Though the 2006 deadline for complete digital conversion has been pushed back indefinitely, the major networks continue to roll out more and more programming in HDTV. Cable companies and satellite providers, eager to capitalize on a new for-pay service amidst falling profits and numerous bankruptcies, likewise continue to offer more high-definition channels. But what does this mean for the consumer? Is it worth paying upwards of $1000 for an HD-ready television, plus the additional monthly cost to the cable company? How much better can the sound and picture be, anyway?
Part one of a continuing series.
ABC, like Fox, has chosen to broadcast its HDTV signals in 720p, based on the superiority of progressive scan at creating a film-like quality and reducing jaggies and artifacts, particularly during action scenes in movies and sports. The other major networks, NBC and CBS, use 1080i, owing to the higher resolution of that format. While the debate about which signal is better rages, all the viewer really needs to know is that any HDTV can view either format, even if its not native to the set.
For viewing ABC’s Sunday night line-up, my set-up was as follows:
- Sony 32-inch Plasma TV, 16×9 aspect ratio
- Motorola 5100 digital receiver
- Native 720p resolution on both TV and receiver
- Sony Dolby Digital 5.1 home theater
- Video and sound configured with THX optimizer
J.J. Abrams’ spy drama is an excellent vehicle for showcasing HDTV technology. The progressive-scan picture is crisp and fluid, making the show look much more like a movie than your standard TV fare. The frame rate is smooth, and there are not noticeable artifacts.
Much of the March 14 episode, Facade, is set in very dark locations, such as a Belfast bar and the cargo hold of an airliner. These dark scenes are particularly noticeable in HD. Whereas on standard analog programming they would be blurry and indistinct, the action comes across as smooth and distinct. Brighter scenes stand our as well, with all colors rendered richly across the palette.
Despite the impressiveness of the broadcast, I was unable to distinguish a noticeable difference between the 720p presentation and the 480p first and second season Alias DVDs. Whether this was due to the source material or the broadcast parameters, I don’t know. This is not to say the picture quality isn’t impressive–it certainly was. Only that I was expecting a noticeable improvement from the discs.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is where this broadcast truly stands out. All channels were used to the utmost effect in every scene. Standouts included a back alley shoot-out that had bullets ricocheting from every direction and a tense bomb-diffusing scene in which the ticking of the clock grows progressively louder as it counts down.
Ultimately though, viewers with a progressive-scan DVD player will likely be able to replicate the experience of the HDTV broadcast once the third season discs are released. While shows like Alias are what HDTV was made for, ABC is not using the technology to its fullest yet.
The first thing the viewer notices in the HD presentation of David E. Kelley’s long-running legal drama is the theme song as it was meant to be heard, in 5.1 channels of booming surround sound. Though less action-packed than Alias, the show manages to make full use of the abilities of Dolby Digital to create an immersive environment. While the primary locations in this episode were small, contained rooms, the few scenes with crowd noise–a press conference and a short restaurant scene–managed to create a theater-like experience.
The picture quality is impressive, but suffers from the same issues as did Alias. It just doesn’t appear to be that much a leap over DVD-quality to have the “wow” factor HDTV is supposed to present. Additionally, without any action scenes, there is little benefit to progressive scan for a show like this. There are several moments in dark offices when the lawyers black suits appeared indistinguishable from the shadows. While this may have been an intentional decision on the part of the director and lighting crew, it appears shoddy in light of HDTV’s ability to separate blacks better than a standard NTSC broadcast.
Indeed, the largest problem with viewing this show in HDTV is that the settings are often very dimly lit. While a normal quality broadcast masks some of this in lost resolution, it becomes obvious in high def. However, the few scenes were more color stood out brilliantly. Most notable were the neon signs in a bar window in the last few minutes of the show. After an hour of dark rooms, dark furniture, and dark suits, the glowing red and green neon stood out dramatically.
Unlike Alias, a show like The Practice doesn’t gain much from being broadcast in higher definition. As with most legal dramas, there is very little movement on the screen through most of the episode. However, the static images do allow the viewer to marvel at the crisp, clean picture and the lack of distortion or ghosting when compared with most standard broadcasts. Screen caps from the HD presentation of this show are clear enough that they could likely double as publicity stills.
ABC’s decision to go with 720p over 1080i was a controversial one. At the time, both CBS and NBC, as well as the all-high-def versions of ESPN and Discovery, had already adapted the higher resolution format. However, for its drama line-up and sports programming, progressive scan was likely a good decision for the network. I have the feeling they are not yet using the technology to the fullest, however, as the resolution does not appear to improve upon DVD quality. When football season comes around this Fall, then we’ll really see what they’ve got.