High Definition Television Production



Quo Vadis






Presented at





The Canadian Satellite Users Association Conference


High Definition Television Session








Dr. J.A. Flaherty FIEE FRTS


Senior Vice President – Technology


CBS Corporation










Toronto, Canada                                                                                              March 23, 2021




High Definition Television Production

Quo Vadis





Over the years, many systems have been called “High Definition Television”.  As far back as 1935, in a report on the emergence of television, David Samoff, then President of RCA said:


“Public interest in television continues unabated since….RCA stated that it was diligently exploring the development of television.  Our laboratory efforts have been guided by the principle that the commercial application of such a service could be achieved only through a system of high-definition television.”


Thus, in 1935 it was 343 lines, in prewar England it become 405 lines, by the 1939 New York World’s Fair, it was 441 lines, 525 line NTSC was introduced as a “high definition color television system”, and in later day Europe HDTV became 625 lines.


In short, HDTV has always been, and will always be, the best quality achievable with a given state-of-the-art.  HDTV is always the best, not the second best, not the third best, and not the previous best.  Today, the best is 1080/1920 at an aspect ration of 16:9, interlace and progressively scanned.  Today, this 1080 line digital, wide screen, high definition format has escalated “Broadcast Quality” to a plateau never before imagined.


The constant search for higher quality television has been endless, and there has never been a significant quality improvement in television technology that has not become a part of everyday American life.  HDTV is just the latest such “must have” technology.


While engineers love to agonize over the relative benefits of interlace and progressive scanning and over the relative importance of spatial and temporal resolution, there is no question whatsoever that 1080/1920P is vastly superior to any other high definition system by at least a million pixels-per-second with 50 or 60 frames-per-second about two years away.  In fact, as you already know, all programs produced on film are always broadcast in the progressive format today.


Anyone in this room that believes, or wants to believe, that the public won’t ever want wide screen digital HDTV when it’s offered, are taking a “bet-the-business” gamble.


Beginning last year, the new U.S. program season saw the massive launch of digital HDTV programming throughout the country.  This, coupled with the rapid rollout of DTV stations that now cover over 58% of U.S. television homes, able to reach over 100 million people, forms a solid base for the DTV/HDTV transition in America.


The latest report from the FCC shows that:

            410 stations have applied for a permit to construct digital transmission facilities,

            306 stations have been granted permits,

            119 stations are already broadcasting DTV and HDTV,

            25 television markets have two or more DTV/HDTV stations on-the-air,

            In markets, ranked lower than 30, the digital transition continues with 21

            Stations now on-the-air with more to come.



As the digital transition takes place, there will be a host of transmission formats available to broadcasters, DTH, and cable operators from the inferior VHS format through 480 I&P, 720P, to full 1080 I&P HDTV.  While transmission systems have severe bandwidth restrictions that limit the ultimate quality today, HDTV program production has far more bandwidth flexibility and important program production requires the highest possible quality.  Thus, the production and distribution of programs is a wholly different matter from the multiple transmission and delivery systems employed by the multiple distribution media.


In important prime HDTV production it is critical to capture, record, post produce, and finish productions in the highest possible quality to protect the finished product quality and to protect the archive value for future broadcast and for both domestic and international syndication sales.  Programs may be down-converted to all the lesser transmission formats, but they must be mastered in full HDTV to remain competitive in the domestic and world program markets.


As to the all-important HDTV programs, last September CBS began transmitting 14 ˝ hours-per-week of primetime programming the 1080 I&P high definition along with “specials”, movies, and major sporting events, including 18 hours of the US Open Tennis Championship at Forest Hills.


Today, CBS broadcasts 15 hours-per-week of primetime programming, covering 17 individual programs and CBS will broadcast the NCAA “Final Four” basketball championships in 1080 HDTV on April 1 to 3, and 10 ˝ hours of the Master’s golf tournament April 6 to 9, live from Augusta, Georgia.


Most importantly, all of these high definition programs are sponsored and paid for by advertisers!


NBC, HBO, Madison Square Gardens, Warner Bros., DirecTV, The Discover Channel, and Capitol Broadcasting are transmitting over 120 hours-per-week in the 1080 I&P HDTV format.  Of this amount of HD programming, Madison Square Garden has produced and distributed 40 hours-per-month of world-class basketball and hockey this season, and another 5 to 20 hours of 1080 high definition will be added to their schedule each month with the broadcast of major league baseball games this summer.


Today, the 1080 I&P format is rapidly becoming the unarguable HDTV program production format worldwide, and it is the only HDTV program production and international exchange standard approved by the International Telecommunications Union in its ITU-R Recommendation BT-709-3.  This ITU Recommendation is based on the “Common Image Format” or CIF of 1920 samples-per-line at an aspect ration of 16:9 with 1080 lines-per-picture progressively scanned at 24, 25, and 30 frames-per-second and both interlace and progressively scanned at 50, and 60 pictures-per-second.  The 1080 line production format is not jus 1080I, and it is rapidly spreading worldwide.


The 24 frame progressive version of this “Common Image Format” is particularly important as it makes possible the electronic production of film style programs for both TV and for the cinema.  Heretofore, electronic production did not meet the quality requirements of 35 mm film production, and the 1920/1080P/24-frame Common Image Format has erased this quality limitation for the electronic production of film programs.  In fact, 80% of the recent Star Wars production “episode 1 – The Phantom Menace” was produced electronically with the electronic camera photography done using the 1920/1080 CIF format.  The Lucas organization has now announced that much of the next Star Wars production “Episode II” will be produced electronically with the camera photography using the 1920/1080P/24-frame CIF format.  With the 1920/1080/24 I&P format available, why would anyone produce electronic film programs any other way?






In addition to CBS, NBC, HBO, Madison Square Garden, Warner Bros., PBS, DirecTV, The Discovery Channel, and Capitol Broadcasting using the CIF 1920/1080 HDTV format, the Asian-Pacific Broadcast Union (ABU) has adopted the 1080 CIF format as its unique HDTV program production and international exchange standard for use throughout the Asia-Pacific region.


Thus, after 50 years of a TV technological “Tower of Babel”, the world has seen the emergence of a single worldwide HDTV program production and international exchange standard.  There is finally a way to move and sell HD programs and sporting events around the world in a single image format, and the world’s major programmers are adopting it.


As High definition program schedules expand in broadcasting, in DTH and cable systems, it is important to remember that in the competition for viewers, wide screen, high definition programs will be just a “channel click” away from all lesser quality offerings, including those broadcast on both sides of the US/Canadian border.  The competition will be horrific!


Lest the need for full HDTV in the prime program production is questions, Hollywood has already set the pace worldwide.  80% of U.S. primetime television product is, and has been produced in HD for over40 years, namely 35 mm film.  Hollywood TV product dominates the world program market, its market share is growing, and its product is high definition.  Today, much of this 35 mm film product is being converted to the 1080 CIF HDTV format and broadcast as 1080P.


With its high definition TV product, the growth in total revenues returned to the major U.S. production studios from 1987 through 1997 has increased over three times to a total of US$32 billion annually.  While revenues from the theatrical distribution of moves have increased modestly, the revenues derived from the electronic distribution media of cable, DTH, home video, and television broadcasting, have increased 350 percent.


The demand for programs is a worldwide phenomenon, and today, some 40 percent of the total U.S. studio revenues are derived from the export of programs, and these exports, with the electronic media providing most of the growth, continue to increase at an annual rate of 17 percent.


Programmers who wish to maintain and increase their share of the domestic and international program markets will be forced to produce in HDTV, and the worldwide 1080 IId Common Image Format will dominate high definition program production and exchange in all the TV markets.


As you plan your way into HDTV and into the landscape of 21st century television, it is vital to understand that 1080 I&P, wide screen, high definition is not just pretty pictures for today’s small screen TV sets.  Rather, it is a wholly new digital platform that will support the larger and vastly improved displays already in development for near term commercialization.


However, viewing HDTV on present high definition displays is a bit like mark Twain’s comment that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”.  Today HDTV is better than it looks!  The display devices are the limiting quality factor, the low pass filter as it were.  As of now, no display has achieved the full quality potential of the 1920/1090 CIF HDTV system.  In making HD system decisions, beware of today’s high definition system demonstrations!  Usually, the viewer is testing the limited display devises and not the HDTV systems themselves.





Yet this development is as it should be!  The full potential of any new standard should never be fully encompassed by the existing state-of-the-art, nor should it be so futuristic as to not have its potential achievable in a foreseeable time.  The 1080 CIF HDTV standard is beyond the present quality of displays, but not beyond the scope of rapid display development.  Displays are getting better and cheaper – not poorer and more expensive!


Be forewarned!  Full quality displays will rapidly improve and will continue to widen the quality gap between real 1080 HDTV and all lesser formats.  Interim “good enough” system decisions are a “pay me now and pay me later” investments!


Finally, as you evaluate tomorrow’s TV and HDTV and plan for its implementation, bare in mind that today’s standard of service enjoyed by the viewer will not be his level of expectation tomorrow.  Good enough is no longer perfect, and may become wholly unsatisfactory.  Quality is a moving target, both in programs and in technology.  Judgments as to future changes must not be based on today’s performance or on minor improvements thereto. 


Change is irresistible, as Victor Hugo noted when he wrote:


“An invasion of armies can be resisted; but not an idea whose time has come.”