(click thumbnail)While the networks covered President Ford's funeral in standard definition, HDNet opted for hi def. Photo credit: Donovan Marks.In the heart of the United States Capitol, centered in the Rotunda, a former U.S. President lays in state. While millions watch the proceedings on television from home, long lines of mourners wait to pay their respects to President Gerald R. Ford in the Capitol building. As the procession left the U.S. Capitol and headed slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House on its way to the National Cathedral, the pictures being shown across the country were in standard definition.
Once at the National Cathedral, broadcast and cable networks continued coverage of the President's funeral service in the decades-old format. So, was it divine intervention then that enabled a 16:9 high-definition signal to emanate from the solemn event to millions of households across the nation? Who dared to break tradition and usurp the big networks by distributing a better quality image of one of the most covered news events of the New Year? HDNet.
To be fair to the networks, there were many factors that make covering a news event like this difficult to do in HD; the first of which is getting a high-definition production truck on short notice right in the middle of football's bowl season.
"Most every HD truck is booked for sporting events this time of the year," said Jason Taubman, vice president of Design and New Technology for Game Creek Video, a Hudson, N.H.-based mobile broadcast production company that supplied its Northstar production truck for the Capitol coverage. Getting an HD signal around the Capitol is not an easy task either.
Though Washington is the nation's most fibered city for broadcast, the infrastructure is still primarily analog. The heart of this fiber optic-based video network is Verizon's Audio Visual Operations Center, commonly know as AVOC. From its hub in the center of town, AVOC houses more than 70 video routers that direct signals from all around the city, from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill, and route them to every news agency in the nation's capital. Verizon is trying to stay ahead of the technology curve, and is in the process of migrating all clients over to its huge new 1152x1152 Utah 400 SDI router. They also are installing HD capability that is targeted for completion by the middle of this year. Until then, broadcasters in Washington, D.C. will be moving their signals mostly on analog lines.
The method of covering such large news events in the nation's capital is also somewhat unique. Even with the fierce competitiveness of the industry, the broadcast networks frequently must pool resources when covering big events such as a President lying in state. This prevents a gaggle of cameras from crowding a room and enables the coverage to be less conspicuous--especially when covering a solemn event such as a presidential funeral. During both coverage of the Rotunda service and the Cathedral ceremony, the networks each contributed crews to produce the coverage. The equipment costs were shared and non-affiliated production trucks were used at both sites.
So with all these things working against them--timing, infrastructure, and homogeneity of coverage, how did the upstart HD network best known for its sports and entertainment programming trump the networks and offer coverage of the day's event in HD?
For the services at the National Cathedral, "ABC booked a New Century Productions truck that happened to be a well-equipped high-definition truck [NCP V]," said Philip Garvin, general manager and COO of HDNet, the Dallas based all-HD programming network. Launched in 2001 by Internet billionaire Mark Cuban, HDNet touts itself as the first national network broadcasting all of its programming in 1080i HD. Although the networks received the same signal as HDNet, they down converted the truck's HD signal to standard def, according to Garvin.
"We took the straight HD-SDI feed," he said.
To get around the networks' limitation of not having a digital distribution method, HDNet used its own HD-capable satellite truck to take the 720p hand off and upconvert it to 1080i.
"We then put it through our Dolby encoders and Harmonics 19.4 encoders and transmitted from our 2.4M dish to a Ku satellite," Garvin said. "That feed was received in our Denver Broadcast Center and fed to our cable and satellite affiliates without decoding and re-encoding." Garvin said that "once it left the truck in Washington, D.C., all the quality was preserved."
When asked why he thought the networks chose SD distribution over HD, Garvin said, "High definition is what HDNet does and has been doing for five years. It's routine for us. While the traditional networks use high def in sports, it's not common for news."
The gamble for the networks is that while they continue their slow transition to HD, proactive newcomers to the game may cut further into their piece of the broadcast pie.
In the early 90's CNN attracted many traditional network affiliates that felt the parent networks failed to support their satellite newsgathering and big event coverage. By offering cheap satellite time and live shots at major news events, CNN created its own affiliate network. The parent networks soon found themselves shut out of remote coverage of big stories due to the relationship CNN had fostered with their own affiliates. The networks then launched new programs and even created new divisions to rebuild and recapture the much-needed resource of their affiliates.
If HDNet begins covering more news events and creating a huge HD archive, will the HD hungry affiliates be lured away again and get the support they need somewhere else?