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The World of the World

The Flamands and the Walloons are at it again. A Korean company got an award at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention this year for thinking of the color blind. And the Metropolitan Opera has asked a manufacturer to see whether it could actually

increase

the latency of one model of its HDTV compression-system encoders.

Those three seemingly unrelated sentences are, in fact, quite related. They are all associated with the task of increasing audiences for videography.

A term used today for that field is “repurposing content.” But that description suggests taking a television show and making it accessible on any screen — from that of a mobile phone to one in a large cinema auditorium.

Such repurposing isn’t impossible. Movies have long been broadcast on television, and sometimes video-shot material has been shown in movie theaters. Today it’s also possible to view some TV shows on mobile phones. But the practice is not yet common.

For many years, one of the most-viewed moving-image sequences wasn’t

King Kong

,

The Wizard of Oz

,

Gone with the Wind

or the Beatles on

The Ed Sullivan Show

but the 26-second-long, 8-mm, silent, 18-frame-per-second film shot by Abraham Zapruder of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The quality of the images was secondary to the importance of the content.

That’s rarely the case. Normally, the smaller the screen the faster the cutting and the tighter the framing. A nice leisurely wide shot that sets up a scene for a big-screen audience in a movie theater often looks boring on a tiny-screen mobile phone. Even the fast-paced TV show

24

became the very different

24: Conspiracy

on the minuscule mobile-phone screen, with more blood, louder sound effects, bigger bullet holes, many more close-ups, and episodes lasting just one minute each.

Nevertheless, there

are

ways of adding new audiences for videography without having to worry about screen size. And at least some of them have been used for more than half a century. The key is recognizing the world.

Broadcast television didn’t begin in the U.S., but for decades we dominated the field, with most of the world’s TV sets. “In 1953,” according to a United Nations report, “89 per cent of the television receivers in use in the world were to be found in North America (and almost all of these were in the U.S.A.).” That is, however, no longer the case. By 1997, ten years ago, according to U.N. statistics, China, alone, had almost twice as many TV sets as did the U.S.

Unlike mobile phones and movie theaters, Chinese TV sets have screens roughly the same size and shape as those of U.S. TV sets. In 1953, the year NTSC (National Television System Committee) color was adopted in the U.S., the sorts of programs shown on U.S. television might have been totally alien to viewers in China, but today one can find skyscrapers, Boeing jet aircraft, and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets all over the world’s most-populous country. Programs ranging in style from

American Idol

to

Judge Judy

run on Chinese broadcast television. It’s a huge market for videography.

Although there might no longer be cultural roadblocks to American videography appearing on Chinese TV screens, there are still other impediments. The Chinese government has not yet removed all content controls on programming, and China’s video standard uses 25 frames per second, rather than 29.97.

Changing the first might be beyond the control of U.S. videographers (although there’s nothing to prevent them from learning the latest rules). As for the second, video-standards conversion is more than half a century old, and there are now high-quality motion-compensating frame-rate and video-standards converters that can easily transform any U.S. standard of videography into something technically acceptable to Chinese broadcast equipment. But there’s another impediment, one also related to the Flamands and the Walloons.

The latter are the French-speaking residents of Wallonia, a region of Belgium; Flamands are their Flemish-speaking compatriots. Disagreements between the two have recently increased to the point of the possibility of a breakup of the country being discussed. Meanwhile, like people all over the world, both groups watch television.

Walloons, of course, prefer French-language television, Flamands Flemish. And what of American-produced programming?

It could be dubbed into French, which could make the Walloons happy but not the Flamands, or into Flemish, which would have the opposite effect. The U.S. digital-television standard was intended to offer a solution.

It’s possible to create international (dialogue-free) surround-sound music and sound-effects tracks (ME) and transmit them with multiple dialogue tracks (D) in different languages. That is, it’s possible to

transmit

them, but it’s not yet possible to

receive

them. Of the millions of U.S.-standard digital-television receivers that have been sold, none includes the dual-stream Dolby Digital audio decoding that is necessary to combine ME with D at home.

In China, there’s another problem. There are so many different dialects of the language that it could be hopeless to expect any one of them to serve all — or even

most

— of the audience. But there’s an interesting phenomenon. The

written

Chinese language is common not only to multiple Chinese dialects but even to languages in some other countries. That’s why it’s possible to see even Chinese-language programming subtitled in Chinese.

Unfortunately, the same technique won’t work in Belgium. Written French looks nothing like written Flemish (though both use Roman characters, as opposed to Chinese pictograms). It’s possible to subtitle American programming in both languages, of course, but that puts a lot of text on the screen. And imagine serving not just Belgium but a global market all at once.

That’s the situation in which the Metropolitan Opera found itself as the popularity of its live HD cinemacasts (transmissions to movie theaters) grew. Live opera on television has been subtitled since 1976, so it was normal for the Met to transmit English text to the U.S., Canada, and Britain for its first transmission. Norway, and later Sweden, accepted English-language subtitles as well.

When movie theaters in Germany joined the Met’s “Live in HD” network, however, a brute-force technique was initially used to satisfy the new audiences; everything was duplicated. There were two sets of subtitle graphics generators, two operators, two keyers, two satellite paths from the Met to an international teleport, another two across the Atlantic Ocean, and two more in Europe. And that covered just English and German.

By the beginning of the Met’s second season, this month, the cinemacast network had grown tenfold, and the Met wanted to provide feeds to still more countries with more languages. Even if money were no object, there simply wouldn’t be enough HD satellite channels to accommodate all of them.

So the Met worked with Screen Subtitling to develop a system to embed multiple languages of subtitles within a single signal and to allow all of them to be controlled live by a single graphics operator. The DVB-Subtitle bitmap standard was selected for its graphics quality.

In that standard, subtitle bitmaps are added to an MPEG transport stream rather than being encoded in the video. But the subtitle data need to be transmitted to receivers in time to appear in sync with the appropriate audio and camera shot.

Normally, encoder manufacturers do their utmost to reduce latency, the delay introduced in the encoding process. But transmitting multiple languages of bitmaps to receivers in time to be inserted properly into the picture requires either a high subtitle data rate (potentially reducing video quality in a fixed-bit-rate channel) or sufficient encoder latency to allow the subtitles to be transmitted at a lower bit rate. That’s why the Met made its odd request to

increase

encoder latency.

Dealing with multiple languages is not the only technique that allows videography to reach more audiences. Chinese TV sets may be comparable in size to those in America, but in both countries they come in different screen shapes, from the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio (four units wide for every three high) to HDTV’s widescreen 16:9.

It’s possible to accommodate different screen shapes by using so-called letterbox formatting (black bars above and below the picture to allow widescreen material to be seen appropriately on a traditional, squarer display) or pillarbox formatting (side bars for the opposite purpose), but mixed aspect ratios can lead to a so-called postage-stamp effect (where letterboxed material gets pillarboxed or vice versa, sometimes more than once, until the image shrinks to the size of a postage stamp).

There’s a solution available, the use of automatic format description (AFD) to indicate the appropriate aspect ratio of an image so that letterboxing or pillarboxing (or any other technique for accommodating different shapes) gets applied only once. Unfortunately, few U.S. videographers or broadcasters take advantage of such shape identification.

Besides accommodating different languages and different screen shapes, there are other ways of increasing audiences for videography without “repurposing” material intended for a TV-sized screen to a cinema- or mobile-phone-sized screen. Those other techniques involve accommodating different viewer capabilities.

The earliest of these was so-called closed captioning for the hearing impaired. The captions are a form of subtitling. The “closed” designation indicates that they don’t need to appear in the video signal unless a viewer wants them to.

The U.S. digital-television standard allows for closed captions and even offers another option for hearing-impaired viewers, so-called HI audio. The HI may be considered to stand for either hearing impaired or high intelligibility; the dynamic range of the channel can be compressed and its frequency response adjusted to give it maximal intelligibility. Unlike ME+D, HI audio can work with a single audio decoder — but only if it’s created and transmitted.

Then there’s VI audio, for the visually impaired. It’s comparable to the Descriptive Video Service sometimes carried on the secondary audio program (SAP) of even analog stations. It involves having someone audibly describe the action in the picture so that even an audience member without sight can enjoy television programming. Like ME+D, description-only audio added to the complete mix (VI+CM) requires dual decoders; the alternative is VI audio that also includes dialogue, music, and effects.

For viewers with different knowledge levels, there’s yet another audio service available in U.S. digital television, commentary (C). A science program, for example, could feature commentary for neophytes and different commentary for the advanced. Again, adding commentary to the complete mix (C+CM) requires dual audio decoders, but different commentary-added mixes can be transmitted.

Aside for those with different knowledge levels, those whose hearing would be helped by high-intelligibility audio, those with no hearing at all, and those whose visual capability is so poor as to require audible description, there is yet another potential audience group that might be enticed, through enabling technology, to watch a show.

They are viewers with certain types of color blindness. Curon, a Korean company dealing in computer technology, showed its CVD (color vision deficiency) viewing system at this year’s NAB convention, leading Videography’s sister publication TV Technology to give them an award. CVD manipulates color values so that some viewers with color-vision deficiency nevertheless get to see the colors that a videographer intended.

There are yet other ways of attracting audiences. Stereoscopy, broadcast at least every 25 years since 1928, is a hot topic once again, but it requires more new work in production and/or post than even screen-size repurposing.

As for technologies like Smell-o-vision- and Odorama, who nose?

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