By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
KABC-TV in Los Angeles has made a major commitment to high definition, putting out more than 40 hours of local programming per week in the format, along with all the network programming it transmits in HD.
So when producer Sony Pictures Television and distributor King World Productions announced that the game shows “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” would make the switch to hi-def this season, the first U.S. first-run syndicated programs to do so, “We were happy to have it,” said Therese Gamba, the station’s VP of programming, advertising and promotion. “Being a leader in HD programming in the market, we want as much HD programming as we can on the channel.” With ABC’s “World News Tonight” and the network’s prime-time lineup both transmitting in HD, she added, “It’s great to have [the game shows] as a bridge.”
Viewers have responded by letting the station know they were pleased with the HD lineup, and the ratings have seen a nice bump. The station’s October 2006 household ratings from Nielsen are up 4.4 percent for “Jeopardy!” from October 2005 and 6.6 percent for “Wheel of Fortune.” In adults 25 to 54, “Jeopardy!” has jumped 21 percent year to year, while “Wheel” is up 14.4 percent. The numbers among women 25 to 54 are also up nicely. “Is it coincidental? I don’t know. But we’ve had a very good October so far,” Ms. Gamba said, noting that the programs, “Wheel” in particular, now look more vivid even in the standard-definition transmission that most viewers still see.
The producers had to think twice before making the leap, given both the costs and the technical hurdles.
“It’s a big investment, so for most syndicated shows that kind of live from year to year, and ratings book to ratings book, I can’t imagine it would be worth the expense,” said Harry Friedman, the shows’ executive producer. Moreover, “Wheel,” now in its 24th season, and “Jeopardy!,” in its 23rd year, remain the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked syndicated shows, respectively, so there wasn’t even an argument to be made that they were slipping and needed the publicity boost.
“That was all the more reason why we wanted to do it,” Mr. Friedman said. “To be the first out there in HD would really make a statement about being leaders.”
Because the shows run in prime access, in between HD-transmitted network news and entertainment, on almost all of the 210 stations that carry them, “They were the ideal guinea pigs,” said Phil Squyres, senior VP of technical operations for Sony Pictures Television.
With electronics manufacturer Sony as one of the shows’ corporate parents, the programs had an additional reason to make the switch, and already had a leg up: Producers had been using Sony’s HD-capable cameras for several years, having installed them when they needed new equipment. But taking advantage of that HD capacity was still a massive undertaking. The switchover, which took effect Sept. 11, ended up costing about $4.5 million, not including camera costs.
While the costs weren’t insubstantial, getting the show delivered to stations that wanted it in HD was a serious hurdle to overcome, Mr. Squyres said. Fox and ABC affiliates use one HD format, 720p; CBS and NBC use another, 1080i. So some stations have to convert the show from the 1080i format producers chose to use. Producers also decided to sidestep surround-sound technical compatibility issues by sending the shows out in stereo and letting stations process it themselves if they wished.
In syndication, Mr. Squyres said, “You get quite a motley collection of stations dealing with hi-def in a slightly different way. So connecting the dots technically, given some of these differences, can be a big challenge.”
Another issue, he said, was the digital transmission to stations, which in the past couple of years have made a rapid switchover from tapes to receiving programs through the Pathfire digital server. But hi-def files are about six times the size of a standard program file, and most stations don’t have the storage space on their computers, which were designed for standard-definition programs.
The technical solution-a video compression format known as MPEG-4-remained tantalizingly out of reach. “We thought we would be able to take that technology and utilize it this season to distribute the programs,” but the systems weren’t quite ready, said Mr. Squyres. So King World parent CBS made satellite time available for the distribution of the HD versions of the programs, and the standard-definition version continues to go out to stations via Pathfire. Some stations, however, get the HD version directly on tapes.
When the idea to switch the shows to HD was first broached, Mr. Squyres said, “We were thinking it was another year away. I guess we were right,” he joked. “It would be less of a challenge next year than this year, but we knew we had to do it eventually.”
The producers had expected perhaps 20 to 30 stations to take the HD feed, Mr. Squyres said, but upwards of 50 stations have requested it. “No one’s called and said we’ve got big problems,” he said.
In fact, Mr. Friedman said the feedback has been positive, with some anecdotal evidence that “lapsed viewers” have returned to the show, because “They make their viewing decisions based on what’s on tonight in HD.”
On the production side, producers had to widen all the sets for the hi-def format, all the while keeping a core picture that would work for the standard-definition picture. The distance between the “Jeopardy!” contestants’ podiums was widened, and the show’s bank of question monitors was replaced with a seamless video wall. On “Wheel of Fortune,” some 60 audience seats had to be removed to accommodate the wider camera shots.
In HD, Mr. Friedman said, the “difference is really dramatic.” The shows, he said, “just come alive. The colors are more vibrant, the focus is crystal clear, the depth perception on the sets is much more pronounced.” The difference is particularly noticeable on “Wheel of Fortune,” he said. “It’s such a bright and colorful show, and to be able to enhance that with more vibrancy is a real boon to us.”
Other changes included refitting the control room, redoing lighting and post-production operations, upgrading the audio and retraining the makeup artists, he said. “What we learned is that most of the makeup for talent on hi-def is applied with an airbrush technique. You would think that when shooting with cameras that are much more sensitive, you would apply it thicker, but it’s just the opposite. It’s counterintuitive; the makeup has to be thinner, without caking.”
The transition took up all of the two shows’ standard April to July downtime.
Will other syndicated shows follow suit? KABC’s Ms. Gamba said she thinks any show can benefit from switching to HD, but she hasn’t yet heard of anyone else who plans to make the leap. “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” are “market leaders in that category, so they wanted to be first,” she said, adding, “It’s good to be out front.”