This week, “HD Technology Update” concludes its conversation with Gerry Belec, Global Television director of technology and design, about the Canadian broadcaster’s innovative use of virtual sets in local markets and regionally located consolidated production control to set the stage for the rollout of local HD newscasts.
Belec was part of a five-person team from Global TV responsible for implementing the approach, which was conceived of and developed by John O’Connor, the broadcaster’s VP of engineering.
In part one of the interview, Belec discussed the broadcaster’s implementation of its plan and how using virtual sets have changed the return on investment equation for local HD news. This week, he concludes with more details and some insight on the narrow line of demarcation separating reality from virtual reality.
HD Technology Update: Were the decisions to roll out the virtual news studios tied to the network’s decision to roll out HD newscasts from its local stations? If so, how?
Gerry Belec: I think when you look at the cost of a proper HD set, the cost of maintaining that set and lighting that set, our approach makes sense. You can’t build with cheap materials in an HD environment. Lighting those plasma screens, buying those plasma screens, maintaining those plasma screens — we just found that VR (virtual reality) was the best way to go in these smaller markets. It gave us a network look on a local budget, and we were able to cut and paste the same set into multiple markets and simply change textures and personalize it for that market.
Something really hit me when I was looking at our current set in Vancouver. When you look at the Duratrans — the real set — that’s a Photoshop document that was sent to a printer and is now plastered across a piece of plywood. When you look at all of our monitor loops, those are simply AfterEffects loops playing off video servers. We really haven’t changed that much by using VR. Most of the design is done in the digital domain now. We’ve just kept it there.
HD Technology Update: Something very tangible, however, must be the savings in personnel resulting from this approach. How did that play into setting the stage for HD local news?
Gerry Belec: Obviously, there were some efficiencies in staffing. We don’t have to staff a local control room. You realize how important that is to the life, the ebb and the flow, of a station. You can’t take away a master control; you can’t take away a production control and all of those people and not give something back.
We want to show these markets that not only are we trying to make things more efficient, we are trying to make things better. I think the on-air product shows that. We’re really looking for ways to save small market television in these markets. It’s crucial to the function of our network, and I don’t know how you build out an HD infrastructure in these small markets and look for an ROI on it. This seemed to be the way to go.
A lot of our competitors are looking at station automation, and that seems to be the thing these days. We’re looking at consolidation. We just think that is a better use of our bandwidth, our time zones and our people.
HD Technology Update: Has this approach allowed Global Television to introduce HD production elements into the local newscasts that otherwise would not have been economically practical? If so, what are some examples?
Gerry Belec: We do our national news out of the Vancouver center, so it literally is a drag and drop to repurpose content from the national news into the local news rundown — not only from a video content standpoint, but over-the-shoulder graphics, plasma screen loops, all of that value-added stuff we do for our national news is now available for our smaller markets without having to rebuild the infrastructure in the small markets to do that. It’s one thing to say you want to run that plasma that you ran on the national newscast in Halifax. But what if they don’t have that playback device? Now they do.
HD Technology Update: Could you give me a little more detail on the Harris NetVX product you’re using to facilitate the high-speed transport of video and data from the local stations to the regional control centers and centralized master control?
Gerry Belec: It used to be called the Astra frame. Now it’s been rebranded as the NetVX. That is our transport. What’s very important is we manage our own bandwidth via this platform. We automatically schedule camera feeds for these studios to pop up and dismiss themselves, so those feeds are automatically generated every day. A lot of our control goes over our national MPLS network, so that’s straightforward. Timing is interesting, because we are actually treating the Halifax studio as one of our own; we’ve had to time our house clocks to GPS so that we are literally running in time with this place that’s 6100km away.
HD Technology Update: Where does the project stand today?
Gerry Belec: We’re just wrapping up phase one. We are beginning phase two in Edmonton/Calgary, and about a year from now, we’ll be wrapping up phase three, which is the Toronto market. Once we’re finished with phase three a year from now, it’s a matter of pulling the trigger at four centers for HD news instead of at 14.
HD Technology Update: Are you taking the same approach to the production of your national newscast.
Gerry Belec: Yes, it’s important to note that our national newscast comes out of Ottawa three time zones away from a 25ft-by-25ft studio with a 10ft ceiling on the 13th floor of an office building — the production, the editorial, all of that is back in Vancouver. It’s basically just our anchor and a senior producer in Ottawa. We do our national news that way. We’re investing a lot in our HD technology, and I think as we move down the road into our four production centers, when we do roll out our HD newscasts in our main centers, I think you’ll see a hybrid model — both virtual and real components. It’s just too good not to use. When you can build a 60ft plasma screen at no cost and then turn it off and on the next day, you can’t beat that.
HD Technology Update: How are you handling breaking news in one local market that may conflict from a timing point of view with the newscast for another market (time zone) you’re controlling from a regional broadcast center?
Gerry Belec: We actually are going to approach breaking news along the lines of escalation, de-escalation workflow. When breaking news happens in our small market, medium market and large market, the news director has to break into local programming. He can do so directly through master control. We’ve built that pipeline already. He can do that with something as simple as a newsroom slam camera — a flash camera is what a lot of Americans like calling it. We can go live from our master control at any of our stations on flash-cam.
If a production center is not available, we can sit our anchor down in the studio doing the green screen with a master control sort of chromakey scenario, or do a basic live news hit from within the master control room itself. Of course, the third phase is you have full resources so you can tie into a production center.
Let’s face it: That’s the way breaking news works. It’s got to get on the air quick and dirty. The next pass you want to fix it up with a few more resources as you gather those resources. Last but not least, we can throw our entire network at it. So we’ll be able to escalate it and de-escalate it as needed. That infrastructure is in place.
We’re sort of building up the protocols for it now, because, quite frankly, the old protocols no longer apply when you don’t have a control room anymore. We’ve had to really think about how we maintain our pact with our local viewers to bring them the local news. And yes, we can.
HD Technology Update: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Gerry Belec: This really was the dream and vision of John O’Connor, and this took a lot of corporate courage. There was a corporate will to do this. If this were easy, everyone would do it. But it really had to be driven and marshaled by someone with this vision, and that was John O’Connor.
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