To say that the high-definition market has radically changed over the past couple of years would be something of an understatement. If what's happening in the consumer market is anything to go by, anyone in the commercials industry who isn't prepared to embrace HD risks being left behind.
In the last year alone, sales of "HD-ready" TV sets have soared, Sky HD and other HD channel offerings have been launched successfully, and there's now a real possibility that HD channels will be available on Freeview. In other words, European HD is finally moving beyond production and post-production, and out into the wider world of delivery to the consumer.
Fuelled by a 45 per cent drop in 32-inch LCD TV prices in little over a year, the UK leads Europe with 16.6 per cent of homes owning an HD-ready TV (some 4.2 million HD-ready sales to date), while penetration across Europe is expected to treble by the end of 2008. More than 80 per cent of flat-panel displays sold in Europe this year are expected to be HD-ready, with penetration predicted to nudge 60 per cent of households by 2011, compared with today's 8 per cent.
The frenzied uptake of HD-ready displays before HD broadcasts are even available shows a vast pool of untapped enthusiasm - a phenomenon never witnessed with the roll-out of colour TV. But viewers are even more convinced when they get their hands on the real thing. Research from last year's London DTT (digital terrestrial television) HDTV trial revealed that 65 per cent of 450 volunteers thought the picture looked better than they expected and 90 per cent saw HD as the inevitable future for TV.
With a developing market in HD, packaged media such as HD DVDs and Blu-Ray, not to mention HD home movies, viewers increasingly expect the same picture quality from "the telly". TV producers have embraced HD production, with top-rating shows such as Torchwood, Robin Hood, Skins, Top Gear and even the children's show In the Night Garden the latest to be shot on increasingly sophisticated HD cameras.
So what does all this mean to advertisers? In short, it means HD production is no longer the preserve of commercials set for cinematic release. To compete with the vibrant colours and crisp, clean picture quality of HD content, the commercials industry has to accept that HD is becoming the mainstream and that it can't afford not to embrace it.
Producing commercials in HD has enormous advantages in terms of picture quality. Even intricate details can be retained in a down-converted version of an HD master. Picture your client's reaction when watching his or her latest ad in glorious HD quality, and the benefits are plain to see.
With the plethora of media ranging from cinematic release at one extreme to mobile TV at the other, HD has the advantage of being able to handle all these variations. As multiple media delivery requirements become more standard, so HD is increasingly requested. The key word is re-purposing. HD quality is proven all the way up to big-screen cinema. And once you have an HD master, it's relatively straightforward to create for virtually any distribution channel - from the silver screen to the silver-finished handset, and all the different international distribution formats in between.
Within HDTV, there are several picture standards. Europe currently favours 1,080-line interlace (1080i), but in the US, some broadcasters use 720-line progressive (720p). Waiting in the wings is a new standard, 1,080p, that combines the best of both. This offers the best rendition of fast- moving sports, universally accepted as a major driver of HDTV. Frame rates and aspect ratios also vary between countries and formats.
HD-acquired material has a different look to film, but it's still a beautiful look, if properly lit. Because of the much greater picture resolution, attending to the detail for retouching, rotoscoping and compositing means it takes more work. However, the increased cost of HD post may be offset later by the ease of producing for an expanding range of modern media.
Another important consideration is workflow. Modern systems put operators and clients in charge of the whole process from one seat, rather than following a daisy chain of separate processes and waiting for copies to be made or suites to become available. Despite HD footage containing up to five times the information of standard definition, decisions can be reviewed or made remotely on a humble PC or laptop, thanks to the use of "proxy" file copies linked to the originals. Advances in rendering, networking and storage technologies have also made collaborative HD post much more efficient.
So what are the next steps in this fast-paced migration to HD? Ofcom will be awarding spectrum in winter 2008 before issuing licences in the first half of 2009. The BBC is seeking approval for a multiplatform best-of-BBC HD channel, broadcasting up to nine hours daily by late 2008. In the event of limited terrestrial capacity, a BBC Overnight HD zone is proposed to allow viewers to download programmes to a set-top box between 2am and 6am, when its other channels are closed. In the meantime, the BBC and ITV have agreed to launch a Freesat service next spring.
Space for UK terrestrial HD services is currently limited because the spectrum still has to carry analogue broadcasts. By the end of 2012, this will be gone, following the completion of the government-mandated analogue switch-off project, liberating large swathes of bandwidth.
As early adopters of previous technological advances, such as colour and stereo sound, the commercials industry will naturally want to keep up with editorial improvements. But instead of doing so purely on a future-proofing basis, actually delivering better quality messages to consumers is now on the cards.
The migration to HD is entering a crucial stage. The arguments in favour of HD production are stronger than ever, coupled with the fact that some SD equipment will become more expensive when the US bows out of analogue broadcasting in 2009. Indeed, many believe all media will be produced in HD by 2015, if not before.
- Patrick Jocelyn is the director of sales, EMEA at Autodesk Media and Entertainment.