180 days to HD

The launch of FOX Business Network last week was noteworthy not simply because it was in HD, but because of the way the new financial network is using its wider 16:9 aspect ratio to present data to HD viewers.

Rather than the traditional wings to either side of center cut video, the new network is combining them into what it’s calling the FOX HD Wing to give more screen real estate to financial charts, indices and other news graphics.
HD Technology Update spoke with Greg Ahlquist, senior network director/project manager of digital newsroom integration for FOX News and Business Networks, about the new approach as well as what went into putting the network on the air in HD.

HDTU: Could you give me an overview of the technology used to launch FOX Business Network in HD?

Greg Ahlquist: We launched the FOX Business Network completely in 720p HD. We have two simultaneous feeds going out for our subscribers. One is a complete HD feed in which we do something special, which is the FOX HD Wing. We took the sum of both of the wings — those separate from the 4:3 center — and combined them on the side to add value with financial data for HD viewers. We also do a standard 4:3 center cut for the SD audience.

The studios and all of the cameras, the systems in the studios and the graphics system are all HD. We are using Evertz converters, Sony switchers, Viz graphics and Ikegami studio cameras for the HD conversion.

That’s the basics of the HD side of it. I think the most interesting side of it is what we did with the ticker window.

HDTU: Could you describe how you are creating the FOX HD Wing and what you are doing to accommodate SD viewers?

Greg Ahlquist: It definitely is a different approach, and we tied that together with the Miranda master control system, using a DVE to reposition for commercial integration to accommodate the 4:3 commercials, lose the wing and keep the ticker. The ticker and the wing solution use Video Design Software and Viz graphic engines. We have fully integrated Viz for both master control and each of the control rooms. It helps to keep our screen composition fluid.

HDTU: How was the FOX newsroom updated to handle the launch?

Greg Ahlquist: The digital newsroom system, I think, is probably one of the more complex systems we’ve installed. We went with a system that would give us the best of breed among the vendors out there right now. We looked at so many different vendors, and we were looking for a system that was flexible for growth that we could use to launch the FOX Business Network and grow it into FOX News Channel, which we are looking to do next.

We chose IBM as the solution provider, and within that system we used IBM storage for both high-res storage and low-res proxies. For the long-term digital archive, we are using an IBM tape robot. We are using the Ardendo media asset management system and Omneon servers for ingest and playout, as well as Pebble Beach for playout control.

We chose the best-of-breed solution. We were looking for an open system. We were looking to accommodate future growth, especially as we moved into the FOX News Channel. As technology platforms keep changing — and not all at the same rate — if we need to change the playout solution or change the servers, we wanted to just swap those out and re-integrate around those systems.

HD Technology Update: Do reporters and producers edit from their desktops?

Greg Ahlquist: We have two levels of editing. We have desktop editing with two options — EasyCut and PreCut. PreCut is just some cuts editing for VOs. The EasyCut is for some basic transition effects and timeline editing — you can do some basic dissolves. We set up Final Cut Pro for craft editing, and within craft editing we can send EDLs from the Ardendo system on the producer’s desktop over to a craft editor to compose a package, have special effect opens and bumpers — those kinds of things.

HD Technology Update: What are you doing in the field — HD acquisition or 16:9 SD that gets upconverted?

Greg Ahlquist: We have the option for both, but we are shooting 16:9 DV50. A lot of that decision was based on looking at storage costs at the time for FOX Business Network. It just seemed a smart way to go. Most of the contribution material we receive — from feeds, from news agencies, from around the world — will be 4:3 for a while. I don’t think those things are going to change. A lot of those feeds I don’t even see on the drawing board as a HD service.

So, taking our Panasonic P2 cameras in the field, we are able to upconvert, and when you look on air, I don’t think you can really tell between our studio cameras and graphics that are integrated with our particular field cameras.

It’s a beautiful picture, the DV50, and it gives us a clear path moving forward within the DV formats to go toward HD. The one thing we did was to station some cameras at the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ that are HD, and we do have HD feeds coming back. We actually purchased and installed fiber lines. The same is true for the “Dave Ramsey Show” out of Nashville and the “Bulls & Bears” show from the Waldorf Astoria. Those two shows will be high-def from the field.

HD Technology Update: I read an AP story making the point that it looked like the FOX Business Network had been on air for 10 years the day it launched. How difficult was that to do from a technology and operations point of view?

Greg Ahlquist: It was about 180 days from the day we got the signal to go until the day we launched. We had an ambitious journey of major systems integration. The digital newsroom integration would normally be a yearlong project in and of its own, but we also did a Viz integration, an HD integration, new studios and new programming all within 180 days.

It was very ambitious. Everyone was focused on an on-air date; we were able to pull that all off simultaneously. It wasn’t easy, but I think it was a challenge everyone rose to the occasion to confront. We pulled some major systems together and made it look seamless and clean.

HD Technology Update: As you went through those 180 days, did you find any particular piece of HD technology missing that you had to work around, or were all the pieces in place from vendors?

Greg Ahlquist: I think our biggest challenge was that FOX News Channel and the plant we have here was making an HD transition. Both FOX Business and FOX News — with FOX News being 4:3 and FOX Business being HD 16:9 in the same plant — we were running into a lot of the crossconversions and de-embedding and embedding of audio, which became our biggest challenges.

To have the two coexist for the transition, it seemed like there was always the challenge of forgetting that one little piece of the chain going toward fulfillment or a remote. Remotes we were sharing with FNC and FBN together, at times there were two different chains that needed to be accomplished, and a lot of it was just conversion gear. We’d think through the design as closely as we could, and there would be a gotcha here and there. I think when you are making the transition, those are a lot of the challenges that exist.

Having FOX News here, we already had a router that had recently been upgraded. It was completely digital and had HD cards in it. We had already begun the transition. So, infrastructure of the audio and video plant, the incoming remote lines, the uplink and downlink systems — the general newsgathering procedures — were already in place. We just had to mold systems around that.

We found things that were able to complement and help FOX News Channel in their day-to-day news operation as well. Of course, what FOX News Channel had in newsgathering and just the physical plant made that 180 days a lot more efficient.

HD Technology Update: What are the HD plans for FOX News Channel?

Greg Ahlquist: We are looking at HD and in the process of looking at HD. Now that FOX Business has launched, it’s definitely something we are looking at. We are full steam ahead. It’s tough living in both worlds; I don’t think there’s an opportunity to pause.

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