We Can See Clearly Now

The Baltimore Sun

Yolanda Vazquez watched a news broadcast on a high-definition television for the first time with mixed emotions.

She was impressed by the way it rendered the anchors in such vivid detail. "It's amazing," she said, "like you're not in 3-D, but in 15-D."

But awe gave way to self-conscious jitters once Vazquez, a reporter and anchor at Maryland Public Television, realized that her turn in front of an HD camera was coming.

"You're really under the microscope," she said, "and if you've got a new pimple or a stray hair, it's obvious."

Such is the lot of on-air talent as momentum builds for the most significant technological change in broadcasting since the advent of color TV. Prompted by a federal mandate to switch from analog to digital broadcasting by Feb. 17, 2009, stations around the country are steadily upgrading their equipment to transmit shows in HD.

With at least four times the resolution of traditional equipment, HD cameras and television sets will display Vazquez and other small-screen personalities in images as large, clear and detailed as they are unforgiving.

The change has sparked particular concern among those who perform live. Unlike movies and recorded programs, where retakes and post-production tweaks can compensate for poor lighting or bad makeup, live shows provide no safety net.

More ominously, in a profession where personal appearance can be pivotal to success, veteran TV newscasters worry that HDTV could turn a spotlight on imperfections that traditional TV technology overlooked.

"These people are under pressure to look good, and frankly, there aren't a lot of 22-year-old anchors out there, so this really scares them," said Doug McAward, co-founder of Kett Cosmetics, a New York company that specializes in digital-age makeup.

Older makeup techniques don't work on HDTV because thick layers of powder, pancake and cream show up as clearly as the blemishes they're intended to cover. "If somebody has an imperfection," McAward said, "you want to cover just that imperfection, not coat the entire face to cover it up."

Makeup artists at HD stations with big budgets use airbrushes to apply specially formulated cosmetics. Their makeup contains no silicon or mica because those substances make people look shiny and frosted under the brighter lights that HD requires. Also absent are kaolin clay and other materials that appear to cake in HD.

But even the best makeup can fail under digital scrutiny. During an appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in October, CNN host Anderson Cooper said he contemplated plastic surgery after seeing himself in HD.

"You notice things about yourself that you've never noticed before," he told O'Brien. "I learned I have a little fatty deposit under my left eye."

It's the high resolution of digital broadcasts and televisions that provides this detail. Compared with older TV sets, which display 480 lines of resoluation, HD sets display 720 or 1,080 lines.

The new screen format is also wider, more like a movie screen. This presents another problem - when viewers watch a standard-format show in widescreen mode, everyone might look fatter than they are.

Nationally, some 65 stations broadcast local news in HD, but the number is expected to grow quickly, according to Phillip Swann, the publisher of TVPre dictions.com, an HD-focused Web site.

Baltimore stations broadcast network and syndicated shows in HD during prime time, but, so far, local news is not. They plan to introduce the technology to live news broadcasts in the coming months.

WUSA (Channel 9) in Washington was an early adopter, making the switch in 2005. The HD spotlight worried some on-air personalities.

"There was some angst beforehand as to what we would all look like," said Todd McDermott, who co-anchors the news at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. "I realized I was never going to be able to hide my 5 o'clock shadow."

In addition to upgrading cameras and transmitters, stations have had to spruce up sets for HD.

George Beneman, vice president for technology at MPT, said producers have to redesign sets to fit the widescreen format. Set designers also must be careful because HD makes imperfections and cheap materials all too obvious. "You used to be able to get away with things," Beneman said. "But now you can't, because the cameras see in such better detail."

Donna Hamilton, anchor of the 5 p.m. news on WBAL (Channel 11), said she's looking forward to HD but sees positives and negatives about the technology.

When viewers see her in person, she said, they often tell her she looks better than on the air: "So I guess if HD makes me look more like I do in real life, that's a good thing," she said.

She said the hosts of NBC's Today show - Matt Lauer, Al Roker, Ann Curry and Meredith Vieira - seem more real in the format. "I look at them, and they look good," she said. "Of course, they have the best - the best lighting, the best makeup."

But Hamilton and other anchors acknowledge that HD might accentuate an industry tendency to favor young, attractive talent over veteran journalists.

"In some arenas, youth will always be an advantage," she said. "I like to think that those of us over 40 have something to offer, anyway. Still, you neglect your appearance at your own peril."

CBS affiliate WJZ (Channel 13) also plans to broadcast in HD, but station management said it would not allow its news personnel to comment on the transition.

WUSA's McDermott, who is 46, said he thinks most people look better in HD, but he shares Hamilton's concerns.

"It's a tough business," he said. "There is no doubt about that. The mantra of TV news and broadcast TV is to attract a young audience. I'm hoping that in the end, the job you do and the trust you get from viewers translates into some loyalty and doesn't just ride on the fact that you look younger."

In addition to new makeup, stations are experimenting with technology to make their talent look good in HD. That means new lighting tricks and computerized camera filters that track and modify the appearance of people's faces.

The filters can alter the color of the skin and change the level of detail with which it is rendered. They help performers stand out from the background and gloss over physical imperfections.

"HD, if you're not careful, can show people the way they really are or make them worse than they really are," said MPT's Beneman. "It's not always as flattering as you would like."

If the screen resolution is too high, he said, viewers might have trouble focusing on the content of a show. "They may think the host is a really intelligent person saying interesting things," he said, "then get distracted by a hair that's out of place. Do you really want to see pores in the skin?"

Vazquez, who often shoots segments of the nationally syndicated MotorWeek show on location and applies her own makeup, fears the demands of HD could take time away from other aspects of her job.

"It's one more thing you have to worry about. You're trying to get the content right, check the facts, and now I have to worry about what I look like," she said.

"I just pray HD cameras don't add another 15 pounds," she added. "There will be a lot of people getting out of the business if that's the case."


'Honeys' and 'horribles'

Some performers look better in high definition, while others are not so fortunate, said Phillip Swann, the publisher of TVPredictions.com, an HD-focused Web site.

His "HDTV Honeys": Angelina Jolie, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Beckham, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce Knowles, Jessica Alba and Eva Longoria.

On his list of "HDTV Horribles": Celine Dion, Bill Maher, Britney Spears, John Travolta, Brad Pitt, Kate Winslet and Michael Jackson.

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