As an early expert in ENG technology whose knowledge of 3/4-tape launched a rapid rise through ABC's engineering ranks, Preston Davis, 52, isn't afraid of new technology. But Davis, president of ABC Broadcast Operations and Engineering since 1993, knew he was venturing into uncharted territory in early 1998 when ABC decided to adopt the 720-line progressive scan HDTV format.
The choice of 720p ran counter to the conventional thinking among broadcasters and manufacturers that 1080-line interlace was the right HDTV format. Davis realized he would face hard questions, from both affiliates and vendors, as to why ABC was bucking the tide.
His first step was to organize an affiliate chief engineers' meeting in New York in March 1998 so that ABC's technology leadership could explain the benefits of 720p before the decision was made public in April 1998. "So many affiliates heard from manufacturers so many reasons that 1080i was a better solution, we knew we had to put the case before them," Davis recalls.
By the end of the meeting, most of the affiliate body was convinced, says Davis. Manufacturers, though, were another matter.
"It was clear in those days that the manufacturers tried very hard to persuade ABC to go in another direction, some with less subtlety than others," says Davis. "I hadn't been in that position before. I never remember a time that ABC was going into the marketplace looking for a solution and it just wasn't there."
That skepticism extended to the post-production community in Los Angeles, which ABC would need to perform transfers of 35mm film into 720p high-definition video to launch prime time HDTV movies.
"Even doing the movies in HD required that I go visit all the post houses in Los Angeles and talk them through what we were going to do," says Davis. "In the same way we had to manage the affiliates on the issue, it was important to manage the post houses on whom we relied."
A few post houses invested in the necessary transfer equipment, and ABC found another 720p supporter in Panasonic, which supplied the ABC network with much of the hardware needed to show film product in 720p HDTV. On Nov. 1, 1998, ABC aired its first 720p broadcast with the Disney movie 101 Dalmatians, which was followed by more HDTV movies that season.
There were still significant technical challenges, including a more labor-intensive film-to-tape transfer process than expected, lip-synching problems, and decoder glitches at the 11 ABC owned and affiliated stations that carried the early 720p broadcasts.
ABC refined the film-transfer process, and software revisions fixed most of the decoder bugs, and the network marched on with 720p. Its HDTV ambitions grew considerably in May 1999, when it closed a sponsorship deal with Panasonic to produce Monday Night Football
and the Super Bowl in HDTV for the 1999-2000 season. That gave the network and its partner Panasonic less than four months to equip a 720p production truck and coordinate a separate HDTV production of MNF.
ABC and Panasonic managed to get the truck ready for testing by the first preseason game; Davis largely credits the "sheer horsepower" that Panasonic brought to the project.
"By that time, we were starting to hit some critical mass in terms of distribution by affiliates," Davis says. "And I remember vividly, I was surprised to not be hearing more buzz from the set manufacturers, or viewers for that matter."
He thinks a combination of factors, including a lack of awareness among consumers and too little manufacturing output from set makers, was responsible. Of course, another controversial issue was then plaguing the industry: the debate over the DTV transmission standard.
While the decision was made to stop the HD telecasts after the Super Bowl ABC continued to broadcast 720p movies and stepped up its HDTV offerings in 2001 with the addition of prime time series such as NYPD Blue, airing more than 260 hours of HDTV for the 2001-2002 season.
Eighty-nine ABC stations currently broadcast HDTV, and the network will air more than 300 hours of HDTV in the 2002-2003 season, including the NHL Stanley Cup and NBA Finals. ABC also aired Super Bowl XXXVII in HDTV, with support from Thomson's RCA brand, and received a warm response.
"It's clear, based on the buzz we heard after the Super Bowl, that viewers were aware of what we were doing, and more people than we expected were able to see it, either over the air or, in limited cases, on cable," says Davis. "It's also clear that the CE manufacturers found some benefit in what we were doing."
ABC will produce the next season of MNF
in HDTV. Improvements in 720p technology, including new cameras from Ikegami, will allow ABC to do a fully integrated HDTV telecast and "carve out of that a center-cut SDTV telecast," removing many logistical hurdles, says Davis. Given the HDTV sports that corporate sibling ESPN just launched, he expects a much better reception this time.
"I think being partnered with ESPN [on HDTV sports] should help move the issue forward," he says. "The combination of ABC and ESPN prime time HDTV should give the market a pretty good push in the right direction."