By the summer of 1982, HDTV had become a topic hot enough to completely sidetrack a workshop I attended on production techniques for video. Workshop leader Harry Matthias soon found that all anybody wanted to hear about was HDTV.
Eleven years later, in 1993, the FCC commissioned a grand alliance to sort out the particulars of HDTV. Among others, AT&T, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Philips Consumer Electronics, Thomson Consumer Electronics and Zenith would form the Advanced Television Systems Committee, or ATSC. This team of industrial, technological and scientific titans would establish a digital broadcast standard to replace the one that had served the United States since World War II.
In March of 1941, an earlier generation of titans formed the NTSC – the National Television System Committee. The NTSC set a standard of 525 scan lines, 30 frames per second, and an aspect ratio of 4:3, or 1.33:1. Color standards were introduced in time for Christmas of 1953, and TV went unchanged for 43 years.
As the new era of television winked from an enticing distance, the movie situation in Huntsville was improving somewhat. Sharing a parking lot, a name and a whole lot of beige brick with Huntsville’s new hypermall, Madison Square 8 opened in late June of 1985. With theater capacities ranging from 44 to 99, “MadSquEight” was a huge improvement over the horrible Cinema Center 8, or “CinemEight,” as I and absolutely no one else called it.
Things really started looking up when Cobb Cinemas opened Hollywood 16 on Memorial Parkway between Drake Avenue and Airport Road. Living up to its name, “Hollywixteen” radiated showbiz splashiness unseen since the 70s, when the Lyric and the Martin ceased to duke it out for downtown supremacy on South Washington Street.
Once again, movie fans were delighted – and a little surprised – to find movie palaces competing on the old battlegrounds of seating and sound. Screen size was still lagging, though, as was any sense of customer service. You bought your ticket, you found the correctly numbered theater, and you were on your own.
Sometimes a single employee was running all the projectors in the multiplex, and he or she was behind a locked door, up two flights of stairs. Theoretically, the projectionist could be reached by intercom or phone, but that required tracking down a human with time, inclination and necessary skills to use it. Problems with projection, sound, temperature or cleanliness were not deemed the responsibility of employees hired to shovel popcorn and squirt nacho cheese.
In the summer of 1997, “L.A. Confidential,” followed the credits with the introduction of Officer Bud White, his name appearing in typeface just to the right of center screen. The problem was, on the Hollywood 16 screen, the name appearing on the screen was, “Officer Bud W”. The right 1/3 of the picture was missing, taking with it most of Officer White’s last name.
The screen situation set my righteous indignation smoldering, but it burst into hard, gemlike flame and metamorphosed into letters to the editor with the attendant’s response: “All the important stuff’s up there.” I wasn’t paying to see somebody else’s idea of the important stuff! I wanted to see ALL the stuff! This was no better than pan and scan on TV!
I saw HDTV for the first time not long after its debut in September of 1998. A high-end home theater store on University drive had a few early models on display. The screens were small — probably not much wider than 24 inches or so, and a football game was on. I wasn’t especially impressed at first, but as I drew closer, I realized that I could read the facial expression of every spectator in the front row. Finally, I exulted, there would be a TV that could reproduce the movie, the whole movie, and nothing but the movie.
I knew at that moment I was going to take the plunge. It was just a question of how obscene a price I would pay, and when.
To be continued…