The Future of Television Graphics
It is an exciting time to be in television. The advances in digital television, computers, and all the peripherals related to them open the creative gate for television graphic designers. Television is undergoing some growing pains and is about to transform into an entirely new format.
Author: Samuel Edsall
The picture tube is slowly being replaced with new display technologies that are thinner and lighter. Televisions can now be hung on a wall like a moving painting for the first time. The computer and television continue to slowly assimilate together and may become one combined unit or ‘tele-puter’, if you will. How will the Internet play a role in the future of television? This chapter will examine new developments in television and their impact on television graphic design.
High Definition Television (HDTV)
February 2009 may prove to be quite interesting. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has allotted an additional 6 Mhz bandwidth channel to each station for high definition television. That is the same amount of bandwidth as analog television has. In order for stations to fit a high definition signal into the same amount of spectrum space, the signal will need to be digitally compressed. Analog high definition, as used in Japan, requires more than three times the amount of spectrum space at 20Mhz(1). Going digital makes more sense. Right now, many stations are using both the analog and digital spectrum to simulcast their programming. In February 2009, all television stations are scheduled to surrender their analog signals back to the FCC and only broadcast with their digital signals. Sooner or later, all televisions that cannot receive a digital signal will need a converter box. Future television buyers should seriously consider an HD-ready set.
For the television graphic designer, high definition television means two major improvements: higher screen resolution and a larger screen aspect ratio. As you recall, the current aspect ratio of standard television screens all over the world is 4:3 or four units wide by three units high. HDTV is more film-like at 16:9. The larger aspect ratio could be considered a mixed blessing, as there is more ‘room’ for design, but the question is what to put in the added space. In the interim while HDTV is simulcast with standard definition, the problem facing television graphic designers is producing graphics that fit both aspect ratios. Graphics designed for HDTV will be cropped on NTSC whereas NTSC graphics containing borders and backgrounds won’t be big enough or be stretched to the wider aspect ratio of HDTV. Stations simulcasting will likely need graphics designed for both formats.
According to the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) there are twelve different standards of HDTV. The twelve are evenly divided between 1,080 and 720 scan lines with various frame rates. Nine of the twelve standards use progressive scanning and the remaining use interlaced scanning. Progressive scanning would seem to be the answer if the signal can be scanned fast enough to avoid screen flicker(2). Thinking ahead to when our television screens would also be our computer monitors, it would make sense to have HDTV signals progressive. The ideal high definition signal would be 1080/60p - 1,080 lines scanned progressively 60 times every second. Not only would this provide superior video, but the display could also double as a computer monitor. However, the transmission bandwidth and recording capacity requirements of 1080/60p are currently too high. NBC, CBS, and Japan’s NHK avoid the bottleneck by interlacing the 1080 signal. The 1080/60i signal, or 1080i for short, cuts the information demand in half. The Fox network is keeping the 1080 signal progressive, but reduces the scan rate to a film-like 24 fps. This signal is referred to as 1080/24p. ABC, Japan’s NTV network, and the U.S. Department of Defense have opted for a 720/60p standard or 720p for short(3). Postproduction houses that handle HDTV for different clients generally opt for equipment and software that can handle 1080/60i, 1080/24p, and 720/60p.
This leaves television manufacturers with the task of designing sets that can accommodate various HDTV resolutions and frame rates. Most HDTV sets today are either 720/60p or 1080/60i. If a 720p set receives a 1080i signal, the set scales down the 1,080 scan lines to 720. A 1080i set will scale up a 720p signal. 1080/60p sets are already starting to appear in the marketplace. Currently there are no 1080/60p broadcasts, but new video compression technology could eventually allow this type of high definition broadcast. In the not-too-distant-future, Hollywood is expected to start delivering 1080p movies on high-definition disks(4). The television receiver also has to deal with different HD frame rates. If the signal is sent at 24 or 30 frames per second, a computer chip inside the television increases the number of frames to 60 to remove the flicker. In the case of 30 frames or 30Hz, each frame is simply doubled. The 24Hz signal is converted to what is referred to as three-two pull down. Each odd frame is shown three times while each even frame is shown twice.
Digital televisions basically fall into four categories – EDTV, HDTV-ready, HDTV, and Digital Cable Ready. EDTV or ‘enhanced definition television’ are usually plasma or flat-panel LCD displays. They are capable of displaying a 480p picture. This is basically the same resolution of NTSC, but progressively scanned. It provides a DVD quality picture but is not as detailed as HDTV. HDTV-ready sets can display a high definition signal, but do not include a tuner for receiving digital broadcasts. These sets should work fine for consumers who receive their HD signals from a satellite dish network or digital cable company. HDTV sets can receive and display over-the-air digital HDTV broadcasts. Digital Cable-Ready sets include a CableCARD slot that allows cable subscribers to get HD programming without a separate cable box.
Standard Definition Television
Standard definition television has a resolution approximately the same as today’s analog television with standard or wide screen aspect ratios. The new 6Mhz bandwidth for digital transmission is just big enough for one HDTV program or up to four SDTV programs. In addition to broadcasting single or multiple feeds of video programming, digital television can also transmit non-video data. More feeds + more data = more graphics. Multiple feeds from the same station can mean specialized television news programming like all-business, all-sports, all- politics, all-local news, or news in a foreign language. Each of these will need a graphic set.
Virtual Set Environments
A new trend in television set design is moving away from physical sets to digital. Shows from entertainment to news and sports are using computer graphic backgrounds. The talent for the program is shot in front of a blue or green screen while a computer graphic environment replaces the background. Chroma keying, the technique of replacing one color with a video source, has been in use for many years. Weather people who appear to be standing in front of their weather maps during their segments of the newscast typically use chroma keying. The drawback of chroma keying is the sharp edge around the weather anchor as they stand in front of the graphic. If the chroma-key is not set precisely, a halo of blue or green can be seen around the talent. Most viewers understand that the weather person is not actually part of the weather map, but is ‘placed’ in front of the graphic. Talent keyed in a virtual set cannot appear to be pasted in, but integrated with the artificial environment. The hard key edge from a regular chroma-key will defeat this desired effect. The development of the Utimatte keying system provides such a realistic key effect that virtual sets become plausible. The Ultimatte system does a far better job composting the foreground and background images together even when the foreground contains translucent elements like smoke or water. Another advantage is to be able to have soft edges around the keyed-in elements and to create realistic shadows.
Another difference between a standard chroma-key effect and the virtual set is the connection between the television camera and the graphic hardware. With a standard chroma-key, there is no interrelationship between the camera and the graphic. Any camera motion will not be reciprocated by the graphic. For instance, if a camera panned from left to right following a person walking across a chroma key screen, the person would appear to be walking in place since the background would remain stationary. In a virtual set environment, any camera motion is reciprocated by the graphic. Motion sensors in the cameras detect any pans, tilts, or zooms and tell the virtual set software to change the background graphic. The result is the illusion of apparent motion. The same person walking from left to right would now appear to be moving because the background will move from right to left with new graphic material being rendered in real time. If the camera zooms in on the subject, the graphic will compensate by also zooming in.
There are two major drawbacks to virtual sets. The first drawback is that they have a tendency to look artificial. Sets that look real with rich textures and light gradients that can move and zoom push current processing speeds to the limit. However, the loss of realism can be a benefit to some programs looking for an alternative to a realistic set. The second major drawback is the initial overhead cost. A one-camera package including software, an SGI Onyx2 workstation, and a camera motion sensor cost around $450,000 with each additional motion-sensing camera costing an extra $300,000.These kinds of costs are too much for affiliate stations. However, this new technology could actually save television networks money. Some network sets including NBC’s Dateline cost nearly $500,000 to build and remains idle 80% of the time. A multiple camera virtual set enables several shows to all work from the same studio space with a ‘set change’ requiring only seconds by loading a different program and changing a few set props.
There are several players in the virtual set business. The largest and most widely used virtual set manufacturer is Accom, Inc. They have two systems in use called ElsetLive for broadcasting and ElsetPost for post-production work. The Elset system is considered the best in realistic texture, depth, and perspective. ElsetPost renders the virtual sets off-line, so very complex scenes with ray tracing and particle animations can be produced that are not possible in real-time set productions(5). Other players in the virtual set market include Discreet Logic’s Vapour system, Orad’s Cyberset, and RT-Set’s Laurus. Play Inc. has virtual set software called Synthetic Sets built into its Trinity all-in-one box for television switching, nonlinear editing, character generation, effects, and still store(6). Serious Magic’s Ultra is an affordable post production solution using vector keying and what they call VirtualTrack which simulates camera motion like zooms and pans from a still camera.
What does this mean to the television graphic designer? It is quite likely when a production facility gets this new production hardware that someone familiar with computer graphics and animation will need to operate it. A person with a creative mind and comfortable with new technology are the expectations of a graphic designer. The beauty of creating virtual sets is in its ability to ignore the laws of the real world. Objects in the virtual environment can be semitransparent, animated, float in air, and so on. There are no limitations to the creative directions to discover in designing a new environment.
Astons refer to the informational graphics found on the lower third of the screen. Astons are used to deliver the latest news, sports, finance, and entertainment headlines during normal programming. Their use has become a key ingredient in news, sports, and financial channels as another means to inform its audience.
The ticker-tape information across the bottom portion of the screen can be considered both helpful and distracting. People that are used to multi-tasking find them as a useful way to keep up on the latest information or as a viewing alternative to an uninteresting program segment. Some viewers find that astons clutter the picture and distract from the program. The scrolling information is considered a visual annoyance to many and shrinks what the viewer actually wants to watch(7). Stations that use astons consider them a courtesy by delivering the latest sports scores, poll returns, and up-to-the-minute headlines for the viewer. Indeed, some information like severe weather alerts are necessary, but overuse can be distracting and, in a sense, disrespectful of the program(8).
When astons are called for, they should not obscure the main picture. Some news channels, like CNN’s Headline News, have astons on the lower third, a story graphic on the upper left third, and the anchor squeezed in the upper right two-thirds. The NASCAR telecasts on the Fox network use a two-tier ticker that runs along the top fifth of the screen. When individual car statistics and driver information are inserted on the lower third, as much as half the screen is covered(9). The result is a look more like a web page than television. It is no accident that one medium is looking more and more like another. The assimilation of various types of media leads to the next subject.
Most talk shows, prime time news magazines, or late shows have guest appearances and interviews with movie actors, producers, directors, writers, and so on. Chances are that these ‘guests’ are really members of one big happy corporate family. The company that owns the television network likely owns a movie studio, a few record and book publishing companies, several cable channels, and newsprint. These media giants are on a growth spurt after the FCC eased restrictions on the number and type of media a single company can own. Having a monopoly of several media outlets isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This allows for a greater sharing of information. This also means that those in the business ‘cross-platform’ their work for other uses. One story may be re-written for television, radio, newspaper, and the web.
Convergence is also affecting the television graphic artist. The primary role still is to conceptualize, design, and create video graphics for newscasts, special reports, and promos. The designer is also likely to create supporting print graphics for newspapers, posters, flyers, T-Shirts, and the like. It is certainly possible to play a role in web page authoring for the station. Experience in a number of graphic programs like Photoshop, After Effects, Illustrator, Lightwave, Quark Express, Dreamweaver, Avid, and Quantel will be a necessity. DVD authoring may be required so being familiar with IDVD, DVD Studio Pro, or any other authoring program would be a plus.
Graphic centralization is a term that can be applied in two different ways. First, in the single station environment, reporters, producers, and news directors need to find and retrieve graphic elements for their news or sports stories making centralized access necessary. Second, as media outlets continue to converge and several stations are owned by the same parent company, design is often out-sourced to graphic design companies who serve as a hub for all graphic production(10). In each case, the look or style of the graphic is kept consistent through the use of templates. The template defines the style, layout, and behavior of the elements within the graphic. This allows non-technical, non-creative people to build graphics with a consistent look. As an example, journalists can create their own graphics using a template that forces consistent properties such as text font and size, justification, and character count.
Access to news graphics has become more accessible and user-friendly. Some broadcasters are moving away from proprietary hardware to more PC-based character generation and paint programs such as Discreet Combustion, Inferno, and Adobe-based products such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects or a combination of products. With the advent of SD and HD, broadcasters are looking for a hybrid solution that will output in both formats. In the near future, the same content will be repurposed for the Web, cell phones, and other portable devices(11).
(1) Robert Cringly, "Digital TV: A Cringly Crash Course vs. Analog," PBS.Org, English, www.pbs.org/opb/crashcourse/digital_v_analog/mpeg2.html: February 25, 2006
(2) "HDTV & Digital Television vs. Progressive Scanning and Refresh Rate," AudioVideo101, English, www.audiovideo101.com/learnarticles/hdtv/hdtv08.asp: March, 2006
(3) Mark Schubin, "The Wrong HDTV?" Videography, July, 1999
(4) Yardena Arar, "Even Higher-Definition TVs: New 1080p Sets Promise Crisper Images-Eventually," PC World, English, www.PCWorld.com:May 2005
(5) "Elset Post," Elset, English, www.accom.com/products/elset/elset_post/elset-post.html:March, 2000
(6) Brian Ramos, "Virtual Sets: What are They and Who are the Players? ," www.rcc.ryerson.ca/newsmedia/ftpapera/vsets1.htm:1998
(7) Mike Kavanagh, WWW Site, TV Graphics or Hindrance (www.news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs/hu/newsid_3950000/newsid3958800/3958891.stm, 2004)
(8) Chris Buckman, "The Television Scene," Films in Review 43, 9/10 (September 1, 1992)
(9) Albert Kim and Mark Mravic, "Shrinking from View," Sports Illustrated 94, 22 (May 28, 2001)
(10) Daisy Whitney, "Graphics More User-Friendly," Television Week 23, 51 (December 20, 2004)
(11) Ken Kerschbaumer, "The Changing Shape of Newsroom Graphics," Broadcasting & Cable, October 10, 2005
About the Author:
is a professor at the Department of Broadcasting at Western Illinois University with advanced degrees in Mass Communication and Computer Graphics Design. Mr. Edsall specializes in new technologies in mass communication and teaches television production, online and multimedia journalism and computer graphics for television. He has won several regional and national awards for his television and multimedia productions. Edsall has presented numerous papers at regional and national conferences. Before teaching, Mr. Edsall had several years experience in public television as a videographer, lighting director, and production assistant in studio and remote productions. He continues to produce and direct programs from advertisements and promotional videos to fine arts productions.