Dolby Sound Gains Respect

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Preston Davis likes to wow his friends with his sound system.
“What really impresses them is when a phone rings, and they say, `Don’t you need to get that?’ and I say, `No, it’s on the TV.’ They’re shocked at the clarity,” said Mr. Davis, president of broadcast operations and engineering at ABC.
When it comes to the eye candy that is high-definition television, many consumers treat sound quality as an unsexy stepsister. Programming experts, however, believe sound is an equally vital component of the high-definition experience. “I think people get more out of the aural experience and the surround sound than they do out of the high-quality video,” Mr. Davis said.
ABC has led the charge among broadcast networks to include Dolby Digital surround sound 5.1 technology in its HD programming, dating back to its first HD broadcast, “101 Dalmatians,” in 1998. All of ABC’s scripted series and movies offered in HD also include Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, and ABC stipulates in the specs for all new scripted shows it licenses that the audio be produced with that technology.
For the 2004-05 season, ABC projects that its total HD hours will be more than 820, and all will be in surround sound, including “Monday Night Football.”
The other broadcast networks have carried very little prime-time HD content in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound previously, but many plan to significantly expand their aural HD contributions this fall, by which time they will have largely completed the necessary equipment upgrades.
CBS said it will offer a significant amount of its HD prime-time lineup in surround sound this fall as the content becomes available from program suppliers. NBC expects to air a “major portion” of HD scripted series, movies and key sporting events in the 5.1 surround sound format as well, starting in September.
A spokesman for Fox said that network intends to include Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound in prime-time content when available as the network makes the transition this fall from its Fox Widescreen format to 720 progressive HD. Fox has used Dolby Digital’s cutting-edge technology for all Fox Sports events in the Fox Widescreen format since February 2003.
At least 60 percent of prime-time content will be available in HD, and Fox is encouraging show producers to include Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, said Jim DeFillipis, VP, television engineering, for the Fox Technology Group. Currently “24” is produced with the technology, and other programs, including “American Idol,” will adapt it in the fall, he said.
Fox’s nearly wholesale transition to both HD and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound comes as the network begins upgrading the technological capabilities of its affiliated stations that transmit digitally. After all, it takes two to tango-not only must the network deliver content in 5.1 surround sound, but the local station also must have the capability to transmit content to the viewer in that format.
“To move forward in HD you have to have ubiquitous content,” Mr. DeFillipis said. “Either we do everything, or we don’t do it.”
At networks other than ABC, the broadcast of content in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound has so far been largely limited to high-profile event-type programming. CBS aired the 2004 Grammy Awards and the recent March Madness college basketball tournament in HD and surround sound. Fox broadcasts weekly NASCAR events in surround sound as well as NFL football and special events. NBC carried the Salt Lake City Olympics in surround sound and will do the same for the Athens Summer Olympics games in August.
Surround sound means audio is delivered through five channels: front left, right and center speakers and rear left and right speakers. The “.1” component of “5.1” refers to a subwoofer that handles lowfrequency effects.
While some content providers do deliver programming in surround sound, consumers also must have a home theater system set up to receive the benefits. According to Dolby, more than 25 million digital cable and satellite set-top boxes currently can deliver a Dolby Digital 5.1 stream, supported by more than 37 million home receivers worldwide that can handle surround sound.
Dolby Digital is actually a process to deliver audio-either mono, stereo (two-channel) or up to 5.1 channel surround sound. Dolby Digital is the designated audio standard for DVDs worldwide, and the Advanced Television Systems Committee selected Dolby Digital as its standard for digital television.
That means the only audio a digital programming stream understands is Dolby Digital, said Tom Daily, director of marketing for professional audio at Dolby Laboratories. Dolby both manufactures audio equipment for the professional broadcast market and develops technology.
A home theater system that can deliver surround sound starts at about $200 to $300, Mr. Daily said.
While Digital Theater Systems is Dolby’s primary competitor in movie theaters, on TV it’s pretty much Dolby or bust. Cable operators, satellite systems and local broadcasters transmitting digital content use Dolby Digital, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
About 200 affiliate stations of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are capable of passing through Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. That number should rise significantly with the Fox transition this fall.
In addition to the efforts ABC has made to offer surround sound with HD scripted series and movies, the network has also explored its use in high-profile live events, such as the Academy Awards ceremony and the last two Super Bowls it has carried.
Delivering sound through five speakers takes more effort than delivering sound on two. And live events require additional technological tweaking-microphones must be placed differently, and the audio operator has to pay closer attention to the “sound field” being created, ABC’s Mr. Davis said. The live truck also needs to be capable of mixing surround sound.
Mr. Davis said ABC has been in the forefront of delivering its HD content in surround sound because it’s a means of differentiation. “[HD] viewers have an expectation that not only will they see great pictures, but they also have an expectation of hearing the audio the same way you would in a movie theater,” Mr. Davis said.
Equipment Upgrades
Robert Ross, CBS’s senior VP of East Coast operations, said the surround sound experience is immersive. “When you are sitting in the living room, it’s really as if you are there,” he said.
Most TV stations will need to spend anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 for the equipment needed to pass through surround sound, Mr. Ross said. That’s not much, considering the substantial amount stations will have already invested in new digital transmitters and encoders.
One of the reasons CBS will begin carrying scripted HD content in surround sound this fall is that it completed the final stages of equipment upgrades to deliver HD content in surround sound 5.1. “We didn’t have a way of handling multiple audio tracks when we bought our equipment to get [digital] on the air. So it’s timing and product upgrades, and we’re going to get there,” Mr. Ross said.
In addition to the broadcast networks, Showtime carried a Britney Spears concert March 28 in HD and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. It was the first live event Showtime has carried in surround sound. Other cable networks that offer some content in surround sound include HBO, Bravo HD+ and Spice HD.
The next generation of audio enhancements will likely be 6.1. Dolby Digital Surround EX (Extended) and DTS ES (Extended Surround), from Digital Theater Systems, have both been available on a handful of DVDs for the past few years. A 6.1 system adds a back center channel to allow for “fly-over” and fly-around” effects.