Seeing Is Believing

Digital television in the Middle East is just around the corner. Expect more programme choice, more channels, more services, more interactivity. And expect a new way of seeing TV: cinemascope will soon be in your living room. ITP.net reviews widescreen.

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By  Kieran Potts Published  May 26, 2002

Introduction|~||~||~|On March 11 this year, a lone gunman shot himself dead in an Amsterdam office building as a protest against widescreen television. The Dutch State broadcaster, NOS, had received a message from the man – a 59 year-old psychiatric patient – stating his anger over the promotion of widescreen as “better looking than normal TV.” He appeared to be particularly furious with Philips, which had its headquarters in the same building until a few months before. All eighteen hostages escaped unharmed after a seven-hour siege.

If so inclined, there are plenty of other motives for suicide when it comes to widescreen. It doesn’t only boast superior aesthetics, but promises more picture for your money, better quality of picture, and it’s the final element in the creation of true home ‘cinema’. In short, widescreen is the interface of future interactive services, the digital broadcast that will offer hundreds of channels, plus shopping, internet, email, and online gaming – and all through your television set. The question is when can we expect widescreen in the Middle East?

In the mid-1990s, there was no subscription television, the few satellite networks that did exist being free-to-air. Now the scene is very different. With the growing presence of overseas broadcasters, several high-quality Arab-owned alternatives have emerged, namely the pan-regional output of the MBC (Middle East Broadcast Centre), LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation) and Future. Currently, there are also four competing digital television platforms in the region: Arab Radio and Television (ART), Star (News International), Orbit and Showtime. All are competing to win the hearts – and wallets – of an audience increasingly appreciating a blend of homegrown and foreign-made programmes.

The result is a highly competitive broadcasting environment in the Middle East — more so than in many monopoly-dominated European countries — with large sums invested in new equipment and studios. This would seem to suggest that an early move to digital and, in turn, widescreen broadcast, is positive.

In Europe and Australasia, widescreen is already big business. Philips produced the first integrated digital set in 1998. Today, most of the big names compete: Loewe, Grundig, Thomson, Panasonic, and Sony are leading the field. Projection widescreen systems are also offered by Mitsubishi, Pioneer and Toshiba, while plasma versions are made by NEC, LG, Plasma One, and others besides.

The reason for the global success of widescreen sales is due to the speed by which the format became the standard for broadcast. Sky Television in New Zealand began digital transmission in 1999, while Australia’s ABC followed earlier this year. Both countries plan to turn off their analogue signals by 2008. The BBC already films more than 50% of its programmes in widescreen, and the change has fostered new creativity. One eccentric television presenter invited two strippers to perform on camera but, appearing at the sides of the picture, only widescreen viewers – less than 5% of the public – could see them.

Philips estimates the widescreen TV market to be worth US$1.5 billion by 2003 in the UK alone, while Datamonitor predicts that, by 2005, 51% of all European households will have digital TV, making widescreen all the more attractive.

In the Middle East, however, there was until recently no need for cinema-style television. DVD changed that. It can reproduce movies to almost the standards of modern, THX-approved multiplex cinemas. That includes encryption of the full picture, impossible on VHS. It follows that home-theatre enthusiasts have taken to the new 16:9 format like ducks to water.

But they only account for an elite minority of the market. Damien Blythe, store manager at electronics retail giant Plug-Ins, says that widescreen TV sales will only truly blast-off — appeal to everyone, in other words — once local channels broadcast 16:9 images. But Ali Abrahim, the self-confessed ‘technical guy’ at E-vision cable company, estimates Middle East television to transmit currently in widescreen “less than 1% of the time”.

He says: “I think we will eventually see a move to 16:9 because TV set manufacturers are pushing for such a change. To get people to upgrade their existing box, they are offering this new, ‘wide’ format. Currently the prices are higher than for 4:3, but this is changing also. But it will not be this year or next year. No, it will be a long time before local TV is shown in widescreen and, in turn, before sales of the sets really pick up.”

He adds that currently there is no demand on broadcasters to convert their programmes to the 16:9 ratio. “People are asking for more programmes, more channels, more movies. But they don’t care what format they come in.”

Don’t give up just yet; there are plenty more reasons to change to 16:9 for consumers and TV stations alike. Future broadcasts will also abandon 2-channel stereo in favour of 5.1-channel Dolby Digital surround sound, completing the movie-theatre experience. All the elements of true home cinema — already recorded on DVD — will be available through satellite and cable. Again however, this would appeal mostly to home cinema buffs who account for a minority of viewers.

What about higher-definition television, then, something that will certainly be possible in the digital era? HDTV is a matter of resolution. In the United States, current analogue TV screens have 480 horizontal ‘lines’, making up the overall picture. With digital — which works in pixels much like an LCD computer monitor — this translates into a resolution of 210,000. HDTV, by comparison, uses over two million pixels. In short, the screen of the future will be of superior quality to what we see today.

Damien Blythe from Plug-Ins is sceptical: “I don’t think that HDTV will ever really take-off,” he says. “It only appeals to a very small sector of the market, and a lot of the programmes from satellite are now of a very high quality in terms of resolution, so on standard 32 inch sets the difference between high- and normal-definition is not that great.” So, only viewers of ‘big-screen’ TVs — those watching the World Cup down at the local pub — will benefit from high-definition broadcast. Thus, the majority of television studios may not be persuaded to forfeit the added expense.

Ali Abrahim of E-vision, disagrees: “I think digital HDTV may pick up. The problem is that the technology needed to produce high-definition video cheaply is not yet available. Most of it is still in the concept stage. It is possible to convert current programmes to HDTV by way of interpolation of the lines that make up the picture, but this can never be to the same standard as producing original HD shows.”

In summary, it will be many years before all new programmes are filmed in the 16:9 format, and many more before all broadcasters abandon 4:3 completely. The cost of the change to TV companies — especially smaller, state-run studios — will be great.

Furthermore, the expense to viewers as we upgrade our televisions is criticised by consumer watchdogs throughout Europe. At the same time, picture quality of older programmes deteriorates when they are cropped and stretched to fit 16:9, often losing important elements of the original film. People will appear dwarfed and fat, while 16:9 programmes showing on a 4:3 screen will make people tall and thin. Confusion during the switchover period will be inevitable.
And if that’s not enough, Damien Blythe says that the falling price of plasma is making an attractive alternative to Middle Eastern consumers. For just a little more dough, he explains, you can by yourself a sizeable 4:3 plasma screen instead of a small 32 inch 16:9 TV. We like ‘bigger’ better than ‘wider’, it seems.

Nevertheless, widescreen is on its way in, and 4:3 on the way out. The world’s international broadcasters will have completely converted to cinema vision by decade’s end since, for commercial television to compete with the quality offered by DVD, digital widescreen is an essential investment to secure a place in the home of the future. The BBC, Discovery Channel, PBS in the US, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, have all set out firm agendas for the introduction of widescreen programmes. Indeed, many popular shows, like ER and Babylon 5, are already digitally re-mastered into 16:9.
Change will be slow. Broadcasters predict the transition to widescreen to be an evolution rather than a revolution, in much the same way that colour television emerged. But no one disputes that all programmes — whether it be local news or Hollywood blockbusters — will benefit from the more natural feel of panoramic vistas.

It seems that, for the time being, Middle East consumers are demanding of broadcasters more choice in programmes, rather than questioning the format or definition in which they come. It’s a classic case of more quantity, not quality. The wait for widescreen broadcast in this part of the world looks set to be a long one.

The changeover period – during which broadcasters will transmit pictures in both 4:3 and 16:9 ratios – will cause confusion for consumers. Film fanatics will adopt the new format readily, of course, especially since movie channels are likely to be the first to begin cinemascope broadcasts (no conversion of the original film is needed). News and documentary programmes, however, are more likely to remain in 4:3 for a long time to come.

The problem will be viewing 4:3 on a 16:9 screen. Older programmes especially had a nasty habit of zooming in so close to people’s faces that too much of the detail is lost when the picture is cropped for widescreen. The alternative is to stretch the image at the sides, adding distortion. It follows that most consumers will instead choose to view 4:3 in the centre of their 16:9 set. Unfortunately, if the edges of a TV set are used infrequently, then permanent ‘bars’ become etched into the left and right sides of the screen. This is called ‘burn-out’, and can dramatically decrease a television’s life cycle.

While few channels broadcast in widescreen in the Middle East, the risk of burn-out makes 16:9 all the more costly. In our view, purchase of a widescreen set should only be considered if the majority of your viewing is from DVD. If you do want to invest in a fancy looking screen, then remember that ‘big’ and ‘wide’ are not the same thing. Spending just a little more than the smallest 16:9 can get you one of the mightiest 4:3 plasmas on the market.
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