“A high-definition camera can see more than the naked eye sees,” said Doug McAward, a veteran television producer.
This is not the awestruck musing of a TV technophile.
It’s a warning.
And a sales pitch. Mr. McAward is also the founder of Kett Cosmetics, which supplies airbrushes and specially formulated glycerine-based makeup (and the strange pumps required to apply it) to ABC, CNN, ESPN and others, specifically for use with high-definition cameras.
“You can’t just slap on foundation with a sponge any more,” he said. “The camera sees imperfections. It magnifies them.”
The verdict is that television news is not ready for its close-up.
Surely the greatest aesthetic threat to TV news since Technicolor, high-definition television is nearly 10 times sharper than regular television. About 18 million households now have HDTV-ready sets. By next year, that number could be as high as 50 million, according to some industry estimates. In 2009, when most of the broadcast networks are finished converting their news programs to high-def, much of the viewing public will be able to inspect the enamel on Katie Couric’s teeth, if they are so moved.
The spread of high-definition television, which is just now reaching television news divisions, means every wrinkle, every overgrown nose hair and every precariously bulging temporal vein on the left side of Bob Costas’ face will soon be visible to viewers around the world. (The vein, in fact, has already made its debut: During NBC’s high-definition Olympic coverage this month, when the baby-faced Mr. Costas was revealed—via two million pixels traveling at a 50-megabit bit rate—to actually be a middle-aged man with graying sideburns, sandy skin and starchy hair.)
“There will be some people with certain complexions, with freckles, lines, scars,” said Frank Governale, the vice president of operations for CBS News. Mr. Governale is overseeing the news division’s conversion to H.D., which is to be completed by 2009. “Makeup will play a very important role in trying to make that as palatable as possible.”
“We’re a superficial nation,” said Phillip Swann, a network consultant and the author of a cheeky online newsletter that monitors the spread of H.D. through the television business. “I doubt people will be more forgiving just because it’s news.” Mr. Swann said he has found one television news star who looks good in high-def: Diane Sawyer, “and there’s a lot of speculation that they’re giving her a softer camera focus.”
Good Morning America, which Ms. Sawyer hosts alongside Robin Roberts and Charlie Gibson (“not what I’d call HDTV-friendly,” said Mr. Swann), began broadcasting in high definition in November 2005, and is the only network news show to have done so to date. Almost all primetime and late-night programming is already shown in H.D. News has been the slowest to convert—to “migrate,” in industry parlance, as if the whole medium were heading south to a spring-break hotspot where everyone is taut, toned and curiously lacking in sun damage—less for issues of vanity than of logistics.
Or so they say.
For one thing, H.D. is expensive, and news divisions aren’t exactly rolling in it these days. It’s costing NBC upwards of $10 million to overhaul the Today show, said John Wallace, the network’s executive vice president of television operations and production services. The morning show will begin broadcasting in high definition, with or without Ms. Couric, in September 2006, with the rest of the news division converting in the year that follows, Mr. Wallace said.
Another reason for the delay is that news broadcasts are more layered than entertainment or sports, incorporating wire-service feeds with material shot in the field with tape from the studio. Preston Davis, the president of broadcast operations and engineering for the ABC television group, said high-definition cameras are still not sufficiently developed to fully equip the network’s news crews.
“We’re a little bit hostage to the technology,” he said.
Mr. Davis said the Good Morning America anchors have responded well to the conversion, and Mr. Wallace said America’s first family likewise took kindly to a test-run of the Today show that the network produced in H.D. “This myth of ‘Talent’s going to look a lot worse in high-def’ hasn’t proven to be true,” Mr. Davis said.
Earth to Star-9
CNN, which launched its online channel Pipeline in high definition this winter, hired Mr. McAward and his sister to train its 17-person Atlanta-based cosmetics staff in H.D.-specific makeup application. They outfitted four of the studio’s five makeup rooms with their patented applicator pump ($359, retail) and 12 colors of foundation and powder (which sell with a pump for $569). The McAward siblings likewise provide high-definition makeup to the four hosts of The View. Star Jones wears color number HR-9, Mr. McAward said. They’ve renamed it Star-9.
To demonstrate the airbrushing technique—which is not unlike what editors do in fashion magazines, except applied directly to a person—Mr. McAward had a makeup artist spritz a layer of Kett Cosmetics on the “deceptively pale” skin of NYTV. The process was discomfiting, like having Tinkerbell spit repeatedly in one’s face, but the result was pleasantly subtle—lighter than the traditional garish, TV-ready fare.
“Basically, I used to just slap makeup on my face, trying to make myself look presentable,” said CNN Pipeline anchor Melissa Long. “This is much better.”
Anchors and correspondents are not the only ones affected by the impending migration to high-def and its attendant cosmetics revolution. Their interview subjects—particularly the politicians—are already steeling themselves for the harsh glare of HDTV. Media consultants are doing test shots with airbrushes in hopes of avoiding unflattering camera angles in political ads. And there’s always the fear of a Nixon moment during the 2008 Presidential debates, by which time plenty of swing voters will have high-resolution sets.
“As TV news transitions to high-def, you’re going to see these guys walking out of the smoke-filled room, out of the Congressional hearing, and everybody’s going to have to be on a lot more,” said Rick Wilson, a media consultant for the G.O.P.
Does that mean there will be politicians who wear makeup all the time, lest they get caught emerging from a subcommittee hearing without their face on?
“There may well be,” he said. “Some do already.”
Mr. Swann gave most politicians poor marks based on the high-definition broadcast of the State of the Union in January—“Dennis Hastert in high-def,” he said, “looks like Jabba the Hutt”—but said there may be more cause for optimism among broadcasters.
“We’re in the news world here,” said Mr. Governale from CBS. “We don’t stage things. We don’t prop certain things to look like something they’re not. We shoot reality.”
The first television news program broadcast in high definition was an episode of 48 Hours called “Strike It Rich,” which aired on April 1, 1999. Dan Rather, looking as if he’d been carved out of soap, anchored from Donald Trump’s living room.
“Some of you watching tonight have been part of an experiment for television,” the former CBS Evening News anchor said at the close of the program. HDTV, he explained, is “a whole new way of broadcasting and receiving television pictures. And as those of you who have it are aware, it requires a wider screen. It provides much richer detail and a picture that’s much sharper, too. One more example of thinking big.”