By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
Only tech-versed viewers who habitually flip channels might have noticed. The fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) of Pres. Benigno Aquino III also goes down as the first to be shot in high definition (HD).
There’s little fanfare for the Presidential Broadcast Staff – Radio Television Malacañang (PBS-RTVM), which bags the credit for this long-overdue upgrade. They’ve always handled the SONA pool feed, being charged after all with documenting the chief executive’s speeches and activities.
At these events, the SOP for network live news crews is to hook up with RTVM’s feed since they have more camera angles, and more importantly, prime access to the president. However, the RTVM feed was at times of lower quality than that of the networks’ own cameras and fell prey to technical glitches that made it risky to air.
RTVM stayed in the technical cellar for years, as the privately-owned networks bulked up on the latest equipment. Moves to update their tech capabilities went gradually, going only as far as the government’s budget could allow.
Then in 2012, the Philippines was picked to host the 2014 World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia.
Louie Eleazar, head of RTVM’s media production division, said the Forum fast-tracked their team’s modernization drive. Being the host broadcaster, they were required to cover the event in HD, yet they had no hardware to do it.
“We learned that we would host the WEF late in the ball game,” he said. “Our budget was already set for 2013. The capital outlay was supposed to be spread out to all our divisions. But since we had to service the WEF, we had it realigned.”
So for the 2013 national budget, RTVM was allocated P78.7 million just for capital outlay–a hike of almost P55 million from the previous year’s. That helped raise PBS-RTVM’s overall 2013 budget to P198 million, with capital spending taking nearly 40 percent, versus just 19 percent in the 2012 budget.
The funds went to acquiring new cameras, broadcast hardware, and a production van—all HD-ready.
As the equipment arrived, the other networks soon got digital hook-ups from RTVM for events like US Pres. Barack Obama’s state visit to Manila last April. Digital meant better resolution than the previously analog video. A digital line could also carry both audio and video through just one cable.
The WEF became RTVM’s first big test run for their new system. And they didn’t disappoint, Eleazar said.
“The organizers told us this was the first time (in East Asia) that the host country covered the event in full HD, and the first time the host broadcaster’s coverage was this well-organized,” he said.
There were hardly any glitches shooting in HD, but it was another story when it came to distributing and airing the video. After all, except for premium channels on local cable and test broadcasts, no one else is airing in hi-def yet.
Sure, local teleseryes, basketball games, and documentaries have long begun the trek to shooting in HD, but few have tried it covering a major news event live.
Local TV networks that hooked into RTVM’s coverage during the WEF faced the same issues in the SONA. For starters, they had to down-convert the video from HD to SD. Then, they had to worry about the dimensions or aspect ratio, which is different between HD (the rectangular 16:9) and SD (the more square-like 4:3).
“At first, we couldn’t decide if the networks would crop the video or retain the whole picture in letterbox,” Eleazar said. “In the end we agreed on the letterbox (with black bands above and below the video).”
But on July 28, the networks airing largely the same SONA feed showed it in not-so-uniform ways.
PTV 4, TV5, and UNTV 37 went with the flow and aired the RTVM feed in full and in letterbox.
ABS-CBN and ANC’s technicians cropped the picture, which allowed RTVM’s shots to sync well with their in-house cameras. However, it was the accompanying graphics of figures mentioned in the SONA that suffered from cropping. They were not designed for 4:3 dimensions and were the reason RTVM recommended using letterbox.
But what ABS-CBN avoided happened over at GMA 7 and its sister channel News TV 11. Their cameras delivered full-frame shots and looked awkward when switched between RTVM’s letterbox feed. GMA’s production team decided to tap their camera for President Aquino’s solo shot. Halfway through the speech, both channels sneaked in graphics to cover the black portions.
The HD frames were good news for agencies like Solar News and Net 25, whose newsgathering teams have already been shooting in 16:9 for over a year. Solar used RTVM’s feed in full screen, but as they do with their newscasts, only a cropped view of the SONA broadcast aired on Channel 9. Net 25 still aired in letterbox.
See video grabs in this slide show:
The video quality was not also consistent among all channels. For instance, the letterbox on GMA 7 turned out more compressed than on Channel 11. ABS-CBN’s cropped view showed clearer detail than some others that used letterbox.
It’s one of the downsides of down-conversion. Plus, it’s only now that local news outlets are figuring out how to adjust to new technology in a country where most TV audiences cannot even receive all available channels in good quality.
But Filipino viewers might wait a little longer to watch free TV in HD. The current industry move, albeit a slow one, is toward digital broadcasting in standard definition. Digital, this time, meaning a clearer on-air signal, one less hampered by interference, and for networks, capable of sending multiple channels in one signal.
Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) already has its local pioneers, like ABS-CBN and Net 25. But development is on standstill and limited to test broadcasts. While the government has already picked a broadcast standard (Japan’s ISDB-T), the networks are still waiting for it to release implementing rules and regulations on the roll out of DTT.
The Philippines’ total migration to digital TV is set for 2015, but the deadline could change, depending on the readiness of Filipino TV viewers. Japan took 7 years from introducing digital to making a full switchover. The United States already shut off all free-to-air analog broadcasts back in 2011, but not without a law extending the original deadline in 2009 by a few months.
RTVM’s small steps in HD are a spring board for a bigger coverage–the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in 2015, which the Philippines will be hosting. For now, Filipinos can watch President Aquino’s speeches in much clearer visual detail. The improvement is no big reason to “lift one’s bench”, as Aquino put it in his SONA, but it is one that’s better seen than said.