TNT Stretches for HD
Cable Net Teamed With Defense Contractor to Create "Stretch-O-Vision"
TNT has long been offering one of the best, and most frustrating, HD channels on basic cable.
The TNT movie library is an enviable collection of titles that appeal directly to the adult male HD-viewer demographic. Hundreds of quality action and drama movies like "The Matrix," "Gladiator," "Saving Private Ryan," "Panic Room" and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are on the list.
At the same time, HD fans have long complained about some TNT HD movies being presented in "Stretch-O-Vision"-a soft, stretched out, upconverted picture that's far from an HD ideal.
Turns out, the road to "Stretch-O-Vision" was paved with good intentions, and increasingly, more proper HD fare is on the way.
TNT launched its HD channel in 2004 and went with the bolder simulcast route rather than trying to create a separately programmed service. But getting an HD transfer of a movie can sometimes be a time-consuming and costly process, requiring a separate rights agreement. So with most of TNT's movies and series in standard definition, launching an HD channel presented a challenge to maintain quality consistency.
Clyde D. Smith, TNT's senior VP of broadcast engineering, research and development, quality assurance and metrics, said TNT first tried presenting standard-definition content with "pillar box" bars, just like ESPN HD.
The viewing experience, he said, was jarring because the screen size kept changing every time an HD image left the screen. At the time, many plasma sets still suffered from image-retention issues, while some HD sets lacked the capability of self-stretching content to fill the screen.
"A lot of sets couldn't adjust the size of the image," Mr. Smith said. "I had complaints from people that they had been watching our product and it burned side panel [images] into their sets. And that's not something we wanted to do."
Many options for SD upconversion were, at the time, rather unattractive too, creating funhouse effects with the image.
So TNT turned to a defense contractor called Teranex, which creates image processors for electronic battlefield observation, to create a new upconversion process. The Teranex processors ran algorithms that made it easier for battlefield observers to see through smoke or fog, or zoom in on certain images.
Using Photoshop, TNT doctored up some still-movie frames to give Teranex an idea of what they wanted the final upconverted image to look like.
"The upconversion that people could do at home [on their digital TVs] was nowhere near as good as what we could do at the time," he said. "It's not the same as a high-def original, but it's an enhanced viewing experience over 4:3."
The technology was licensed exclusively to TNT for a year, and has since been used by networks including HGTV and Discovery (for upconverting documentary footage snippets that are unavailable in HD). Fans dubbed the result "Stretch-O-Vision," but the proper name is FlexView.
Most viewers don't realize that in addition to stretching the SD image, TNT also stretches the sound of SD movies. In order to prevent the signal from switching from SD's stereo to HD's 5.1 surround, a change that can cause problems with some audio receivers, TNT also created a way to synthesize a 5.1 signal from a 2.0 feed-thus also roughly maintaining sound continuity.
"We observed our competition and … you see this beautiful high-def movie and picture suddenly fold into 4:3 and you've disrupted the viewing experience and collapsed the sound field," he said. "Those are things we didn't want to do. We're all about maintaining a pleasant viewing experience."
Though exact percentages are not available for TNT's SD vs. native HD movies, fan lists compiled online put the field at roughly 50-50. As newer titles are added, TNT expects more titles to be available in the high-def format. For 2007, TNT's HD basic-cable premieres will include "The Bourne Supremacy," "Cinderella Man," "Minority Report," "A Beautiful Mind" and "Mission Impossible 2."
This article is part of TVWeek.com's High Definition newsletter, a weekly source of breaking HD news, articles and interviews written by Senior Reporter James Hibberd.