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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 February 2006, 13:51 GMT
High definition vision
Chrichton Limbert
By Chrichton Limbert
Head of BBC News Production Modernisation

The latest high-tech "must-have" for the home is a giant TV screen ready to take high definition (HD) pictures from the worlds of movies and sport. But what about news? Should BBC News be "HD Ready"?

Plasma screen
The BBC plans a limited HD technical trial for later this year
High Definition television on a large screen with 5.1 multi-channel audio is a fantastic home viewing experience. In the US, HD Sport from ESPN and Fox is particularly successful and is strongly driving TV sales. HD in Australia, Canada, Korea and Japan is also well established and growing.

Europe is following. The Premiere HD Channel launched in Germany and Austria last year and is predicting huge demand for the World Cup in HD. HD is about to start in France and Sky will launch HD in the UK later this year. A real push will come from the launch of the PlayStation3 that comes with a HD Blu-ray DVD player.

By next Christmas there will be a much wider range of easily available HD pictures - including the BBC HD test service, a limited technical trial of the practicalities of transmitting in HD, due to start later this year.

In the words of Sky's James Murdoch, "HD isn't going to be great, it's just going to blow people away." The BBC is fully embracing HD and has publicly set a target of full HD production by 2010.

The instructions with huge HD sets advise you to sit close to have an "immersive experience". Sixty inch screens are already affordable in Japan, so the visual impact of TV in the home will soon rival the best of cinema. Great for films and drama but relevant for news?

Risks

Switching to HD is a particularly big issue for news. The main problem is one of cost - changing to HD is as bad as changing from black and white to colour. Absolutely everything in the whole production process has to be replaced - from lenses through to all TV screens, even including the cables and switches.

News is not something where we can just decide to try a single bulletin in HD to see what it looks like - the whole "global machine" has to switch.

There is also a real danger of losing speed to air - which is unacceptable. In recent years we have developed innovative digital technologies to get pictures from previously inaccessible locations really quickly using the power of satellite and the internet.

HD Ready logo
HD has roughly six times as much picture information to send, so could really slow us down until the technology catches up. We already balance picture quality against the editorial imperative of speed and rightly speed usually wins. This will not change with HD.

Another problem we will have to start worrying about is that the quality of location pictures may actually be too good. A US cable HD News service has reported strong audience reaction to "visceral" HD footage from war zones. In other words many people found the pictures too vivid and very upsetting.

We are not in the News business to upset audiences. We already show more sensitivity than some broadcasters in other parts of the world by holding back "difficult" images, so will we have to leave even more out for "immersive" viewers?

The problem is not just close ups - everything in the background is clear as well. In many cases softer Standard Definition (SD) pictures have allowed reporters to present to camera in "difficult" places because the scenes in the background cannot be fully identified. Will this become much harder to do?

Inevitable

Can BBC News just say - "no thanks, we like our slightly softer and faster pictures"? Not really. The problem is when the HD audience turns on the news after watching a fantastic quality film or concert. We could look visually terrible by comparison.

To compete we need to have at least HD studios and graphics as a presentation "frame" - even if the actual location pictures haven't changed much. This has to be our minimum step while we worry about field shooting and feeding.

However, we will never be 100% HD - the most memorable news image of 2005 was in a tube tunnel, taken on a mobile phone. We will never allow insisting on HD quality to get in the way of telling the story.

Will BBC News end up HD? Inevitably - as far as we can. Will we have to start using HD studios? Yes - sooner rather than later. But when it comes to location shooting we will have to settle for being HD Ready - But Just Not Yet.


SEE ALSO
Ten yards shy of a 'nerd nirvana'
12 Jan 06 |  Technology
Sky unveils high-definition shows
22 Nov 05 |  Entertainment

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