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HD makeover

December 1, 2007

The conversion to HD touches all aspects of broadcast operations. For a lucky few, starting from scratch at a green field site is a possibility. Advantages abound, but the biggest may be setting up a new broadcast operation without impeding the necessary work of the ongoing SD plant.

For most, however, launching HD operations will require layering HD onto an ongoing enterprise — a task few will find pleasant, but all will find necessary as broadcasting enters an era where HD will be commonplace.

This is the story of how some broadcasters — large and small, independent and group-owned — have managed their own HD makeovers.


KYW-TV, the CBS O&O in Philadelphia, went on air from its new 100,000sq-ft HD broadcast center April 2. Located on the sixth floor of a former SmithKline manufacturing plant, the station has been recognized by General Building Contractors Association and is nominated for a Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers Excellence Award.

Starting fresh gave the station a big leg up in many ways, but it wasn't without its own set of issues.

“The first challenge was making sure the television station worked as a television station,” says Rich Paleski, KYW-TV director of engineering and operations.

Specifically, that meant making smart decisions about the physical layout of the plant. The new station is located on a single floor and covers about two acres, which affects both engineering and people, he says.

“We spent a lot of pre-planning time — almost like a jigsaw puzzle — working all of the departments into this one footprint to be as efficient as possible in terms of the operation of the station,” Paleski says.

On a human level, that translated into keeping closely knit departments like sales and traffic adjacent to one another. On an engineering level, it meant being mindful of minimizing the length of cable runs.

“We located the central rack room in the center of the facility closest to master control and the news control rooms to keeps cable runs as short as possible,” Paleski recalls.

Leaving its 35-year-old facility and starting over with a green field also gave KYW an opportunity to leave the past behind.

“I want you to understand that we are completely a high-definition plant,” Paleski says. “Even our SD signal is converted to HD. We distribute everything as HD-SDI.”

In master control, the station relies on two separate HD master control switchers, each running its own automation system.

“At the end of the line, the one for standard definition is center cut and then downconverted for SD,” he says.

The station also operates WPSG-TV, CW Philly 57, with its own master control. Taking this approach lets KYW continue to meet its SD obligations but disengage itself from legacy technology as it proceeds into an HD future.

“It didn't make any sense to design two separate television stations when everybody knew that SD was going away,” he says. “When we looked at it, it was really more economical to build an HD-only plant. In the future, we won't have to worry about throwing much of anything away.”


KMBC-TV, the Hearst-Argyle Television-owned ABC affiliate in Kansas City, MO, is one of four stations in the group currently originating HD on a local level. Residing in a new building on the eastern edge of town, the station had a classic green field site for HD. But HD was not the impetus behind the new building.

“The original intent was never to be an HD facility there,” says Joe Balkan, Hearst-Argyle western regional director of engineering. “From the standpoint of that market and need for HD at this point in the game, it probably wouldn't have happened if it weren't for Jerry (Agresti, KMBC director of engineering) being so diligent and wise about what he bought.”

Unanticipated construction delays pushed off the installation of critical infrastructure, Balkan says, which gave HD equipment prices additional time to fall.

“When we got to the point of, ‘Do we or don't we go HD?’ it was a slam dunk from a corporate perspective,” he says. “Everything was in place, and the incremental cost was not great nor was the installation because it was a green field.”

Says Agresti, “The biggest concerns were to future-proof the technology as much as possible and to stay within budget.”

KMBC's green field experience offers an interesting contrast with the HD retrofit of KCRA-TV, the Hearst-Argyle station in Sacramento.

“The challenges in Sacramento were really that you have to keep producing the 45 hours-plus of news that they create every week between the two stations (KCRA and KQCA My 58),” Balkan says. “They really had to not interfere with the product on-air while dealing with studio changes and control room changes simultaneous to the upgrade. That's a pretty big undertaking.”

Stefan Hadl, KCRA director of engineering, implemented an incremental approach to HD.

“Stefan wanted to bring the technology into the plant without doing a cutover on the air that would be too much to digest in one session,” Balkan says.

Thus, the station installed its HD control room long before it put its newscast on air in HD. Taking advantage of a free studio that could be used temporarily to house the SD news set, crews conducted demolition and construction of a new HD news set.

“Basically, they began doing the show in high-def and downconverting to an old studio that didn't warrant doing it in high-def while they were building the new studio,” Balkan says. “The fact that the on-air product was not compromised during the whole process was key.”


The mid-October launch of FOX Business Network in 720p HD was a bit green field and a bit accommodation of existing infrastructure. From an HD point-of-view, the new national business channel was built from the ground up without any legacy encumbrance. However, from a newsgathering point of view, FOX Business Network naturally maintains a close tie with the FOX News Channel and its 11-year-old infrastructure.

“Our tech center ended up being a green field space for a lot of the HD infrastructure,” says Greg Ahlquist, FOX senior network director/project manager of digital newsroom integration.

Having a fresh start for the new HD operation was critical to hitting the six-month deadline the organization was given to launch the business channel.

“Having the green field space was a luxury, especially in that short time frame,” Ahlquist explains. “We didn't have a lot of time to make decisions that would have been dependent on (simultaneously operating a) breaking news (organization). So we were able to configure our HD infrastructure and test it without interrupting our newsgathering organization. Without the demands of a 24-hour news operation, you don't have the need to support that. You are allowed to get in there. Because it is such a new technology and is changing so quickly because new products are always coming out, you are able to wire them and test them, and you know what you are going to get.”

However, the luxury of the green field only went so far, he said. At some point, it was necessary to tie in the existing FOX News Channel news gathering resources with the new business network, and where that happened, so did a surprise or two.

“Embedded audio was definitely an issue,” he recalls. “The embedded audio issue in an HD environment really becomes an issue between the two environments since Fox News Channel was built 11 years ago, and there are analog mixers and analog audio and embedded throughout that plant.”

Ahlquist's FOX Business Network experience has given him a bit of insight. First, control costs, he says.

“There are so many bleeding edge technological options that are out there that understanding it and having a plan as to what you are trying to achieve is probably the biggest challenge out there,” he explains

His second suggestion is closely tied to the first.

“Know how you process the signal throughout the plant,” he advises. “Each particular vendor has many options; you must know the dependencies of each one of those.”


Andy Suk, VP of engineering and operations for Cordillera Communications, doesn't mince words when describing an HD station upgrade

“When you get into the backbone of the station — the routing switching network, the production switcher and all the parts and pieces that are part of that puzzle — you are talking about ripping out the spine of the station and reinserting a new one,” Suk says. “Or, you can try a stepped approach to do the same thing.”

He should know. KVOA-TV in Tucson, AZ, and WLEX-TV in Lexington, KY, Cordillera Communications' largest television stations, both upgraded their existing broadcast facilities for HD origination this spring.

The approach used in Tucson was to rely on an HD-capable routing switcher installed the year before that could be populated with HD cards to build an HD matrix. In Lexington, the approach was to add a separate HD matrix tied to the existing SDI router via some custom software. While that made the move a bit smoother than a total spinal transplant, a host of other challenges had to be met, he says.

“Monitoring becomes more of an issue than we would like to admit,” he says. “Everybody has HDMI inputs. You can pick up plasma displays to go into offices, conference rooms, whatever, and they all have HDMI inputs. Unfortunately, we're routing HD-SDI signals around the plant. It's $700 a whack to do those conversions.”

The “oh-by-gollies,” a term Suk coined for such expenses, aren't confined to conversions.

“I think one of the biggest things from an engineering standpoint is to say, ‘Oh, I need a switcher; I need a router; I need monitoring and graphics,’ and miss all the other things that keep you pulling that adding machine lever back as you go,” Suk says.

Other less obvious HD expenses include Doppler radar, a new news set and the cost of hiring contractors to do the construction renovation. Aside from expenses, the other complication, particularly when it comes to HD upgrades, is keeping SD operations on track during the process.

“If it were a green field conversion just starting from the ground up, that would be a piece of cake,” Suk says, “but keeping the rest of it up and alive, a lot of that has to do with the SD process, the conversion to SD and figuring that out before the HD conversion.”

According to Suk, often there are other conversions tied to the HD upgrade going on simultaneously that can put a strain on SD operations. For example, WLEX converted its news production from a tape-based to nonlinear workflow and its newsroom computer system to ENPS all at the same time.

Why put so much strain on staff to adapt to so much new technology at once? Simple: the addition of HD servers for playout of all stories.

“If you are going to put in the playout server, that effectively is your nonlinear editing system,” Suk says.


WINK-TV, the Fort Myers Broadcasting-owned CBS affiliate in Fort Myers, FL, sprinted into HD local origination Oct. 20 after deciding to upgrade to HD following NAB2007 in April.

If ever there were an HD extreme makeover, WINK would be it. It could be the poster child for the pain caused by layering an HD broadcast operation onto an existing broadcast infrastructure.

“One of the first things we needed to do was our control room, the only one we have currently,” says Keith Stuhlmann, WINK director of engineering. “It's pretty much been the same for the last 15 years. We really needed to redo the room to get it into the modern age and ready for HD.”

The first step in that process was ripping out the ceiling above the control room, all the while continuing to produce seven and half hours of news a day from the room. “Getting the ceiling down and the new suspended ceiling up was going to make it a whole lot easier for wiring,” Stuhlmann says.

While the station's entire operations center is on a computer floor, there were many advantages of being able to “fly wires” overhead, including the ability to get from Point A to Point B.

“Hanging the suspended ceiling made that much easier,” he says.

To protect the graphics systems, production switcher and other control gear from the debris and dust, Stuhlmann turned to drop clothes and vacuum cleaners.

Ripping out the existing producer's stations, monitor wall and switcher/graphics cabinet required cutting existing cabinetry apart a little at a time when the station wasn't airing news. To keep the saw dust to a minimum, it was not unusual for two people to be vacuuming while a third person operated a circular saw.

“Vacuum cleaners are your best friend,” he notes.

As the cabinets were being cut into pieces for disassembly, station engineers began hanging the plasma monitors that would become its new monitor wall on the wall behind its existing monitor racks. News production personnel identified the absolute minimum monitors they needed to maintain the newscast. That reduced the number of racks needed from six to three, Stuhlmann explained.

Unneeded racks were removed and the newly populated racks were pulled tight against the switcher desk, creating a 3ft gap to hang the plasmas. Eventually, all of the old equipment cabinets were replaced with new custom cabinetry, the control room was rewired, and old broadcast equipment was replaced with new HD gear. The last piece to go was the disconnect Ampex AVC-335 switcher, which was replaced a Snell & Wilcox Kahuna production switcher.

Without question, WINK is using state-of-the-art equipment, including a Miranda Technologies Kaleido-X multiviewer, Ikegami HDK-790EX III studio cameras, a Bitcentral Precis news production system, Thomson Grass Valley Edius software and a host of other equipment, but it's the station's story of the control room renovation that best illustrates how extreme the challenge of upgrading to HD can be in some cases.

“The first thing, when someone hands you a project like this, is you have to carefully plan out what your moves are going to be and in what order,” Stuhlmann says.

Phil Kurz authors several Broadcast Engineering e-newsletters, including “HD Technology Update.”

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