Building a High Definition Studio


(click thumbnail)As illustrated by FX Groups' WESH set, the width of a complete HD setup can take up a lot of studio space.With the final deadline for the digital transition quickly approaching, stations are working around the clock to prepare their studios. They are upgrading acquisition equipment, internal infrastructure, and of course station transmitters. The one low-tech facet in the race to digital that broadcasters often overlook however, is their studio's readiness for a digital debut.

Engineering departments are being asked to migrate analog facilities to fully digital ones. This requires wholesale infrastructure upgrades and in many cases, significantly new workflows. Legacy equipment is either being replaced or connected with digital glue to entirely new routers and production switchers. In many cases stations are taking the opportunity to move away from tape-based workflows to take advantage of a plethora of digital asset management systems now available in the marketplace. All this new technology is critical for a successful technical migration to digital, but many stations have yet to focus on the aesthetic presentation of their news product on this new medium.

Sportscasters are the pioneers in high-definition broadcasting. They quickly adapted to the widescreen aspect ratio and amazing detail provided by HD to enhance their product.

For a moment consider the impact of HD on a typical news studio. Does talent want such close inspection of their pores, and what about those clamps, screws and pieces of gaffer's tape holding that old set together? The challenge is how to design and build a news studio for the transition to HD that accommodates HD while providing images worthy of the medium.


In October, KTVU-TV, the Cox-owned Fox affiliate in San Francisco, completed its journey to HD.

"It was a six-month project, starting at the end of NAB, and coming to fruition on Oct. 10 with our debut in HD," said Jim Haman, director of broadcast operations at KTVU. "We started with tactical meetings every week that involved every department." They soon realized that "the process raised many questions."

KTVU's challenges ranged from which equipment to purchase to how the end product would look to the viewer. "We began testing our ideas with an old Sony HD ENG camera in our studio, testing set elements and talent in 16:9 high definition."

John Demshock chief engineer of WFTV, the Cox ABC affiliate in Orlando, Fla., which launched the state's first HD news broadcasts in July, said they sent their news operations manager around the country to record the newscasts of stations already broadcasting in HD and then analyzed the footage he brought back.

"We noticed sets do matter in a big way," Demshock said. "We had to decide how to mix 16:9 and 4:3 in the least detrimental way to the viewer."

It takes a team effort. The Cox-owned stations shared resources and staged a camera shootout between four manufacturers, before deciding on the Sony 1500 for deployment.

KTVU's test shoots revealed serious issues with its existing set. "We discovered that widescreen and hi-def did not flatter our set," said Haman, adding that to improve the look of their set, they refinished it "with Mahogany panels, added 50-inch plasma monitors and even painted the floor black."

Mack McLaughlin, a set designer with experience in building and upgrading to HD broadcasts agreed with KTVU's choices and said when creating an HD ready set, "there has to be furniture-quality materials used in construction so the set will show less wear and look better much longer."

McLaughlin, who works as creative director for FX Group, an Ocoee, Fla.-based system integrator which built the HD studio for WESH, Hearst-Argyle's NBC affiliate in Orlando, struck a cautionary note about floor painting. He agreed on the aesthetic benefits, but warned that stations with robotic cameras need to ensure that the color application (such as an epoxy coat) is done properly. "We have seen mistakes made that required the studio floor to be re-leveled and refinished," he said.


One aspect of the HD set that cannot be "refinished" is the talent.

It is was important, Haman said, "to test early with the talent and bring in makeup artists who spent the time necessary to make sure talent felt comfortable with the new look." These artists chose makeup that was much less colored than traditional set makeup. "More attention was spent on application," Haman said, adding that they haven't yet had to use camera settings to soften skin texture.

McLaughlin believes it is not unusual for engineers to set their cameras to show off the technical aspects of the set, but he added that there are many cameras that can also soften skin detail if makeup alone doesn't do the trick.

In the '90s many stations experimented with fluorescent-based lighting systems. Though they provided cost savings in electricity and reduced heat, they created a different set of problems.

"High-definition transmissions tend to flatten talent into backgrounds so special attention needs to be paid to how the lighting and set interact with each other," according to a white paper from the FX Group. McLaughlin recommends that tungsten and newer model fluorescent lights be mixed, along with allowing for greater space between the set and backdrop to improve the perceived set depth on camera.

Cameras, lighting, and set are some of the most important elements in a studio upgrade, but don't forget the infrastructure needed to transmit images from the studio, integrate them with video and graphics, and then broadcast them on air. Most stations and groups employ talented staff to make decisions regarding equipment and the set's desired look, but very few are also able to integrate evolving technology.

Engineering departments have their plates full managing the daily demands of a broadcast plant. This is where a systems integrator can be key to meeting a build-out schedule.

Lee MacPherson, project manager for SignaSys, a San Jose, Calif.-based system integrator, says the process "takes a lot of time that station staff usually don't have." As the integrator in charge of the KTVU upgrade, SignaSys freed the staff engineers of the labor and time intensive tasks of designing, drawing, cabling, and labeling.

Beginning with a visit from a systems architect, SignaSys will help the station design a concept and decide on which equipment to purchase. A project manager is later assigned with a senior systems engineer who refines the initial concept. Once the final design is complete and the equipment is chosen, an installation manager and crew of four spend the next two to three weeks installing equipment and cabling the control room and studio.

After completing the KTVU upgrade, MacPherson commented that the station's success was due in part to their "positive attitude, even with all the changes in daily workflow."

As for Cox managers Haman and Demshock, they believe team effort and sound coordination between sister stations and within the divisions is what led to their success.