The future of television is pin-sharp, pitch-perfect and high-definition. As broad-casters struggle to brush up their sets, soap stars and news anchors to shine under HD’s critical spotlight, the new technology is also set to force a welcome return to old-fashioned craft in TV. We paid a visit to one of the world’s most polished channels that has never let its standards drop, to learn the art behind Arte TV.
Without some staggering international cooperation and a reliable pedometer, there’s no way of knowing for sure, but Lothaire Burg might be the busiest television art director in the world. Today – the quietest of the week, the one that is meant to be the restorative, reflective, head-clearing filling in the sandwich between slices of travel, scheduling and overseeing the output of Arte TV – even today, Burg is bustling.
“Yesterday I was at a conference in Paris to talk about the future of HD,” he says, before being slapped on the back by a colleague from TV-land central casting: clipboard, cargo pants, cans (TV-land slang for headphones). “Well, we were more asking about the future of HD,” he concedes. “At the moment the industry is a little unsure of how it plans to integrate this new thing.”
The new thing is being rolled out at different speeds on different platforms across the world, due to the necessity of a digital signal and a wider bandwidth on which to broadcast. In the US, it is substantially more widespread than in Europe, largely due to the proliferation of high-bandwidth cable TV. This year CBS’s Super Bowl coverage was an HD extravaganza with 47 cameras to capture all the action and a rather fine half-time performance by Prince. In the UK, Sky Sports broadcasts the Premier League’s big games in HD via satellite and the BBC has been producing its more saleable, visually stunning programmes in HD. As host nations of 2008’s European Football Championship, Austria and Switzerland are also gearing up to broadcast their coverage of the event in HD.
When the stage is properly set, a pin-sharp picture with four times the standard resolution is HD’s standard. At its best, it’s cinematic. But when production values are low and corners are cut, the results can look horrible. In South Korea – the modern home of the hi-tech – HD’s public penetration is often greater than the skill with which output is produced. And therein lies the problem: the devil is in the detail. In high definition, a stray nostril hair can look like a length of hosepipe – distracting in a news bulletin, disastrous in a studio debate. Under a spotlight, the shoddy looks really shocking. In truth, the slow drip of high-def adoption is a good thing. Arte has the skilled staff and the respect for craft to lead the way when it starts gradually introducing HD in 2008.
Arte TV is atypical of TV land – the place that, depending on broadcaster and demographic, is so often the home of the glittery curtain and sequinned ballgown, the creaky set and flat lighting, stripping housewives and phone-rigging scandals. In an ocean of dross dressed as light entertainment, Arte is a refuge. Home to a nice drop of culture, in-depth news, exacting documentaries, informed studio debate, themed evenings and fine films.
Founded in 1991 with economic assistance from the EU (it began as a European Economic Interest Grouping) and with the support of the then French president Mitterand and German chancellor Kohl, Arte is a definitively Franco-German collaboration and the essence of a modern European grand projet.
Broadcast in French and German and based in Strasbourg, home of the European Parliament, Arte is a stone’s throw from the Rhine and the vineyards of Alsace – the channel’s offices sit halfway along one of the most cultured yet fought-over corridors of land in the world, tempered by the famous university upriver at Heidelberg and Basel’s Swiss neutrality to the south. Arte exists for a reason and is in Strasbourg for a reason: to be on no one’s side other than the side of reason. To educate, understand, inform and – why not! – entertain. And to act as common ground on what, historically, has never been.
Arte’s kid-gloved handling of the past is reflected in its logo. Burg is passionate about his branding work: some 14 years ago he decided that the acronym for Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne would reflect its status as “a channel without history” by removing the base of its four letters. “I cut off the roots!” laughs Burg as he describes the channel as “a mirror that reflects two nations – the German side perhaps likes to learn and they have a didactic side while perhaps the French prefer the simple spectacle. But we’re European – we make everything together.”
The idea of making things together is central to Arte’s vision. It’s all about craft. Joël Henry and Beatrice Meier are a Franco-German alliance of their own. Henry and Meier craft the copy that accompanies and explains Arte’s themed evenings of films, documentaries and discussions. With Halloween looming and the nights drawing in, Vampire Night is under construction. Some short, sharp and witty words will explain why Count Dracula is on the box again, read by an actor who probably won’t even feel the urge to ham a cod-Romanian delivery.
Meanwhile, graphic designers Laure Isenmann and Anne Mangin make a visual framework for the evening using software and handicraft: vaulted ceilings, spooky castellation, cobwebbed crypts, Gothic arch. As these are being cut and mastered, the composer comes in for a meeting. No bought-in sub-Bernard Herrmann strings for this channel. Pascal Holtzer, whose name defines Arte’s central Euro-unity, has been providing bespoke musical accompaniment to the channel for 14 years, and now runs his own musical theatre company, Unique et Compagnie. After the relative frivolity of Vampire Night, the next task for the team is to create a night around the Russian Revolution.
These thrice-weekly themed nights involve not only a curatorial approach to scheduling but exquisite craftsmanship. All broadcasters employ producers, set designers and lighting technicians, but few can boast composers, graphic designers and copywriters in their regular production team. Meier shrugs: “We’re just the people that make it nice!”
Claude Chancel is Arte’s director of photography. Like Burg, he has been in Strasbourg for 14 years, and also has a background in film. “To switch to HD, you don’t have to relearn the metier but you are at a clear advantage if you have worked in film,” Chancel explains. “The definition of 35mm is very similar to high-def.” What film does not prepare you for is HDTV’s multi-camera tendency. “The more cameras there are, the more testing the lighting becomes. In a large televised debate, we can use up to 13 cameras,” he continues. “And it runs through the crew – a make-up artist will have to learn how to work with HD, which products work with HD. The same for set decorators – everything that’s on show.”
The rigours of Arte’s craft-based approach to production and preparation for HD-readiness require that new production recruits attend an eight to 10 day training course to hone their skills. “You could say it’s a little bit of a school of excellence – it’s a laboratory,” says Burg as he finally sits down at his desk. “A lot of our staff went to art school, and then we educate them in this job of TV.”
While HD-ready TV sets are becoming the standard and mainstream channels are leading the march to fill them with high- definition images, it will be small players and specialists that provide the masterclass in quality. Arte’s production budgets are a fraction of those of the mass-market TF1 in France or Germany’s ZDF and ARD, but as Burg says: “We look good because our people have to use their imagination – perhaps they are a little more proud of what they do here.”
Unfortunately, relying on craft, imagination and intelligence seems an unusual business model for a modern broadcaster, but these old-fashioned values, which belong to a channel where “everyone has their own art and their own identity”, seem like a fine vision for the fragmented future of broadcasting.
More than 190 million people watch Arte TV throughout Europe, where it is broadcast in German and French.
Besides Europe-wide distribution and a presence in the Balkans and Central Asia, Arte is seen in 20 French-speaking and four English-speaking countries in Africa.
Arte co-produces and shares programmes with channels across Europe, including BBC Four and Sweden’s SVT.
Arte is based in Strasbourg (ARTE GEIE). It is run by ARTE Deutschland TV GmbH in Baden-Baden and ARTE France in Issy-les-Moulineaux, Paris.
Arte employs approximately 400 staff, split almost equally between France and Germany. In Strasbourg, Lothaire Burg has a staff of 30 people.
Austria and Switzerland will host the 2008 European Football Championship in June, and Austria’s state broadcaster ORF is looking forward with trepidation to covering the event in HD. Monocle spoke to Franz Manola, head of ORF ON.
In the run-up to the European Championship, what sort of preparations have you and ORF been making?
Our biggest challenge was the bidding for the TV rights, which took much longer than planned in order to avoid paying even sillier amounts of money than we ended up paying. Our next big challenge will be HD broadcasting of the championship. We are jumping into the unknown.
Will Austrian and Swiss TV be all-HD after the football has finished?
As far as I know, the only all-HD broadcaster is HDNet in the US. Every broadcaster in the world is planning a slow transition. All of us will face a complicated hybrid situation with a mix of formats for the coming five to 10 years.
Is sport a good testing ground for HD?
Yes and no. Sport is one of the obvious attractions of HD. American football’s Super Bowl started the bandwagon into large-screen TV and HD more than anything else. On the other hand, sport is fast-moving, which is technically the most demanding application for HD and flat-screen TV.
What are the easiest and the most difficult things to shoot?
Non- or slow-moving objects, outside the studio, will probably be the easiest. Fast-paced objects are tricky. Sweating girls moving around – whether in sport or not – always look good! But they are the most difficult to shoot. Something like Strictly Come Dancing would be the most challenging format for HD transition.
What problems and challenges does HD raise for a broadcaster?
Technical, financial, cultural. We have to understand that the cathode ray is on its way out – a technology which in 2007 had its 100th birthday. And the PAL and Secam standards are on their way out – they are 40 years old. But nobody in this industry, no matter how old they are, ever worked outside of these two technologies – they resonate in everything we think we know about television – so who knows what lies ahead? It’s scary to be in TV these days, squashed between YouTube and HD.
Which events and shows are well suited to HD?
The good-old feature film and TV movies on Hollywood’s craftsmanship-level look great. Natural history documentaries look fresh and rich, and sport too – especially when there’s a nice green grass pitch involved. Commercials and pop videos should always look sharp and sexy as they are in controlled environments.
Do you believe that in order to make HD look great there has to be a re-learning of TV’s traditional craft skills?
Absolutely. Production values will have to be very near to cinematic standards – most broadcasters are very far away from that standard today!
How much will HD be a leap into the future? Is it really that good?
From the point of view of the consumer it is pure magic to put a HD-DVD into your player, or have a small HD projector throwing one of your favourite movies on to the living-room wall. That is not home cinema but cinema in your home, and the experience is amazing. I watched the football World Cup in HD on a 50-inch plasma. Then I went to Berlin to see one of the matches live. Afterwards I thought to myself: “Lucky me, I am going back home to see much more than I saw in the stadium.” For me, HD is bigger than life.