Advertisers are starting to believe the high-definition hype.
The number of HD cable and satellite subscribers totals only about 6 million, representing about half of the number of owners of HD television sets, according to industry estimates. For last week’s Super Bowl, however, more than half of the ads aired were shot in high definition, according to ABC.
One reason for Madison Avenue’s newfound interest has nothing to do with how good advertising looks in HD, but how bad it looks in standard definition on an HD channel.
If you’re an advertiser, there’s nothing fun about seeing the glorious widescreen panorama of the Super Bowl suddenly contract to a square, more grainy image when your product comes onscreen.
“You can’t just have cheap, cheesy-looking commercials cutting in,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “The hi-def homes tend to be upscale, so the market has embraced HD even though the numbers aren’t that big yet.”
HD cable networks hope sports events like the Super Bowl will help drive advertisers to produce more HD ads and, in turn, seek other channels for the spots that take advantage of the format.
“You ask anybody who runs an HD network and they’ll tell you they wish there were more ads shot in HD,” said Patrick Younge, executive VP and general manager of Discovery HD Theater, which airs in a “limited advertising format.”
Cable networks with simulcast HD spinoffs, like TNT HD, tend to port their regular ads over to their HD cousins, automatically including the HD network in the cost of the ad. Unique networks tend to sell ad space separately, though there’s no firm rule.
Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming for Carat North America, described the HD market as still a boutique.
“It’s really good for experimentation at this point, but there isn’t any audience data on these channels, so it’s really hard to know what the viewership is,” she said.
Native: The gold standard. The process of using high-definition cameras to record original programming. Native HD, when broadcast on an HD channel, has the finest picture quality because a high-resolution image is retained throughout the production process.
Examples: Documentaries on Discovery HD Theater, concerts on MTV Networks’ MHD, Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica” on Universal HD
Upconversion: The process of taking standard-definition programs and upgrading them for broadcast on hi-def channels. The resulting image is inferior to native HD.
Also, when upconverting content recorded for television, the images are in a traditional “square” 4:3 aspect ratio, and therefore the image appears on widescreen HD sets with “pillar boxes”-black bars on the sides of the screen-or stretched.
HD networks try to carry as little upconverted material as possible.
Examples: “World Series of Poker” on ESPN, standard-definition commercials on HD channels
720p versus 1080i:The number of lines of vertical resolution in a hi-def image (the traditional TV standard is 480i). For 720p, the “p” stands for “progressive,” meaning the image lines are drawn simultaneously. 1080i is “interlaced,” with the lines drawn separately.
Which is better? 1080i is considered a superior resolution, though some filmmakers prefer the lower contrast of 720p.
Examples: ESPN and National Geographic HD use 720p; TNT HD and Discovery HD Theater use 1080i.
Feature films: Movies can look grainy, or glorious, on HD channels. For movies shot on traditional 35mm film, the difference hinges on whether the movie has been remastered to run in high definition.
Unlike traditional TV shows recorded in 480i, feature films can be converted to true high definition because 35mm prints contain enough information to support the format.
Example: “The Apartment” on HDNet was remastered in HD.
Simulcast versus unique: Popular cable brands have taken one of two routes for adding an HD channel. A simulcast channel has the same schedule as the original network. A unique channel is a separately programmed, standalone entity.
Examples: Discovery HD Theater and MTV Networks’ MHD are unique channels that typically feature a higher percentage of native HD content, though they also tend to have more repetitive programming. TNT and TNT HD are simulcast, with TNT HD featuring a mixture of native HD content and upconverted shows.