The HD news transition

Television news is all about showing viewers the relevant people, places and events affecting their world.

HDTV offers that audience a bigger, clearer view of their world than ever before, and consumers are responding enthusiastically. The Consumer Electronics Association predicted in June that 16 million HDTVs will be sold in the United States this year, taking the total number of high-def sets in the country to 52.5 million.

In terms of households, the CEA reported that as of that month, 30 percent had HDTVs, and that by the end of 2007, the figure will grow to 36 percent. Local station and network news organizations have responded as well. Industry estimates put the number of stations on air with local HD newscasts at between 50 and 60 and growing every week. The three network nightly newscasts are making progress toward HD. CNN Worldwide went HD within a little more than a month ago, and CNBC HD and the Fox Business Channel in HD will launch this fall (and may have done so by the time this is printed).

There are a variety of reasons networks and stations launch their newscasts in high definition, but ultimately they all boil down to the viewer.

“I think truly when you are doing news at the local level, the main focus you have to have is on the viewer,” says Shawn Bartlet, general manager of Cox Television's WFTV in Orlando, FL, which launched its own local HD newscasts in July 2006. “I think if you are not serving that viewer, there will be a cost associated with that.”

Time of transition

As more stations face how best to deliver HD news to a segment of their audience while continuing to present their newscasts to the majority of viewers watching in SD, they approach a critical crossroads.

“At this point in time, customers are facing perhaps their most option-filled set of choices about where to take their production as well as their hardware platforms,” says Fred Schultz, senior marketing manager for news solutions at Harris. “They have a great interest in preserving those options as far down the decision-making process as they can achieve.”

At issue is how best to serve both SD and HD audiences without becoming tied to a technology that forces newsrooms to decide on an editing platform before they're ready to commit to a final format mix, he says.

“Given that they are all going to be three-stepping their way into HD from SD — first with the studio, then with the chauffeured HD driven back from the field and finally with microwaving from the field — it's not that clear to many of them what their actual edit needs are going to be,” Schultz says.

To accommodate that uncertainty, Harris not only has integrated support for its own NewsForce Editors into its servers but also Apple's Final Cut Pro.

Omneon Video Networks also recognizes the need to offer mixed format support and preserve choices about editing applications, says Chris Lee senior director, Broadcast Solutions for Omneon Video Networks.

“Omneon's dual-format capabilities are one of the key reasons the company is making serious inroads in news,” he says. “Our servers allow users to mix SD and HD content, and edit them both with Final Cut or many other editors. There's no reason for a newsroom to try to make the transition overnight.”

The flexibility to drop SD and HD source material onto the same editing timeline effortlessly is at the heart of Quantel's Newsbox and Enterprise sQ, says company CEO Tom McGowan.

“Picture I am an editor sitting at my Newsbox. I have SD 4:3 and HD 16:9 clips on my same timeline,” he says. “I decide I am finished editing that 100-clip story, and I want to play it out in HD. As we play it out in HD, all SD will be up-resed on the fly. If I elect to playout in SD, it will down-res all HD material to SD. It also will play both out in parallel.”

Such flexibility means the focus of news production can be “about creating the story and not manipulating the formats,” he adds.

For stations planning to add HD news, accommodating both SD and HD for contribution as well as the distribution is a sizable issue.

“The biggest surprise that I had was the amount of conversion gear,” says Jerry Agresti, KMBC-TV director of engineering. “The number is huge.”

Shortly after relocating to a new broadcast facility in Kansas City, MO, the Hearst-Argyle-owned station took its newscast HD.

“I don't want to sound like we went into it with our eyes closed,” he says, “but the count of conversion devices is amazing.”

Andrew Suk, director of broadcast engineering for Cordillera Communications, which launched HD local news at its stations in Tucson, AZ, and Lexington, KY, agrees.

“I think a lot of the glue product sneaks up on you,” he says of the transition to HD news. “The number of conversions you need to be making — just the little nickel and dime pieces, which unfortunately are usually measured in $1000 and $2000 increments — those are the parts that throw you.”

With its new Vision and legacy multidefinition switchers, Ross Video has attempted to keep the number of converters required for news production to a minimum, says Darren Budrow, the company's director of sales.

“You can either integrate those up/down/crossconverters and resize directly in the switcher, or you can have them external,” he says. “We decided to go external.”

The switcher itself can operate in SD or HD mode, supporting 720p, 1080i at 24Hz, 50Hz or 60Hz.

“What happens if you have 10 sources; nine of them are HD and one is SD?” Budrow asks rhetorically. “Our solution is to set the switcher to be HD and convert that one SD device to HD. What happens if your facility evolves to an absolute mix — 50 percent SD and 50 percent HD? You could put a single converter on each one of those SD sources, or you could let the switcher do this for you. Just using a mathematical formula, we can figure out the worst-case scenario — the number of converters you would actually need in any one production.”

Out and about

The consequences of working in a mixed SD, HD world extend beyond the control room and into the field.

“First of all, we have to train our camera people on what HD is versus SD,” says Bob Ott, Sony VP marketing, optical network and pro audio-video products. “That may sound a little specious, but what we're finding in the early stages of this is that you have to teach them some of the typical things that have to be understood, like they are in a 16:9 format simultaneously dealing with 16:9 and 4:3 worlds.”

News photographers in the field must understand that for the foreseeable future, when they shoot 16:9 — whether it's in SD or HD — they have to do so with a 4:3 safety area in mind, he says.

“News is kind of forgiving,” Ott explains. “If there is a grip standing there with a light in the sidebars, it's not a big deal. But if they are doing documentaries or any other program, it becomes an issue obviously.”

Still the transition to HD and dealing with the disruption it can bring to field production, workflow in the newsroom and control room operations is significantly less today than only a few years ago.

“From the standpoint of disruption, obviously HD would not have been a good idea in the year 2000,” Ott says, “but we've evolved quickly so that by the year 2007, HD editing now is even supported on Mac and PC laptops by multiple NLE manufacturers.”

There's ample evidence elsewhere that the industry is making accommodations for HD. For instance, satellite resources now exist to handle the anticipated growth in demand for HD news backhaul.

“There is still a demand out there for field operations to migrate from standard def to high def,” observes Ron Rosenthal, Intelsat regional VP North America, broadcast solutions. “As the various news organizations have upgraded their studios to HD, they are still currently providing at least 90 percent of their packages and their live shots in SD. However, this represents an increase in demand, right now, for HD news feeds. We're uniquely positioned to provide our customers with managed solutions anywhere in the globe for HD content.”

Rosenthal points to this summer's Live Earth concert as evidence of Intelsat's HD capacity and ability. While not TV news, the event required significant satellite and teleport capabilities.

“In one single day, Intelsat provided content from seven different continents all in HD for the purpose of global retransmission,” he says. “So not only did we handle the contribution of the event, but also the global distribution of the event as well.”

As stations, groups and networks grapple with the minutia of these and other issues involved in presenting HD news, it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. All of the changes and accommodations HD demands are serving a greater purpose: better connecting news viewers with their world and depicting the people, places and events that make up the news in a more true-to-life fashion.

As Bob Hesskamp, VP technical operations for CNN Worldwide's news division, says, “HD gives us the ability to bring our viewers closer to the story. It comes alive, much like when you watch a sporting event in HD; the game is more real to you. I think the news is more real to you when you see it in HD. It's beautiful. The disturbing news may be more disturbing, and the beautiful, inspiring news is going to be more beautiful and more inspiring.”