-inspiring, but it is most certainly a few years away from being worthwhile for most people. In the mean time, anyone that wants to can prepare for the new format by upgrading their collection to DVD. It's expensive, but isn't everything we buy? ^_-

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