Q&A: CableLabs' Dick Green On HD Origins

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As CableLab's longtime president and CEO Dick Green prepares to leave the organization later this year, he can point to a number of major accomplishments, including his work and the organization's efforts to develop high-definition television. During the first part of an interview, Green talks about his involvement with the first HD productions in the U.S. A second installment will cover the next generation of HD technologies and some of CableLab's work in that area. An edited transcript follows.

Multichannel News: How did you first get interested in HD technologies? 

Dick Green: I first saw HD in San Francisco at a SMPTE meeting [in February of 1980]. NHK had brought over a camera and a monitor and was showing how good of a picture it produced.

At the time, it had 1125 lines, not the same as today, and the aspect ratio was 5 by 3, not the 16 by 9 we have today. At the time I was with CBS Labs and I came back from the meeting and told my boss that we had to get working on this in the U.S.

So we started talking to the Japanese about the best way to do that. The NHK camera, which was built by Ikegami, was designed to a very rigid demanding spec and we eventually decided to go with the Sony camera, which was a little easier to manage.

Sony agreed to provide two cameras and two video tape machines and CBS made its resources available so we could make some programs and then show them on closed circuit to people in various communities--regulators, producers, directors, and so forth.

December of 1981, I went to Los Angeles to get this started with this young fellow from the lab named Mike Rokosa, [vice president, engineering for NBA Entertainment who has been involved recently in some of their 3D HD experiments], because he knew about sports production.

CBS loaned us an empty truck and we put some tape recorders in there and some monitors. We had an all Japanese crew in the truck, running the tape recorders and lining up the cameras and things like that.

The first thing we did was a NFL football game at Anaheim Stadium between the Redskins and Rams on December 20th. We did that in HD and in stereo. We had two CBS cameramen to run the cameras and a CBS director calling the shots. We recorded it and then we made a highlight reel of about 10 minutes.

Then, we set up an editing room in the basement of TV City and we moved up to the Columbia lot, which was then 20th Century Fox, and we shot a TV series called Fall Guy, which was staring Lee Majors who had been the star of the The Six Million Dollar Man. We did that in HD and shot right alongside the 35mm film camera for most of the shots, including all the special effects and scenes with a lot of stunts.

So we actually produced what amounted an hour-long show and edited it way down to just the highlights to demonstrate that you could do a TV series electronically in high-def.
Then we went to Francis Coppola's Zoetrope Studios and we did a couple of short subjects there to show you could produce a cinema product. We did two ten-minute novellas, Six Shots and Double Suicide that had been written especially for the HDTV demonstration by Francis' staff. We shot this all on the soundstage at Zoetrope.

And we did the Rose Parade. Everyone said "don't worry, it never rains on the Rose Parade" but it did. We had to cover everything up with plastic. CBS shot it for regular television and we just set up near them and did it as separate production. We did it in stereo, so as the bands moved by you had a really good stereo feed, and the high def images of the Rose Parade were just stunning.

We did all this in about three weeks and then we edited. It was very grueling. We were working some 18 hours a day. Hour-long shows like Fall Guy take a lot of effort. They basically shoot 18 hours a day, seven days a week. But we showed it was possible to do anything they did electronically in HD.

Then we edited it all together and we produced these demo reels. We took them to Washington and we showed it to people from the Congress and from FCC. We went to New York, where a couple of famous stars like Robert Redford showed up and then we went back to Hollywood and had a bunch of directors come and take a look at it.

MCN: Do any of those tapes survive?

DG: I found the football game, but the videotape formats have changed so much is it very hard to watch it. Most everything though went back to Sony and they erased it.
Sony was promoting high def on both the CE [consumer electronics] and on the production equipment side but there wasn't really any demand for this stuff. So Sony kind of dropped out of it for a while because it didn't turn to be a big cash cow early on. People would look at it and say it's beautiful but why do we need to do that?

And it did take a long time to get started, much longer than I thought it would.

MCN: Why did HD take so long? It really only got a lot of traction in the last few years.
DG: There were two main issues. The first one was that high definition really only shines on a larger screen. Back in the 1980s, the only really large screens were front projection or rear projection, but primarily front projection. They were kind of unwieldy and not really suited for homes. A real video aficionado might buy a projection system, but if you are a regular consumer and the screen you had at home was smaller than four inches diagonally, the increase in resolution isn't striking. You can't really see the advantages of the technology until you get above 40 inches and you really couldn't do that with the CRTs [cathode ray tubes] that were used then for most TVs. We had a CRT here at CableLabs that was about 36 inches and it was weighted 400 pounds. It was a big piece of glass.

So the display technology wasn't adequate to showcase the medium. It didn't really become practical until the thin screens become available. There is a natural handshake for that technology. If you have a bigger screen you need a better picture and if you had a better picture, you need a bigger screen.

The other big factor was that there wasn't an economic model that would work for any of the distributors. HD was a totally different format, completely incompatible with regular TV. If you are a broadcaster, how do you sell advertising and make any money if you don't have many viewers? So, the economics held it back for a long time.

MCN: But you got CableLabs involved early on?
DG:  Yes. I thought it was very important for cable to play a role in the development of high def and fortunately the cable industry backed me up and we did.

The FCC was really interested in developing the new generation of television. I thought it would be good for the cable industry to support the FCC and that we needed to learn about the technology--all the aspects of production, recording and transmission etc.

So, we teamed up with the broadcasters to do the evaluations of the various transmissions system for HD and [in 1991] we set up a lab very near PBS in Alexandria where we worked hand in hand with the broadcasters. We were checking it to be sure that the transmissions were suitable for cable and they were looking to see if it would work for broadcast.

At one time, there were around 21 different transmission systems. What really turned the tide was that Motorola came in at the 11th hour with a full digital system. That really knocked everything out because it was so much easier.