Native HD news production helps Cleveland station lead the market
CLEVELAND: In November 2004, Cleveland Fox O&O WJW unveiled its native 720p/60 HDTV newscasts to viewers, which the station says helped to propel it to first place in the news ratings race. One year later, WJW now has a distinct advantage over its broadcast competitors who have yet to make a move to native HD news production. The station also finds itself a step ahead of some HD equipment vendors who are still developing solutions to meet all of WJW's needs.
"The transition to native HD news production is very complex, and it's not cheap. But if you plan it right, you can do it successfully," said Tom Creter, vice president of engineering for WJW-TV and DT.
Currently, WJW's efforts have centered on its HD newscasts, but there are plans to upgrade other local programming and commercials to HD in the future. Today, WJW is the sole producer of native HD newscasts in the Cleveland DMA.
"The difference between a native HD picture and one which is upconverted is substantial," Creter said. "HD definitely sets us apart from the competition, but eventually they will feel compelled to catch up and neutralize our advantage."
While the decision to transition to native 720p/60 HD news dates back to 2002, the station migrated slowly, first swapping end-of-life analog cameras for new Ikegami HDK 79D HD studio cameras, equipped with Thales Angenieux HD lenses, and mount-ed on Rada-mec robotic studio pe-destals.
In 2003, the station decided to refurbish its 20-year-old analog control room with its Grass Valley 300 switcher to a state-of-the-art digital HD control room equipped with a new 720p HD-only Grass Valley Kalypso HD production switcher; more HD box-type newsroom cameras; and two new Chyron Duet HyperX HD live graphics systems. Also installed was an Evertz MVP monitoring system, capable of multiplexing numerous HD and SD, and SDI signals on a single display--in WJW's case, as many as 16 small HD pictures on any one of four LG 42-inch TFT monitors at the front of the control room.
In addition to the four main LG monitors, the MVP provides four more discrete monitoring outputs for the director, producers, graphics and audio production. A Wheatstone 5.1 digital audio console allows the station to broadcast its HD news in 5.1 channel surround sound. The console features variable delay on all inputs and outputs--essential to correcting the timing of delayed audio sources.
"We knew we wanted to have an HD control room, but we didn't have much more money than would cover a digital SD control room," Creter said. "To maximize our tight budget, we decided to act as our own general contractor, construction manager and systems integrator. With the exception of some bulk wiring which we outsourced to a systems integrator, we designed and installed everything ourselves. Together with my Engineering Manager John Cifani, who was the system architect of this project, and our engineering staff, we worked out the design details and workflow issues."
IT'S A WIDE, WIDE WORLD
At WJW, only HD sources--the three Ikegami HD studio cameras, seven Panasonic AK-HC900 box cameras, and four channels of the Chyron HyperX HD--enter the switcher natively as 720p HD signals. But legacy video, live satellite and microwave feeds that arrive as 4:3 SD signals, are upconverted before connection to the Kalypso.
"If an upconverted 4:3 source is punched up, 'side curtains' are immediately generated and wiped 'on the fly' so that 'FOX 8' appears on the left side panel and 'HD' appears on the right panel," Creter said. Some side panels coming off the Chyron HyperX HD also have animated backgrounds behind the text. The station's production crew always protects for the 4:3 picture for the analog audience.
"We're producing one HD output from our switcher which goes to our digital chain. But that same signal is also distributed to a center-cut down-converter, encoded and fed to our analog master control switcher," Creter said. "Analog viewers are actually seeing a product that was composed directly from our HD switcher, and this dramatically upgrades the look of the analog picture that most of our viewers receive in the home."
GOOD LOOKS MEAN GOOD BOOKS
Since "lighting up" the new HD control room in late November 2004, WJW saw a miniscule up-tick in ratings during HD newscasts in the Cleveland DMA. But the HD control room had only been on the air in the final days of the November 2004 ratings period.
However, "in the February, May, and July 2005 books, we have been number one in the market for news for almost every newscast," Creter said. "While our high-quality news content contributed to that success, you can't rule out the impact that the superior HD picture quality and enhanced sound had on both the digital and analog audiences.
"In tests of our HD equipment early on, we were stunned by the clarity of the HD picture, especially when we realized we could actually see the second hand sweeping around the anchor's wrist watch," he said. "This prompted tweaking of our news set, as well as the redesign of the lighting. With HD, you can see every little nick, scratch, and nail head on the desktop, which just wasn't evident in analog."
WJW's Videssence flat lighting was augmented by 30 new tungsten fixtures and lighting gels for a more dramatic, filmic lighting scheme. In addition, a make-up specialist was brought in to teach the anchor teams new techniques for blending their makeup to avoid tell-tale flaws.
HD GRAPHICS ON STEROIDS
The Chyron HyperX offers two graphics layers per channel for HD output, and plays out real-time 3D animations in HD. The two HyperX CGs are equipped with Leitch Clip Players for playback of compressed moving HD video images with no visible pixilation or blocking artifacts.
Chyron's Lyric 2D/3D graphics composition software is used to create lower-third, over the shoulder, and even full-screen graphics for news. But Chyron operators can also employ HD graphics created on the Adobe After Effects systems which the art department transfer over the LAN. And sometimes HD graphics files are deposited onto the hard drive of a new Proximity Artbox asset management system, which is accessible to the Chyron operators.
"Our station was the first in the nation to install the Chyron HyperX CG system, and Chyron worked very closely with us to ensure that the systems were brought online very smoothly," Creter said.
A BIRD'S EYE VIEW
Live shots are captured using Sony Betacam SX cameras in widescreen mode. But, Creter said, "even when the SDI output of these cameras is run through the fantastic Teranex upconverter, it's still not even close to the native resolution of 720p/60. The difference is stunning. That's why we're investing the time and effort to push for fully digital, native 720p production from end-to-end."
Creter also wants to use a native 720p HD camera in place of the existing SD camera on the Sky Fox helicopter. The helicopter uses a FLIR gyro cam system, and there is currently no 720p HD camera available for this system; only a 1080i HD camera which would require cross-conversion. Creter said they'd prefer to wait for the availability of a 720p HD camera so as not to compromise picture quality.
Another pressing challenge facing WJW is the 2 GHz transition which will require them to microwave their digital 720p HD signal in a 12 MHz channel. "There are systems out there that promise to do this," Creter said. "However, the encoding of HD picture quality might result in a seven-second delay which we feel is unacceptable."
WJW is slated to test encoding solutions from several vendors that Creter said look promising, but he won't know until the tests are completed.
"It's going to take a lot of work to make HD signals work in the [2 GHz] domain," Creter said. "In the near future, we hope to be able to transmit 720p HD aerial shots from our helicopter, and with surround sound give viewers the sensation that the helicopter is flying around them. As a test, we took an HD camera up on a helicopter and microwaved the pictures back [using a Nucomm microwave solution] just to see how it would look. The images were mesmerizing."