Hi-Def TV: Rival Formats Stake Out Turf

Oct 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Natalie Finn

Special to TelevisionWeek

The argument goes like this: 720p works for sports, 1080i works for movies. Both sports and movies sell HDTVs and attract HDTV viewers. So which format do programmers go with?

For every broadcast and cable network that highlights sports programming on its schedule, the decision to use either the progressive or interlaced format was not entered into lightly.

ESPN, ABC and Fox adopted 720p, while NBC, CBS, TNT, Versus, HDNet, HBO and Showtime-all of which produce at least some sports programming-use 1080i.

The number-720 or 1080-stands for the number of lines of horizontal resolution per frame, which hit the screen at a rate of 60 frames per second. With a progressive scan-the “p” in 720p-the lines fill the screen in order, line by line, from top to bottom, better to accommodate quick action. Meanwhile, with the interlaced technology of 1080i, every other line hits the screen for 1/60 of a second, and then the remaining lines come on for 1/60 of a second to fill in the gaps, creating a richer, more detailed picture overall.

Then it’s up to the HDTV set to interpret the different signals. Meanwhile, 480i is considered standard definition.

“We felt very, very strongly, and to this day feel strongly, that progressive technology is the way to go for the motion of sports,” said Bryan Burns, executive VP of strategic business planning and development for ESPN. “If we’re sitting on the set doing the news, it really doesn’t matter. But when you’re covering an 87-mile-per-hour slider, low and away, progressive works better.”

Invented in the ’30s

Interlaced technology was invented in the 1930s as a way to save bandwidth when a signal was transmitted from antenna towers to televisions. It was the standard until the 1970s, when computers re-established progressive scanning.

“I think interlace is a legacy technology that has been in television forever,” said Andrew Setos, president of engineering for Fox Entertainment Group. “It was important to television back [in the 1930s] because there wasn’t digital compression [a way to save bandwidth] available.”

HDNet General Manager and co-founder Phillip Garvin said it was “a no-brainer” to go with 1080i when the 24/7 HD programming network launched in 2001. In addition to its NHL and Major League Soccer games, boxing, CART auto racing and various other sporting events, however, the network also considers itself a destination spot for movies and original series that benefit from the higher-resolution interlace technology.

CBS Sports Senior VP of Operations Ken Aagaard said that the decision to go with 1080i was a networkwide position.

“We all know eventually we’re going to get to 1080p [the current standard for digital motion pictures], then we’re going to be really excited,” Mr. Aagaard said. “Then we’re going to be glad we stayed in the 1080 format.”

Given the proper “de-interlacing” treatment, all 1080i signals have the potential to be 1080p signals, a good thing considering 1080p-compatible HDTVs are starting to trickle into the marketplace. No broadcaster is currently creating sports content in the 1080p format, and prime-time series that are already produced in 1080p must be converted into 1080i before they can be distributed by cable and satellite networks.