Citytv in Toronto to kick it up another notch with HD news

Fresh off the transition to a tapeless SD acquisition and newsroom workflow, Citytv prepares to tackle high definition.
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Citytv in Toronto may become the first Canadian broadcaster to begin regular daily newscasts in high definition.

Currently planned for mid-September, the transition to 1080i for news will be done in phases. Initially, Citytv will shoot its five daily news shows, including three newscasts, with HD studio cameras, while contribution from the field will be shot in 16:9 standard definition and upconverted.

“HD Technology Update” approached Bruce Cowan, CHUM TV director of broadcast technology, to learn more about his strategy for implementing HD and why now was the right time for Citytv to make the transition.

HD Technology Update: Can you describe the process taken to determine that September was the right time to launch a daily HD newscast at Citytv?

Bruce Cowan: Citytv was the first to launch DTV over the air in Canada, and that was three years ago in February 2003. So, we’ve been leading the pack in terms of over-the-air HD.

What has caused us to move ahead with this particular project is we’ve been monitoring the rollout of HD and looking to see how we can jump in further into HD production. The main control room that we use in Toronto to produce the majority of live broadcasts was a 20-year-old analog facility, and the time had come to simply modernize and upgrade it. So, as part of our normal capital process this was already on our target.

We said, “If we’re going to convert this to digital — modernize it and take it to digital — what would it take to actually make this a full HD control room?” Since most of the products we buy today are HD ready, we went beyond that to see what we could actually do to take that control room to full HD.

Essentially, that meant we had to buy some more upconversion products, which is what came from Harris. We also purchased eight Sony HDC-950s cameras for the studio so we could move that portion to HD.

We are installing a Ross Synergy 4 switcher — an MD series, since the switcher would be HD-capable anyway. And we’re installing a router that is fully HD. It was the cameras and the upcovertering products that really filled in the blanks to make the facility fully HD. And the Harris X75 converter/synchronizer was a key purchase and provides lots of flexibility.

HDTU: Could you discuss how the control room is typically used?

BC: The control room — beginning at essentially 6 a.m. — produces “Breakfast Television.” It’s a three-hour morning television show live-to-air, which is a combination of news and information about what’s going on in the community. After that is a mid-morning show called “City Line” from 10 to 11 a.m. followed by newscasts at 12, 6 and 11 p.m. Those productions come out of that control room and use common cameras and infrastructure. So, by purchasing the eight Sony cameras and filling in some with the Harris Leitch glue products and upconversion, we were able to make all of those shows HD.

So why the September time frame? Really two reasons. First, that’s when the schedule for equipment delivery, training and everything worked together. This is a build that’s going on as we speak. Throughout the summer we've scheduled training, which will continue through August. And second, September is the traditional time of the year when we would launch new programming, which is why mid-September became the target date for us.

HDTU: Do you know what the penetration on HD receivers in the Toronto market is?

BC: I don’t know specifically what the penetration is in the Toronto area, but Canada-wide we are only looking at something in the range of 300,000 to 400,000 viewers who are actually able to receive HD.

What I mean by that is while there are many, many more HD displays sold, we know that these are the types of numbers that actually subscribe to HD service through cable or DTH. Specifically, the number of over-the-air receivers is extremely low. Of course, the market size of Canada is roughly 10 percent of the U.S. market.

HDTU: Please describe the transition. Will it be phased in from the studio and news outward into the field or all at once?

BC: That will be a phased-in approach. At the moment, true HD originates from the studio. Last year, we migrated our news department in Toronto to 100 percent tapeless. Last year, we moved to Ikegami Editcams in the field. They record to disk drives. And we edit that product with Avid NewsCutters connected to an Avid ISIS system. So, what we will be doing in the interim is shoot 16:9 in standard definition in the field and then upconvert that using the Harris products. We will then integrate that in with the live HD content from the studio.

As part of our move with the Ikegami cameras, we will be shooting in bogh 30Mb/s and 50Mb/s modes to ensure we have the highest quality for upconversion.

We’ve actually migrated our entire news department to tapeless in the past eight months, and now we’re going to kick it up another notch and take it to HD. It’s been a whirlwind tour.

HDTU: What steps did Citytv take to prepare of this transition? Specifically, has there been any effort made to begin acquiring local HD news footage over the past year or so that could be used as HD file footage once the transition comes about?

BC: The simple answer to that is no.

HDTU: What were the overriding engineering design concerns for this transition and how have they been addressed?

BC: We have been watching the HD market over the last couple years and keeping an eye on some of the American stations that have moved to either full HD or 16:9 SD upconversion. We’ve actually met and discussed with some of those facilities, some of the issues that they went through. On top of that, we have experimented on our own with upconverting SD NTSC. We’ve also played with upconverting DV25 and IMX30 and 50.

So, we’ve done a fair amount of testing. That includes over-the-air testing for selected programs. We transmitted them in certain formats and then evaluated the end-to-end product as we saw it. So, if done correctly and carefully, standard-definition native digital content upconverts nicely and can fit in to an HD broadcast. This is one of the things we realized we could do as a transition. Of course, it is very expensive to transition up an entire facility to all HD.

When we changed our cameras out in the last eight to 12 months, we did a total of 34 cameras in Toronto alone. We didn’t feel that a full HD camera product was quite ready yet for the types of features we wanted on a typical ENG camera in the field, which is one of the reasons why we stayed with SD field cameras. And those SD 16:9 cameras, I am sure, will have a good, long life anywhere within our group of television stations. So, I didn’t have too much reservation buying high-quality SD product.

When you mention budget, the only areas where we had to step outside of the budget already allocated were with the cameras and the upconversion products we purchased. Until then, the capital budget we had assigned to this project was largely in place. It had not considered, though, that the cameras in the studio were HD, and that’s one area we did not anticipate. When we converted that control room to digital, the cameras could have easily stayed digital. There was nothing wrong with them.

Just to reiterate, the areas we had to reconsider from a budget standpoint were the cameras and the additional upconversion products because that control room will operate as a 100 percent HD facility. All inputs to it will be 1080i, so there’s a lot of upconversion.

Those are the two areas where we had to go back and retweak the budget. Fortunately senior management is very supportive of this and as long as we proceeded in a manner that ensures any additional products also conformed with the budget.

So essentially, no new funds were assigned, but we had to be very careful and diligent about what we were doing in order to make the HD transition and still make things fit for the most part within our existing budget.

HDTU: Including the cameras?

BC: Let’s just say the cameras kind of wiped out any contingency in there. It would be incorrect to say additional funding was provided, but we were given some latitude. No. 1 rule: Work in existing budget. No. 2: recognize that to move to HD may require us to be creative with dollars available, which may mean we may have to reduce other projects ongoing and reallocate some dollars.

HDTU: Let’s get back to your tapeless acquisition and conversion to a file-based workflow in SD for a moment. Was sufficient bandwidth built into the system to accommodate native HD news production when that becomes a reality in the future?

BC: Let me address the video side of things. Everything we purchased — the switcher, the 512 x 512 router — is 100 percent HD capable. So the entire infrastructure we’re installing from the video side is 100 percent HD ready and HD capable.

On the editing side in the newsroom, that platform is an Avid ISIS server and NewsCutter editors. Our view was that whenever we get into doing full HD editing for news, we will be using lower bit rates — somewhere between 25Mb/s and 50Mb/s.

One of the reasons we went with the Avid ISIS system is because it allows us to connect all of our NewsCutter edit stations and do full bandwidth editing at a 30Mb/s level without having to use a proxy.

HDTU: What about ENG, SNG and other contribution sources?

BC: Currently, this station doesn’t use any SNG, given the geography and everything here. Terrestrial, conventional microwave is still in use.

We do have and are moving towards digital microwave with an OFDM system. And we are rolling that out in anticipation of being able to do digital from lens to studio.

HDTU: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

BC: I keep using the word “studio.” We don’t have a traditional studio. The way that we shoot the news at this facility, it is shot in the newsroom. So, actually our anchors are standing or positioned in the newsroom. The newsroom is a backdrop. But again, given that we are shooting in a defined space with existing lighting, we made careful product selections.

The other thing I should mention is we already had a Sony model 700 HD camera —a number of years old — and an HDCAM camera we are using in our production department. So we were able to make use of those cameras to shoot some test recordings within the newsroom so we would get a feel for lighting and how things work in an HD space.

Shooting out of our newsroom is something Citytv in Toronto has done since 1987 when it moved into this current facility. It pioneered this stand up shooting in the newsroom with what we call street front storefront — that is with windows and glass — allowing you to see out onto the street and viewers on the street to see into the facility and watch live productions going on.

For many years we haven't used an anchor desk, so we have always shot in that type of environment. The set is the newsroom. So there wasn’t a set we had to rebuild for HD. However, we did bring our own HD camera into the space and shot and looked at the monitor.

There’s a difference between physically standing in a place and looking around and looking at it on the monitor. All of a sudden, when you are looking on a video monitor, you say, “Oh, look at that bit of gaffer tape that’s holding something together in the background.” All of a sudden these things start standing out.

So, that was one thing we did with our own HD camera — to go into the space and see what stood out. Some things have to be addressed and cleaned up — stacks of papers, or even newspapers in the background of a shot that hadn’t been apparent in standard definition.

The other thing of course is the aspect ratio. Moving from 4:3 to 16:9, we now have to be careful of angles we are going to shoot in and make sure some of the clutter in the background gets removed or cleaned up. The key was going into the space with the high def camera and literally seeing what appears.

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