Can we handle a 4K world when HD still seems to be so hard?

As the FCC pushes for ATSC 3.0 for 4K HDR, it’s been 20+ years since they approved ATSC with its optional HD formats. Nevertheless, is the industry ready for 4K when it still can’t do HD right?

I’m not talking about 4K production; I’m talking 4K distribution. And I don’t mean bandwidth compression formats.

Early on, during the DTV transition, a phrase was coined…”postage stamp.” That was a widescreen video that was formatted for 4:3 (letterboxed), but then broadcast in a widescreen format. The name comes from the fact that the widescreen video was surrounded by black, and resembled a landscape postage stamp. The problem is, you can still turn on your TV today and see programs in postage stamp mode.

That begs two questions: Whose fault is it, and what can be done about it?

It might not be your fault…or it might be. Are you handling aspect ratio conversion in the correct way? Are your automated settings actually set right? Are your distribution partners (cable and satellite) doing “something” to your signal?

Some broadcasters pay particular attention to SD programs on their HD channel. For example, BBC America shows Star Trek: The Next Generation (a 4:3 SD program) on its HD (16:9) channel, but formatting the program for almost full screen in 14:9. Sure, that cuts off some of the top and the bottom (you can notice this on episode’s opening credits) as well as leaving small black side panels, but it was a brilliant solution — HD viewers got almost a full raster image and didn’t miss that much content.

Maybe it’s the consumers’ fault. They went out and spent their hard-earned money on an HD or even 4K TV, and are seeing postage stamp video. Why? Bad settings on their TV? Or even worse — maybe they’re watching your SD cable/satellite feed. Case in point: A station broadcasting an HD show in HD and all is well, but the cable system also distributes in SD, so now you’re letterboxed. That’s not a bad thing if viewed on an SD 4:3 TV, but what if a 16:9 HDTV is tuned to the SD channel instead of the HD channel, and the TV is not set to zoom in? Postage stamp.  There’s nothing you can do about that.

But maybe it is your fault? You air a syndicated program that was originally HD, but for some reason, you got an SD letterboxed version or you somehow converted it to SD (letterbox). Now you air it in HD without doing any zooming on your side.

In the home, some DVRs and TVs let you zoom into an image, that image typically can’t already be in an HD format. So if a postage stamp program is already airing in 1080 or 720, there’s no zoom. Those same DVRs and TVs will let users zoom in on 4:3 and letterbox images if they are broadcast as standard definition — but who wants to do that in the age of HD? People may be tuned to SD instead of HD, and those same people probably don’t know enough to zoom in.

All of this begs a question for broadcast engineers, production companies, syndicators, ad agencies and anyone else making “TV” today…and tomorrow: Will your glorious 4K widescreen image end up as a postage stamp somewhere? Or even more ridiculous: in your 4K channel (when you eventually have one), will you end up having commercials or other sourced programs that end up letterboxed instead of upconverted to 4K? Will a consumer 4K TV set let a user zoom into a program that already thinks is in 4K, because that’s your broadcast format? Will this sour the taste of 4K for consumers?

However, let’s not place blame. Let’s do whatever we can to make sure that the fault is not our own as we move towards a 4K world. That means, even in this age of automation, that you are QC-ing your broadcast (terrestrial, satellite and cable), that you QC your incoming programs (and didn’t order the SD version for some reason), that your servers and modular gear have their aspect ratio converters set up correctly. There’s a current series that I watch. It’s produced in HD. I watch it on an HD channel, but it’s postage stamped — and there’s not a thing I can do about it.

We do a lot of things right when it comes to broadcasting. It’s those few things that we do wrong that hurt us as an industry, especially when we don’t fix them (or don’t even notice them). Postage stamp video is just one. Here’s another: a “coming up” program countdown teaser clock on a national and well-respected cable network that goes from 51:43:01 to 51:42:00 to 51:42:59, and does that every single minute for hours. Maybe no one noticed but me — fair enough, that’s the kind of thing I get paid to notice. Leave me a comment and I’ll send you a link — I just hope it’s not your network.

Then again, if your viewers don’t complain, why should we?

Michael Silbergleid runs Silverknight Consulting, a strategic marketing firm serving broadcast and film equipment manufacturers.

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