When CNN started building studios at the Time Warner Center back in 2003, the news network was thinking about its planned upgrade to high-definition down the road.
Where possible, CNN bought HD-capable and HD-upgradeable equipment and cabled the facility to HDTV standards, such as they were at the time.
Sept. 1, CNN became the nation’s first cable news channel to be go HD, although initially it was not available to any viewers as the channel worked on carriage deals with cable operators and they cleared space on their systems. DirecTV included CNN HD in its rollout of additional HD channels scheduled for Sept. 16.
“We really have an opportunity to engage our viewers on a deeper level because of the quality of the video,” said Bob Hesskamp, vice president of CNN Broadcast Engineering Systems Technology (BEST), the network’s in-house engineering squad. “You really bring them closer to the news.”
Viewers will initially get a mix of HDTV (1080i) in 16:9 format, and upconverted standard-definition in 4:3 with pillars. Programs produced in CNN’s New York studios—such as “American Morning,” “Anderson Cooper 360,” and, starting in November, an 8 p.m. show with Campbell Brown. as well as numerous special events and documentaries—will run in HD. Programs produced in Washington, Atlanta and elsewhere, as well as the network’s 27 years of archival footage, will run in upconverted standard-definition in 4:3.
So, at 6 p.m. Eastern time, for example, Wolf Blitzer, upconverted and in 4:3, will give way to Lou Dobbs, in 16:9 HD.
The changeover began in earnest about one-and-a-half years ago, said Hesskamp.
In New York, where some gear such as cams and switchers were already HD-capable, CNN installed new HD graphics rendering and playback systems and upgraded all the control rooms. Those feed on a fiber line to Master Control at CNN headquarters in Atlanta. There, the new MC brings dual redundancy—two HD switchers and two SD—so producers can put graphics in the appropriate space for each screen.
| CNN’s new Quality Control room in Atlanta|
Out in the field, as DV cams came due for replacement, newsgatherers began working with HDV cameras where appropriate, as well as laptops in the field that can edit Sony XDCAM and HDV.
The transition for field units is expected to take three years.
“With the scale of CNN’s newsgathering operations, there’s no way we could have done it all at once,” said Hesskamp. So, CNN will put HD resources where it figures to get the most content for the New York-based programs, to start, as well as in high-profile remote locations such as the White House.
In all, CNN has 36 news bureaus and has hinted at adding more.
Production trucks are also being upgraded, including the CNN Election Express, ready for campaign season with four HD transmission paths and on-board, HD-editing ability.
CNN is mum about much of the equipment it uses, but it is using plenty of Sony cameras, as part of a deal announced this spring.
And CNN has been using Radamac remote camera controlling systems in both Atlanta and New York. Carl Bodeker, technical sales manager with Radamec, said he met with CNN staff at NAB2006 and struck a deal for CNN to beta-test its latest system and provide input.
“Obviously, we trusted feedback from them as much as anyone,” said Bokeder.
SOMETHING TO SHOW
Audio will continue in stereo, synthesized to 5.1 in New York so as not to jar viewers surfing on their HD tiers.
“Newsgathering is a tough one for us to crack because historically ... one channel is the reporter track and one channel is [natural] sound and soundbites,” said Hesskamp. “We haven’t got our arms around that completely yet. That works so well for newsgathering we’re not ready to change that yet.”
All that data will add to the load of the satellite links, ftp, and fiber lines CNN uses. In some cases, transit will simply take longer, a single HD feed will be sent where currently two SD feeds can go.
CNN consulted with systems integrators during the planning stages, and then later for “racking, stacking, and cabling,” said Hesskamp, but most of the design and labor was done by CNN BEST.
CNN is highlighting some special programming in its HD launch. “CNN Presents: Planet in Peril,” a four-hour documentary shot in HD on four continents and featuring Cooper and Sanjay Gupta, will run Oct. 23 and 24. Gupta’s special “Fed Up: America’s Killer Diet” will run Sept. 22 and 23. Presidential candidate debates Nov. 15 and Nov. 28 will also be shot in HD backed by the Election Express bus, as was the July CNN-YouTube debate among the Democrats.
“We’re going to be ready for the next one,” said Hesskamp. “The debates look fantastic in HD.”