High definition television was high on the agenda at this year’s Prime Time conference, an annual event hosted by the Canadian Film and Television Production Association (CFTPA).  CRTC chairman Charles Dalfen gave the opening keynote, during which he laid out the regulator’s take on Canada’s broadcasting and production landscape. He noted that "the demand is certainly there" for HD television programming. However, he added that while sales of HD-capable television sets are up in Canada, most of the content still hails from south of the border. Canadian content produced in HD must increase to keep pace, he concluded. Later that day, in a panel session titled "High-Def Cancon: Are We Ready?" moderator and Canadian Digital Television president Michael McEwen highlighted the market penetration of HDTV in the US compared to Canada. He noted that virtually every US broadcaster is now on-air with an HD signal, and that 99% of the US population can receive free over-the-air HD programming. By contrast, CTV became the first Canadian network to offer over-the-air HD in August of last year. "Here in Canada our strategy has been a two-year lag with the US," observed McEwen. He added that with US broadcasters and consumers bearing the brunt of the upgrade and debugging costs associated with HDTV rollout, it’s a strategy that’s worked in Canada’s favour until recently. But now, McEwen said, that gap has widened to the extent that Canada is now three-and-a-half to four years behind the US. With approximately 5% of all Canadian content produced last year available in HD, that means many viewers here are turning to American programming to get their high-definition fix. "That’s simply not good enough," he said. Fred Mattocks, executive director of production and resources, English television at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., described HD as "big gorgeous television," a far more immersive and captivating viewer experience than "utility television," which "fills a need while you’re doing something." Although two million HDTV sets have been sold in Canada so far, broadcasters – including the CBC – haven’t invested in the technology to the same extent. "For the first time in history the consumer has better equipment available than the broadcasters do," he said. "There’s never been a time where the gap between where we are and where we need to be has been ." Astral Television Networks’ senior VP of programming Kevin Wright said Astral is moving to HD as quickly as possible, with much of the content on its The Movie Network and Mpix pay TV channels already available in the format. "It’s certainly a trend we saw coming," he said. "We saw far in advance that movies and sports would be the primary drivers of HD." Wright noted that there are costs associated with shooting in HD, besides the obvious upgrades to camera, sound equipment and other hardware: with such fine detail, costumes and sets have to look more authentic than in previous formats, he said. However, if producers build such costs into the production budget and retain separate rights for conventional and HD broadcasting, they can recoup those additional expenses, he said. Virginia Thompson, president of Vérité Films Inc. and executive producer of CTV’s Corner Gas, confessed that HD was still somewhat of a mystery to her. "I’m not technical – I just want to keep my audience happy," she said. Fortunately, Corner Gas was intentionally shot on film to give the program an ethereal quality, meaning the show can be easily upgraded to HD – and additional revenues can be obtained by selling HD and conventional broadcast rights separately. "If you don’t have an HD master, then your project won’t have any value in the future," she said. "Even if a network isn’t demanding HD, your investors will appreciate it." Tom Perlmutter, director general of the National Film Board’s English program branch, said the NFB has a large content inventory – more than 10,000 films – dating back to 1939 that can be converted to HD because it was initially shot on high-quality film. Later productions, however, are a problem due to the preponderance of videotape, which features a lower image quality, in the 1980s. Such material can be "uprezzed," or have its picture resolution improved somewhat by digital scanning and retouching, but "it’s not perfect," he conceded. "Broadcasters are really loath to look at uprezzing right now," Perlmutter said, but added that international co-production partners are increasingly demanding HD production. Wright expressed similar skepticism about the benefits of uprezzing content to make it suitable for HD, and said Astral keeps uprezzing to a minimum. Click to view chart: Total volume of film and television production. The production picture according to Profile ‘06The CFTPA took the opportunity afforded by Prime Time to present Profile 2006, its most recent annual economic report on the film and television industry in Canada during the 2004-2005 period. While the report shows a 9% drop in overall Canadian film and television production volume – mostly due to the fact that 2003-2004 was a banner 12 months for the industry, as well as a stronger Canadian dollar and renewed efforts to persuade US productions to shoot south of the 49th parallel – the volume of television productions on their own grew 3%. While specialty programmers led the growth, pay TV and private conventional broadcasters also posted gains. With Profile 2006 as a backdrop, the CFTPA presented a panel on the current state of – and future prospects for – the television and film industry in Canada. One of the issues Cable Public Affairs Channel host and producer Ken Rockburn raised as panel moderator was the increasing amount of production being done in-house at broadcasters, to the detriment of independent producers. According to the CFTPA report, in-house production has steadily gained ground since 1998-1999, with a 5% hike in 2004-2005. Barbara Williams, senior VP of programming and production at Canwest Mediaworks, countered that all producers – whether in-house or indie – are facing the same tough environment. "We’re all trying to push a number of boulders uphill at the same time," she said. Both camps face challenges in securing project financing, coming up with new ideas for quality content, "and now how viewers want to use the product once you give it to them," Williams said. Alexandra Raffé, president of Toronto-headquartered film and television production firm Savi Media Inc., decried the scarcity of funding in Canada that has producers holding out hope for "a once-a-year lottery ticket" for funding programs such as those administered by Telefilm. "The complexity of financing means we’re spending more time on the money and less time on the creative," she said. Chris Bartleman, a partner in Vancouver’s Studio B Productions, agreed. "The business model is changing," he said. "You can’t keep waiting for that lottery ticket." Profile 2006 can be downloaded at http://www.cftpa.ca.