PBS Chihuly Special Launches HDTV; Bodes Well for Future

High-definition television will be synonymous with high-quality programming, if the nation's Public Broadcasting Service has anything to do with it. Last week, PBS launched its new age of HDTV with Chihuly Over Venice, a 90-minute documentary about Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly. The beautifully filmed and expertly edited piece, assembled from 100 hours of raw footage, follows Chihuly and a crew of fellow artists through Italy, Ireland, Finland, and Mexico as they work with local glassblowers, creating sculptures and large-scale chandeliers for public places.

Chihuly's works combine free-form organic shapes with rich colors and exquisite attention to detail. They range in scale from small pieces suitable for tabletop display in a typical home to huge, ambitious works like the $10 million chandelier of blown-glass flowers that hangs in the lobby of the Bellagio casino, Steve Winn's newest expression of Las Vegas excess.

Chihuly was the perfect subject for a first-time HDTV documentary. His brightly colored clothing, the visual intensity of his creations, and the landscapes of the different countries in which he worked all stood out as clearly distinct from each other. The production was the work of Seattle station KCTS-TV, which has been experimenting with high-definition video since 1989. One of its productions, Over California, is a 15-minute tour of the California coast. It was made by the station years ago with an Army-type Huey helicopter carrying the recording equipment. The clip, which has astounding dimensionality, is still widely used as an example of high-quality video.

It's only gotten better since then. HDTV is like "looking through a window," says Burnill F. Clark, KCTS's chief executive. "It draws you into the TV because the picture is seamless. There are no spaces in the picture. It's just one beautiful, glossy image." KCTS has won an International Electronic Cinema Festival award and several regional Emmys for its innovations in HDTV. In addition, it was instrumental in the formation of the Digital Broadcasting Alliance two years ago, which enabled public television stations in Washington, DC, Boston, New York, Milwaukee, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, to share resources for the production and broadcast of HDTV programs. The station was the first in the nation to broadcast the HDTV format, on January 28, 1997.

The promise of HDTV was apparent even on the letterboxed, downconverted-to-NTSC version of Chihuly Over Venice that most viewers received. The entire production was shot for HDTV, and the resulting improvements in depth, color saturation, and apparent resolution were remarkable. If anything, the show proved that good-quality analog television sets are capable of better performance than they are usually given credit for. Directed by Gary Gibson, Chihuly Over Venice was easily of DVD quality, perhaps better. The program proved the old adage that a picture can never be any better than its source.

One simple prediction: Set-top converter boxes are going to be hugely successful during the transition to full-time digital broadcasting, a process that could take as long as 10 years. The changeover will be hastened by a decline in prices for HD receivers, which now retail from several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars.

It will likely be two or three years before prices drop to an accessible level for most consumers, an interval in which the amount of HDTV programming will become sufficient to provoke interest in the new format among the viewing public. More than 40 stations in 23 cities will offer hi-def programming by the end of this month, according to the most recent figures from the National Association of Broadcasters.