Last month, the Competitive Television Summit co-produced by Broadcast Engineering and Broadcasting & Cable magazines, offered some insight and lively discussion about the return stations can expect from producing local news in HD.
One of the panelists who had firsthand experience with the consequences of producing news in HD was Shawn Bartelt, general manager of WFTV in Orlando, FL. Giving figures on the HD market size in Orlando and discussing what it really takes to pull off an HD newscast locally, Bartelt's message was clear. Stations can't afford not to do their news in HD.
HD Technology Update caught up with her and WFTV director of engineering John Demshock after the panel discussion to learn more.
HD Technology Update: What's the return on investment of doing local news in HD?
Shawn Bartelt: I think when you are doing news at the local level the main focus you have to have is on the viewer.
I think what we saw in my presentation is that the viewer is embracing HD sets, flat screens, and at some point they are going to say, "I have to have all of my product in 16:9 filling my set, and I want to have my product in HD."
I think that if you are not serving that viewer, there will be a cost associated with not serving that viewer.
In terms of ROI, when we first launched in HD, we did not generate a significant ratings bump. Over time, however, our research has shown us that people on the HD tier prefer WFTV news because we are in HD. And we have seen over the last six months a growth in all of our newscasts. We had the largest morning ratings that we've had in 10 years.
HDTU: How has the advertising community responded to your local news being in HD?
SB: I think when you are one of two stations delivering news in HD, the problem is that there are not enough other TV stations. It's going to be hard for agencies and clients to produce HD ads when all they can do is run in primetime.
What we need to see is more TV stations going HD.
I have seen interest just recently from four or five local clients who want to produce their spots in HD and run in HD.
HDTU: John, you said during the Q&A after Shawn's panel that the local community of HD enthusiasts assisted you. Could you discuss their input and specifically how they helped you with your surround sound for HD?
John Demshock: A lot of the input was wrapped around the way 16:9 upconversions looked. I think there was some concern at first and trepidation that the stuff from the field is just not going to live up to your claim of HD. And then they were kind of delightfully amazed — and to be truthful so were we — that a 25Mb P2 widescreen upconverts so beautifully to HD.
I think that when you couple that with the fact that the graphics that go over that are in HD as well, it brings it up to a level that makes it not disruptive, and it's pleasing to watch.
The other thing they helped us with was the audio. Their biggest complaint, and this really surprised me, was that we didn't light up the center channel, and it was upsetting to them because the acoustics of their rooms was set up for a six-channel system. So, the overwhelming request was to put some audio on the center channel.
We employed an audio processor called an OptiMax to do that. And I've done some unscientific research, just asking folks how it sounds and what they think, and so far, everybody has been pretty pleased with it.
The continuing feedback we get is about why we have 4:3 commercials, why can't you make that better, and why can't the networks provide dial norm and flagging for stereo versus 5.1. So, the audio still comes right up to the top, and that was a surprise. But it shouldn't have been. It's definitely something to look out for.
HDTU: Shawn, what were the audience numbers you mentioned during your presentation? And, do you think there are a rough number of HD viewers that should serve as critical mass for stations to use to judge when they should begin doing news in HD?
SB: My understanding, and this is a pretty gross estimate, is that we probably have between 75,000 and 100,000 HD boxes out in the HD community now. That doesn't mean HD tier, which is a higher rate, but just a plain HD box.
Then, of course, there are people receiving HD over the air, and then there are people who stretch on their HD screen and think they are getting HD. I think there is a chicken and egg thing with asking how many HD subscribers or viewers there have to be before you start producing your news in HD.
I think if stations aren't producing their news in HD and promoting that they're producing their news in HD, that contributes to a lag in people getting their HD sets.
So, what comes first here? I'll get back to the viewer. Our weather is a better weather product, or Doppler weather in particular. HD Doppler is a better, more precise forecasting tool. But additionally, I think the one thing we all lose sight of is that our analog consumer is getting a much better picture with our HD signal going out right now than they were prior to us going HD. So, I think there is a bump for your analog viewer that they see and notice. Our high-def weather graphics, the video we are shooting in the field, it's a better quality picture. Our analog viewer is getting that right now, and when they flip through the channels, they see it. If you look at our weather and compare it to our competitors, the graphic presentation is significantly better — analog or HD.
HDTU: To what degree have you been able to minimize parallel SD and HD workflows in news production?
JD: We're fortunate in that our news department was a real big driver in this whole project. They were at the forefront of the project rather than having to be pulled along. I think that was a blessing.
One thing they came up with was to make the workflow efficient, we have to do two things. The first thing we have to do is say a point in the system, which we chose to be the input to the Avid servers, had to be 16:9. So, if material was not 16:9, it had to be treated before it went into the Avid Unity. Therefore, everything in Avid Unity is 16:9 by default.
Part two was, OK, how do you get there?
What we came up with was a philosophy that if you are in the field and you have archive footage that goes into a package, when you put it into Avid, use the tool in Avid to pillar-box it. So that was part A to that scenario. Part B is if you are taking feeds into the server from ABC, CNN or one of the other stations, pillar-box them live as they come in and overlay the graphic that we use going into the server. So the by the time it gets to the switcher, it's all 16:9 and the production folks don't have to worry about it. Those two things really helped that workflow quite a lot.
We've been fortunate to have the tools that we need, like laptops in the field, to be able to do those sorts of things.
HDTU: Will HD ENG be on hold until Sprint Nextel completes the 2GHz relocation at your station? Or, do you have a different timetable, and if so, how does the relocation play into your plan?
SB: The new cameras that we will be investing in will be able to convert to HD.
JD: The new cameras we've purchased are HD. We don't use them as HD right now. The Nextel thing is obviously a very big part of the equation, but it's not the only part.
We are actively looking at encoder/decoder combinations to be able to use for backhauls and things like tower cams. We are drawing on our sister station's experience in Atlanta where they are using an HD helicopter, and I think they are sending that back at about 16 or 17Mb.
But there is a huge question mark going forward with the cameras and where HDV fits into this equation and some of the new transcode products, because latency is the real killer there. That's what we are focusing on. When does the latency get to the point that it's feasible?
The cost thing, it's getting cheaper and cheaper all of the time. In fact, it might be hard to even find an SD camera at the NAB.
SB: I will make one comment. While people do want video that fills their entire screen, when you're doing news, it's compelling news video. If it is compelling news video, you can put up cell phone video and people are going to watch it. You can put up video that people shoot with their camera phones, you can put up home video if it is compelling. So, I think we need to not lose sight of the fact that truly what people want to see is compelling video — even more so necessarily than seeing wallpaper video in HD.
HDTU: For clarification, are you shooting HD P2 is SD 16:9 currently?
JD: The main part of our arsenal is SD P2 that we are shooting 16:9 at 25Mb. We upconvert it going into the switcher so it stays at 25Mb in the Unity system.
We have invested in a few HD cameras, one of which we use in HD for retail services. The other one we use in SD now in news. We have also invested in a lot of HDV prosumer gear that we use for special projects. We've been impressed with that.
SB: But moving forward, all new camera purchases will be able to shoot standard def and HD.
HDTU: What do you think about the HDV format?
JD: We're very curious about HDV. We think it has a lot of promise. If you A-B it next to a Varicam, well, it's HDV. But if it's better than what we can do now and we can get more acquisition because of the price point, does it make sense to look at? That's one of the things we are wrestling with.
We haven't seen yet something that stands up to the rigors of ENG in that format, but we've obviously noticed that manufacturers looking at it.
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