HDV Camcorders Ready for Prime Time

Idol sees financial benefits to new format

The HDV camcorder has entered prime time TV production—and chosen America's No. 1 show for its debut. The low-cost HD format is being used to capture the backstage drama at Fox's American Idol.

Although camcorders, even HD camcorders, have been used on prime time shows before, the entry of inexpensive HDV (high-definition video) makes it affordable for a new range of programs, such as reality and news. Best of all, says Jim DeFilippis, vice president of television engineering at Fox, “people who watch Idol have a hard time noticing the difference.”

Idol uses top-quality Panasonic Vari­cam HD cameras to acquire the on-stage and some of the difficult off-stage shots. Full-resolution HD camcorders start at $40,000. Idol needed five for its backstage coverage, which was cost-prohibitive. That's when Fox decided to go with JVC's JY-10U, a $3,995 HDV-based camcorder.

The camcorder met their needs, and five of the units are on loan from JVC. (The equipment replaces the Sony DSR-PD150 DV-based camcorders used last year. Such camcorders are fine for standard-definition broadcasts, but the quality of the pictures is too low for HD telecasts.)

Improved gear

One reason HDV is gradually gaining street cred is that the gear is improving.

Sony, for example, now offers an HDV camcorder with three chips for imaging, and it can also shoot 1080-line–interlace images at 60 frames per second. HD Net used the same model to cover elections in Iraq. (By contrast, the JVC camera used by Idol has one chip for imaging.) Broadcast-TV signals are transmitted at 59.94 frames per second.

“HDV has revolutionized the economics of HD origination, and we've already sold through all the units we've shipped to dealers,” says Alec Shapiro, Sony Broadcast director of marketing. CBS has already purchased some; ABC stations are expected to sign a deal shortly. The company began shipping HDV units in January, and he says that, between now and NAB, the company will ship 6,000 units: 4,000 camcorders and 2,000 decks.

Still, there are concessions when working in HDV. American Idol is acquiring images at 30 frames per second. “It gives it a hybrid look between film and video,” DeFillips says. “Where there's motion, you see some blurring. But overall, we think it looks amazing.” When American Idol producers returned to Los Angeles, after chasing the finalists around the city, the image quality wasn't pristine.

“Now they know what works and are using the HDV camcorder only in specific situations,” says Larry Librach, JVC assistant vice president, business development for broadcast and entertainment. For shots where HDV isn't viable, the Panasonic cameras step in.

Next-generation changes

To improve image quality, JVC is also working on next-generation HDV. The new version is expected to be on display at the NAB convention in April. The biggest changes, Librach says, will be at the front end of the camera where the imaging takes place. “That's where the limiting factors are, such as the number of chips or any technical adjustments to the picture,” he says. “We've proved that quality images can be acquired.”

Image quality isn't the only HDV compromise; editing can also be a challenge. At present, it acquires images not as individual frames but as groups of pictures (the standard is MPEG Long GOP), making accurate frame cuts difficult. HDV material for American Idol, for example, is converted from MPEG to HD/SDI and recorded on Panasonic DVCPRO100 decks. Only then is it ready to be edited. (Expect that to change at NAB when nonlinear-editing manufacturers introduce software plug-ins to handle HDV.)

Low-cost HD solutions

The innovations in HDV have other manufacturers eager to provide low-cost HD-acquisition solutions of their own. At NAB, Panasonic will take the wraps off an HD P2 Palmcorder that will cost less than $10,000 and record HD images using 100-Mbps DVCPRO recording. That is four times the data of HDV, which Phil Livingston, Panasonic vice president and technical liaison, says will make a big difference: “HDV is bit-rate starved.”

Librach says, if producers work within the limitations of the first-generation unit, they'll be happy. Yet there are exceptions. Shooting sports or other fast-moving action might be too much for HDV units to handle. In such brightly lit situations, the shutter limits the amount of light coming into the camera. If the shutter moves, it can make the images flicker.

Idol, however, is pleased with the results. Eventually, insiders believe, other broadcasters hungry for affordable HD gear will recognize the value of HDV.