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CNN puts a new spin on HD studio in Atlanta

After systematically building state-of-the-art HD production facilities in New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., over the past three years, CNN has turned its attention to its original home and main headquarters at CNN Center in Atlanta. In late spring, around the time of the 2010 NAB convention in Las Vegas, the all-news network will unveil a brand new studio with all of the traditional HD production equipment one might expect, as well as a few technical surprises.

As of mid-April, all of CNN's domestic programming (as well as some programming on HLN) will now be distributed-via cable, satellite and telco television service in the 1080i HD format. The new studio and the associated tapeless newsgathering operations at all of its facilities will be supported in the field by nearly 20 HD microwave trucks and more than 100 photojournalists, who all shoot in HD. (There will still be a lot of SD material from international bureaus and archived material used that will be upconverted before going to air.)

The new studio in Atlanta is the largest (5000sq-ft, or more than three times the size of the network's existing anchor desk and weather set combined) to date for CNN and includes a rotating anchor desk that allows the crew to use the same new Sony HD studio cameras to shoot various interviews with different backdrops or mini-sets installed around the four walls of the studio.

One wall features two 103in Panasonic HD plasma screens: one with a touch-screen overlay called “UTouch” that allows the user to manipulate or graphic elements around one wall and another with Perceptive Pixel software that allows the on-screen talent to expand an image with their fingers (which CNN pioneered on-air for the 2004 presidential elections). There's also more than two miles of LED lighting adorning the set, which can be used in a variety of ways to create alternate moods and ambiance.

“This is the culmination of our master plan to convert the entire network to HD,” said Matthew Holcombe, vice president of Network Support for CNN's engineering group. “We did New York and Washington with the intention to get to Atlanta; it took just a bit longer than we had hoped because we had a lot of infrastructure to build before we could launch the studio. It was worth the wait, and we're very pleased with the results.”

In 2007, when CNN launched HD operations in New York, the Atlanta facility was also equipped with a new master control system to handle the extra-bandwidth HD programs and send them out to viewers with HDTV sets. In 2008 new HD routers and HD servers were installed in Atlanta, and in October 2009 the first HD control room (“B”) went on-air for a small amount of programming. When the new digital record and edit system launches later this year everything will be captured and distributed in native 1920 x 1080i HD resolution, with a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. Some SD content will appear with sidebars to fill the screen when necessary.

The innovative rotating desk, designed and implemented by CNN's in-house engineering group with help from an outside system integrator and developed by a theatrical scenic design company is powered by a series of chains, high-intensity cable and gears that can be rotated during commercial breaks to change the on-screen look. The plan was to build a flexible studio that could accommodate a lot of different shows with a variety of different camera angles and backdrops. It was technically challenging to implement.

“We had to figure out a way to move all of that chain and set cabling without it getting pinched or crimped every time we rotated the stage, because there's quite a lot of weight on that platform and it has to move smoothly,” Holcombe said. “We could move it between shows if needed.”

There was a time when some questioned the need for newscasts to go HD. At CNN, there's no question it is a critical part of staying competitive. But, of course, it came at a cost.

“Moving to HD operations across the entire network has been an evolution and big investment by the company,” Holcombe said. “Despite what you might hear from equipment vendors, HD is not cheap.”