Rory Cellan-Jones

TV - looking forward and back

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 16 Sep 08, 08:01 GMT

I'd come to the IBC conference in Amsterdam to film a story about the future of television. If what's on display at the broadcasting industry's annual shindig provides a true picture, we'll all eventually be watching in Super Hi-Vision (yes, there's something else after HD), and in 3-D, and we will be getting more and more of our TV via the internet and on our mobile phones.

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But our incredibly compact BBC team ended up talking more about the past than the future.

That team consisted of me and a cameraman, Dave Skerry, and between us we had over 60 years in the industry. Dave started in television in 1968, at a time when it was all still in black and white, and his training was heavy on the engineering: "I almost got chucked out because I couldn't get the hang of valves," he remembered.

Those were the days of film, when videotape - even as a recording medium - was still in its infancy. Even by 1981, the regional newsroom where I began my TV career was still shooting news stories on film. You had to wait for 45 minutes while it went through "the bath", and then it was rapidly chopped up and assembled by an editor.

When I came to London a couple of years later, the TV newsroom was getting to grips with ENG - Electronic News Gathering. A news crew consisted of a cameraman, wielding a very heavy video camera delivering poor quality pictures, linked by an umbilical cord to a sound recordist. They carried an even heavier unit which recorded sound and pictures onto a chunky 3/4 inch U-Matic tape cassette.

BBC camera crew on locationThen there was the lighting man who turned up with a heavy bag full of "redheads" and "blondes". The whole kit cost about £30,000. Back at the office, former film editors were now involved in the expensive process of video tape editing, and complaining, with some justification, that it was a step backward, as they laboriously copied shots from the rushes tape to the final version.

Over the next couple of decades, the cameras got lighter and cheaper, with the recorder soon incorporated into the main unit, the tapes got smaller and smaller, and the cameramen - and women - eventually found they were on their own, doing pictures, sound and lights. And then they had to learn to edit too, now assembling stories with a digital editing package, much closer to the original non-linear film method.

Oh, and instead of using a satellite truck to send the pictures back, the modern camera operator has to send it over the internet, perhaps from a hotel's dodgy wi-fi network, as we did in Amsterdam at 0230 the other morning.

As the process of gathering television pictures has got cheaper, it has been democratised. The kind of camera Dave Skerry was using in Amsterdam costs about £3,000 - chuck in a laptop with an editing package, and for under £5,000 you have the kind of production set-up that would have cost close to £100,000 20 years ago.

What's more, the modern kit delivers a better product - HD if you want it. The result - as we see every time we look at YouTube - is that just about anyone who wants to have a go can make television.

Which makes it somewhat surprising to wander around the vast halls at IBC, finding an apparently thriving professional broadcast industry examining the latest kit, pushed at visitors by the likes of Sony, Panasonic and Philips. The industry seems to have decided that in the future there will be two kinds of television - the cheap and democratic stuff, and the ultra high-quality version which only the professionals can afford to make.

Hence Super Hi-Vision. This is a futuristic project, collaboration between Japan's NHK, Italy's RAI and the BBC, which promises 16 times the resolution of HDTV and 80 times what standard definition offers. We sat in an auditorium watching a live feed in Super Hi-Vision from the roof of London's City Hall, with the sound of the city swirling around us.

As well as extraordinary pictures, the new standard offers "22.2 channel immersive audio", though as one sceptical journalist pointed out, who's going to install 22 speakers in the front room - and then find room for another .2? All of this is a long way from reaching our homes. There's talk of huge open-air screens using the technology at the London 2012 Olympics, but I got the impression that even that was optimistic. Right now, there are only a couple of giant Super Hi-Vision cameras in existence.

So my career in television - which began with film - may well be over before Super Hi-Vision becomes a reality. And do you know what, I'm not really sorry. I've always considered myself an enthusiastic early adopter, but I think I may have had just about as much change as I can handle.


  • Comment number 1.

    So, explain to me again why we're all going to be receiving superhighdef3D telly pictures on our cell phones?


  • Comment number 2.

    I really can't see mobile TV taking off in a huge way. Other than news ect.

    I have tried to watch movies and TV shows on my ipod video and it just doesn't work on a screen so small.

    I really don't understand why the internet is so underused in content delivery. The file sharers have shown that it is a more than viable option especially when using good compression like xvid.

  • Comment number 3.

    Whilst at the Thames Festival I saw the mass of furry gun mics on a lattice on the roof of city hall, I wondered what they were for - now I know!

    Can't imagine the average production carting that many microphones around for 22.2 surround.

  • Comment number 4.

    I think the parallels with the development of our current HD solution are fairly obvious - the name Super Hi-Vision even echoes the old Japanese analogue HDTV service (developed in the late 80's) Hi-Vision.

    I remember seeing this going on a analogue HD TV (sourced from a HD laserdisc player) thinking WOW!

    Nearly 20 years later and the promise of HD TV is finally being delivered.

  • Comment number 5.

    Where is the bandwidth for Super Hi-Vision going to come from? Freeview currently goes to pot when it rains because there is not enough bandwidth for adequate error correction. Cramming more signal into the broadcast will just make things worse.

  • Comment number 6.

    A year ago and I would have said using using mobie phones was a non-starter, for both recording and reciving. But I was on a train the other day and saw a girl watching Breakfast Tv on freeview on a what looked like at 3 and a 1/2 inch or 4 inch widescreen player. As we left the train I asked her and she said it was live, not a podcast. Did she use it often. "Oh, all the time. They watch 'Doctors' at work on it".

    Ok, it was not a mobile phone she was using, but how long before they put a freeview reciver in a moblie phone. Look at the i-phone and i-player screens. The picture looks good and all you have to do is add freeview.

    So I think it is starting to happen. Come to thing I would watch F1 on any size screen, if that's all I had to hand, however boring it can get! So its just a matter of what would make you use it.

  • Comment number 7.

    I am a cameraman working on Broadcast and Corporates stuff (from News to Promos), whilst its true its done the way you say it is doesn't mean it should.

    Yes you can film with a Z1 and get OK pictures but there not the same as filming on Digi Beta or even a DSR, and how many times have we watched a press conference (on any 24hr news channel) and not been able to hear what's being said. Now, tell me what are the advantages of a One Man Crew? The fact of the matter is with the right tools and the right people we can make magic, without those it becomes visual wallpaper and you can't even wrap your chips in it.

    Its down to money and the lack of a public response - people don't like the quality of what goes out but they can't be bothered to complain.

  • Comment number 8.

    Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. Spend, spend, spend.

    I watch about 5 hrs of TV a week; documentaries mainly plus the better comedy.
    If I could continue doing that on an * ordianary * TV then I`d happily do so. (Tho iPlayer means I can watch when convenient to me.)
    But if this relentless innovation is forced upon us, as happens with new operating systems etc and digital TV, then I might just drop out of this technology arms race.

  • Comment number 9.

    In a domestic situation, Hi-Vision is so out of whack with what consumers need and want (not always the same thing, remember). 1080p is already a waste compared to 720p (i.e. you can't discern the difference all those extra pixels are making) with a screen smaller than about 42" in the average UK living room, what need therefore for a even more bandwidth-hungry format?

    I don't particularly care what NHK and RAI do with their money, but for obvious reasons I am concerned what the BBC thinks it should be doing mucking about with what should probably just be a university research project.

    What the manufacturers, regulators and governments should be focussing on is developing modular, extensible technology to rid us of the curse of dead-end, inefficient codecs as used on most current digital platforms. Instead we get locked into a 15 year-old technology (DVB-T, DAB) that inevitably trades questionable quantity for quality and will cost us (and the environment) dear to replace in the next decade when we all want/are forced to have HD.

    A bit more thought, a long-term view and some regulatory pressure and I'm sure we could have a proper platform that could give us true interactivity, efficient use of spectrum and a minimum quality standard that at the very least matches what was possible with analogue PAL. Sadly, DVB-T is miles from this, and the folly of a 20ft screen and 24 speakers shows that us poor consumers might be waiting a long time.

  • Comment number 10.

    Wow juuxjuux, you have absolutely hit the nail on the head. 720p is more than adequte form the vast majority of Uk households and will always be so until we start building bigger living rooms!

    Freeview sadly, sucks somewhat and the future will never be HD using an aerial hence the move to plug Freesat to justify BBC's exepensive (and currently indadequate) HD channel.

    By all means, look to the future but this is all a bit too 'Tomorrow's World' for me :-)

  • Comment number 11.

    juuxjuux is right - this talk of more and more resolution is just nonsense, you just won't be able to see the difference on a livingroom-sized screen, and while there will always be a market for people who want to turn their livingrooms into mini cinemas, they are always going to be in the minority.

    This is very similar to digital still camera manufacturers and ever-increasing megapixel sensors - there are many more issues with image quality that aren't to do with resolution which are being completely overlooked, mainly because people like things simple and like a simple way of quantifying quality. Because they're simple.

  • Comment number 12.

    juuxjuux is more or less right. It also makes me angry that people in the bbc are mucking about with future formats when their own current service BBC HD has a long way to go - it's still only 5hrs a day weekdays. It's still using DVB-S on satellite. It's still using fairly unimpressive codecs that are far surpassed by sky's tandberg ones. Please right some better codecs. The picture quality on BBC HD is too poor for how much bandwidth it uses.

  • Comment number 13.

    out of all the home TV systems I have seen I have yet to find an HD set worth the money, they all look very pixelated.

    I have what most would consider a home cinema system which consists of a projector giving a screen size of 120" and a digital 5.1 surround sound system, which is more than adequate for my needs, also the 320x240 pixel screen of my nokia N95 8GB is great for watching stuff on the bus/train or at work (the nokia video converter on the PC is rubbish there are better programs available)

  • Comment number 14.

    I don't think the average television viewer is demanding ever higher definition of sound and picture. I think the main demand is better quality programming.

    It's all very well having 100 channels of super high definition, 22.2 surround sound television, but if there's nothing to watch it's a waste of time.

  • Comment number 15.

    Super Hi-Def with 22.2 sound channels sounds like a replacement for IMAX (who, in turn, are basically an updated version of the old black-and-white newsreels), and IMAX-quality may then become cheap enough and compact enough to migrate to standard cinema. Cinema-style widescreen is, in turn, migrating into the home. It's a natural progression.

    I do agree with the whole quality of the material rather than quality of the definition argument. By becoming very selective about what I am willing to watch, I have discovered that you can't currently have it both ways. When emphasis is placed on quality of material, quality of medium is often sacrificed. The reverse is also true. There is no obvious reason why that should be true, other than time and money budgets being finite, although I suspect there may be two schools of thought in production that are highly antagonistic towards each other and refuse all compromise.

    For pixellation, blame the codecs. MPEG-2 is often over-compressed in order to fit more channels onto limited bandwidth, and higher-quality codecs (the BBC's Dirac springs to mind) won't be remotely in the picture, so to speak, for a long time. The hardware won't be here for some time, and then the legacy systems will prevent adoption on any meaningful scale for 5-10 years after.


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