HD's Reality Check

Broadcast's scripted shows may look picture-perfect in HD, but most unscripted series remain stuck in standard

Like many reality TV producers, when Bob Horowitz, president of Juma Entertainment, prepares to pitch an unscripted show to a broadcast or cable network, he often goes armed with two budgets: one to shoot in standard-definition and a second, slightly higher number for high-definition production.

“I would love to see as many shows in HD as possible,” says Horowitz, who lists ABC's upcoming Celebrity Superstars (likely to be shot in standard-definition) and A&E's Tattoo Highway (shot in HD) on his resume. “We also have to be sensitive to the financial challenges the networks need to live with right now.”

Producers say high-definition's enhanced picture and sound quality help create a superior TV experience. Sets and costumes look more vibrant, and HD cameras capture the tiniest detail, like a tear streaming down a contestant's face on American Idol after a searing review from Simon Cowell.

But at a time when HD has become standard for scripted dramas, talk shows, sports and even news, many unscripted and reality shows are still being produced in standard-definition. A growing number of cable networks are moving strongly toward HD for non-fiction programs, but only a half-dozen broadcast network reality shows have upgraded to hi-def.

The main obstacle, executives say, is money. Reality shows are intended to be less expensive than their scripted counterparts, helping to balance a budget and fill holes in a schedule. In addition, many are short-run, competition-style shows, which do not repeat well and have a limited market for second-window sales.

In tough economic times, networks are further stretching their dollars. The advertising market is slumping, and ratings for many networks and shows are down. Even as producers push for HD, they may be forced to stand pat.

There are notable exceptions. Cable networks, including Bravo and A&E, are increasingly commissioning programs in hi-def. A handful of channels such as National Geographic and Discovery Channel are now exclusively buying HD shows.

Cable networks are able to produce non-fiction in HD because, for many, it is their main programming. Also, cable networks heavily repeat their programs, sometimes for years, and want HD so the programming is of the highest quality for future plays.

At the broadcast networks, however, only a few reality programs, including Fox's Idol, Survivor on CBS and ABC's Dancing With the Stars, have upgraded to HD; Fox's Cops and NBC's American Gladiators are also shot in hi-def. That leaves shows such as ABC's popular The Bachelor, NBC's Biggest Loser or CBS' Amazing Race—which have huge followings and would benefit from HD's pristine images—stuck in lower-quality standard-definition.

“People think high-definition brings the show alive and you feel like you are there,” says Conrad Green, executive producer of Dancing With the Stars, produced by BBC Worldwide. “If I go back and watch in standard-definition, it is a disappointment.”

HD Growth Continues

While fewer than half of American TV homes have upgraded to high-definition, the ranks are growing steadily. According to recent estimates by Nielsen Media Research, 22.2% of the 114.5 million U.S. TV households receive HDTV programming.

With the new digital transition date of June 12 approaching, more Americans will be looking for HD programming, either over the air or through cable and satellite hookups. “High-definition programming is everywhere, and cable and satellite companies are offering up to 100 HD channels. This is growing in importance,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media.

High-definition broadcast shows American Idol, Dancing With the Stars and Survivor are among the most-watched on television—regardless of genre—and critical to their networks' branding and marketing. They also occupy dozens of hours of primetime, which helps amortize the cost of upgrading to HD.

Now in its eighth season, Idol, produced by FremantleMedia North America, moved to hi-def after its second season and makes use of both large HD cameras in the studio and smaller handheld cameras. The show's executive producer, Ken Warwick, says HD has greatly enhanced the show's visuals and performances, and allows it to be more intimate. “I can chase anybody anywhere and know I'll have a decent broadcast picture,” Warwick says.

Some producers are under the impression that the broadcast networks need to satisfy a minimum amount of HD program hours in high-definition as mandated by the government, and therefore do not pursue any additional HD hours. In fact, there is no FCC requirement to broadcast any HD.

Cable networks need programming to showcase on their HD simulcast channels. Most of the top cable nets have secondary 24/7 HD channels and are ramping up their original productions in HD.

Since 2007, Discovery Channel has required all of its originals to be in high-definition. That mission has gotten easier, says Discovery President John Ford.

“In the beginning, I couldn't find post-production houses that could handle HD or do it cheaply,” he says. “Now, with the industry going so rapidly and completely to HD, it brings the costs down for everybody.”

Cable executives are also bullish on HD because it extends the shelf life of programs. Cable networks rely heavily on repeating their series and sharing the shows with sister U.S. and international networks. In addition, an HD show may have more value for future sales. “You are destroying your shelf life if you don't produce in HD,” Ford says.

At Bravo, plans call to produce all series in HD this year and begin commissioning all pilots in HD, says Andy Cohen, senior VP of programming and production. Popular guilty-pleasure shows including Top Chef, the Real Housewives franchise and Top Design are already in hi-def.

“Our programming is lush and aspirational, so why shouldn't that world be as sharp, clear and beautiful as possible?” Cohen says. “Recession or not, this is what we're doing.”

Even E! Entertainment Television, which has an HD simulcast channel, is now producing its original primetime series—shows like Denise Richards: It's Complicated and Keeping Up With the Kardashians—in HD. A&E now produces nearly all of its originals in HD, and sister net Biography Channel's primetime lineup is HD, too.

Some cable channels are converting more slowly. MTV, for example, recently shot its first series in HD with the Brooklyn edition of The Real World. Sister network VH1 is slowly adopting high-definition as well, with current series Rock of Love Bus and I Love Money 2 being produced in HD; plans for call for more hi-def productions.

The Challenge to Producers

Even when reality shows are shot in HD, creators must be mindful of their standard-definition viewers. When HD is compressed for standard-def or viewed over an analog set, the widescreen 16x9 image is reduced to a 4x3 frame. The change sacrifices the sides of the shots and can also cut off the top and bottom of a frame.

During filming and editing, shots are checked on monitors to test the smaller frame and what a picture will look like with black bars on the side. In addition, producers make sure their graphics and captions will fit in both dimensions.

Last year, Magical Elves, creator of Project Runway and Last Comic Standing, produced two dance series, one in HD, the second in standard-definition. While the look of the HD show was superior, Magical Elves producer Dan Cutforth says producing in hi-def presents a challenge, given the need to keep analog viewers in mind.

“The detail and the definition were amazing, and the set and lighting looked fantastic,” Cutforth says. “But we still had to compose the shots for 4x3 and we couldn't use the whole frame.”

In time, Cutforth is confident that “as HD becomes the norm, little challenges like that will go away.”

Unfortunately, the same can't be said across the board for unscripted broadcast productions, for which budget crunches present much larger HD challenges.

“More than 90% of broadcast shows in primetime are shot in HD,” says Horizon Media's Adgate. “The ones that aren't really stick out.”


CNBC's Innovative HD Play

CNBC HD+ will offer about 50% more graphical information by taking advantage of the extra onscreen space and improved resolution of the widescreen HD picture