Fox News Channel is aiming to optimize the on-air product for its growing high-definition audience while continuing to serve the majority of viewers still watching standard-definition, 4:3 sets. So the network has decided to produce all of its programming in high-definition using the 16:9 aspect ratio, and deliver a downconverted, letterboxed version to standard-definition viewers.
The cable network has overhauled its camera positions, graphics and editing to accommodate all-widescreen production, and is using Active Format Description (AFD) technology internally to specify how the widescreen HD pictures are downconverted for display on 4:3 aspect-ratio standard-def sets.
Beginning Sept. 28, viewers of Fox News Channel and Fox News Channel HD will see the same content, including graphics and tickers. Because camera operators no longer have to “safe protect” for a center-cut 4:3 image when shooting in the Fox News Channel studios, viewers will also see new camera angles that capture more of the set.
Fox's widescreen shift may turn out to be a milestone in the gradual evolution from standard-definition to HDTV. While broadcast networks like NBC and Fox have provided letterboxed versions of entertainment programming to standard-def viewers for years, Fox News Channel is the first U.S. cable news network to go fully widescreen for both HD and SD distribution. If the new letterboxed version of the SD network is well-received, it may spur other cable networks to go the all-widescreen route, which Fox says delivers a better overall viewing experience and streamlines production workflows.
It is logical to assume that a letterboxed version of Fox News Channel would result in a compromised experience for viewers on old 4:3 sets, including smaller text in graphic tickers. But Fox executives say SD viewers will actually now see more. That's because new HD sets display video more efficiently over the entire screen without lopping off the picture at the edges, a phenomenon known as overscanning. That gives programmers more real estate to work with in HD, which has a trickle-down effect to SD.
In retooling for all-widescreen production, Fox News Channel was able to increase the size of its lower-third graphics and use larger text fonts. It can also shoot much closer to the sides of the frame without worrying about the HD picture being cut off at the edge when displayed on a widescreen set. That, in turn, means that on a 4:3 set the new letterboxed version of Fox News Channel provides bigger, more legible graphics and more visual information on the screen than the old 4:3 center-cut version.
To prove the concept, Fox created, in essence, a letterboxing lab on the third floor of its Manhattan headquarters, with a wall of flat-panel HDTV sets from various manufacturers alongside several old-school 4:3 tube TVs. Graphics engineers were then able to test how the new HD and letterboxed SD versions would appear on any screen in any picture mode, including the 4:3 standard, stretch, zoom and wide-zoom modes available on most HDTV sets, and ensure that no part of the picture got cut off by overscanning.
More, not less
“It's counterintuitive,” admits Fox News Channel senior VP and creative director Richard O'Brien. “You'd think on a 4:3 screen you'd be getting less, because it's letterboxed. But the way it's designed, and the way you're able to make use of the whole width of the screen now, you're actually able to get more. It's hard to think that way until you see it, but when we did all the tests, it was a no-brainer that this was the right way to go.”
The network plans to insert more added-value graphics into the widescreen frame, O'Brien says, now that the additional info can be seen by the entire viewing audience. Fox News Channel HD had initially launched with an “HD wing” that showed 4:3 video on the left and a graphic panel on the right, but the network discontinued that format in the past year, moving instead to a more conventional widescreen look.
“You really can't produce anything worthwhile in those [graphic] regions because the SD viewer can't follow along,” says Peter Blangiforti, Fox News director of graphics engineering.
Fox was using a mix of Avid Pinnacle Deko and Vizrt graphics, but has moved fully to the Vizrt platform as part of the widescreen shift. Other key technology includes Apple Final Cut Pro editors, Harris Nexio servers for playing out animations, and Evertz downconverters.
While Fox News Channel is still distributing separate HD and SD satellite feeds, Fox's long-term plan is to transmit a single HD version of Fox News Channel and its other cable networks, and use AFD-compliant satellite receivers at cable headends to downconvert the signal there to support standard-def viewers. Those new Motorola radios should be fully deployed in 2010.
“The road map for AFD is promising,” Blangiforti says. “But before we flip the switch and go to a single distribution path, we need to make sure that all of the distribution outlets we deal with are conforming to the AFD specification.”