Conversion experience

WPVI-TV, the ABC-owned station in Philadelphia, began presenting local HD news late last month — joining the ranks of a handful of stations nationwide to have made the leap into high-definition news.

Producing 30 hours of local news each week is demanding enough, but adding the extra burden of integrating new HD equipment without disrupting that workflow is a tall order for any organization.

HD Technology Update spoke with Jim Gilbert, WPVI vice president of engineering, about managing the transition and the challenges the station faced.

HD Technology Update: Before we talk about the technology, I was wondering why the station or ABC decided now was the time to launch local HD newscasts? Was it the number of HD receivers in the Philadelphia market? Or, was it more of a market bragging rights factor?

Jim Gilbert: I would say the latter would be closer to it. It was a competitive thing. We have been the leading station in this market for quite some time and we thought we should be the first to introduce HD out of our studios to the market.

HDTU: Could you please describe the general lay of the land in the HD studio, including cameras, switcher and graphics?

JG: We have six cameras: four are studio cameras, the fifth is a portable camera that we can use elsewhere in the building or in the studio, and the sixth camera is outside at what we call the weather position.

This weather camera is an integrated part of our newscast. We do weather from outside. The camera is in a little garage, and before each newscast the stage manager goes out and pulls the door open and turns on the camera and lights. The camera is operated via remote control, and the studio cameras are also operated by remote control and robotics.

Also, we converted one of our “Sky 6” cameras to HD (Center City beauty shot). It involved changing out the camera with another Ikegami HDL40 with Troll remote control. We’re using a JVC MPEG2 DM-JV-600U encoder and DM-D4600CU decoder to bring the HD video back to the station as ASI over an existing telco fiber. The video from that camera is stunning.

HDTU: When did the station get its HD cameras, and which are you using?

JG: We took delivery of them last fall. We used them in the SD mode until the HD launch. The studio cameras are Ikegami HDK-725. The portable is the 725P. The weather camera and the Center City Sky 6 camera are both HDL40s. We are obviously a 720p format facility.

For the switching equipment, we have the Grass Valley Kalypso with the HD option. With the fast track we were on to get this project up and running by July 24, we knew we weren’t going to be able to do it by trying to wire up to our existing switcher, then pulling a bunch of patches in between newscasts to test it out, and then putting it back in the SD mode expecting to do a newscast without technical problems. That was more of a chance than we were willing to take.

Fortunately, Grass Valley was kind enough to loan us a demo frame and control board that we could wire up to without touching the “on-air” switcher. We did all of our testing on it and then did our switching with it when we went on the air in HD. We’ll probably change it out with our Kalypso and then ship back the loaner. Our Kalypso is new; we had just put it on line last January.

For graphics, we have three Chyron XClips and three HyperXs in several configurations. That’s the core of our graphics. Some of the graphics are upconverted and some are newly created in HD.

They are doing much of the HD generation with Macintosh and sending them over the LAN to the HyperX and XClips. Some are created on an old SD Paintbox, routed through an upconverter, and then played into the O-Store as SDI HD. Some graphics were existing 4:3 in SD and then up converted — quite a mix.

This has been a learning experience. Fortunately, Stewart Loberg, our contracted project manager for this job, is quite knowledgeable and experienced in HD conversions. He converted KABC-TV last February on Super Bowl weekend.

We first touched base with Stewart in mid-April. We didn’t really get the go-ahead to start spending money until early May. Then we met with Stewart from time to time in May. In June, he began spending a week or two at a time here. Of course, the last two weeks he was here through the July 24 launch. In light of the fast track we were on (less than 3 months), we couldn’t have done it without him.

HDTU: Are you now downconverting to SD for the majority of your audience?

JG: That’s correct, downconversion and center cutting to 4:3 goes out to analog channel 6. There is a lot of up- and downconversion, but it appears to come out pretty well. We were kind of surprised how good it looks.

At the moment, we are still in 4:3 in the field. So, we are upconverting the 4:3 and putting wings on it so it fills out a 16:9 720p screen. Hopefully within a month, we will be into 16:9 for field acquisition. All of our cameras and lenses are capable of it. It’s a matter of training the camera operators and editors how to shoot and edit with that format.

Obviously all of our legacy video is 4:3, so any given package will likely include both 16:9 and 4:3, so the stuff that’s going into the package will have to have wings put on it as part of it. We have a Grass Valley NewsEdit system. It’s a turnkey installation. Our team will have to learn to edit with that little extra step.

HDTU: What pieces must be in place before you launch HD ENG operations?

JG: In order for a station to do this, you have to completely convert your microwave infrastructure, your inner-city relays and RPUs, and your trucks all have to be capable of passing a digital signal.

HDTU: You’re currently in the middle of your BAS transition. Will the 2GHz plan with the 12MHz wide channels be sufficient for HD ENG, or will you have to go up to 7GHz or 13GHz to do that?

JG: No, it will be fine. In fact, we are already using it for our HD chopper. Two of our sites have already been converted because of the launch of our HD chopper in April. We’re scrunching the bit rate down pretty far, approximately 19Mb/s. But we do get it through, and it looks pretty good using a standard 8MHz digital pedestal. For the HD encoder in the helicopter we’re using a Hitachi NEL with Tiernan decoders at the station.

HDTU: Is shooting long telephoto shots in HD from the helicopter more difficult than in SD?

JG: It’s not any more challenging than SD really. It’s a gyrocam, with a zoom lens that’s almost 100:1. We’re using a high-end Sony1080i camera that we convert to 720p in the helicopter. We had to use this 1080i camera because it was the only camera that was usable with the control equipment at the time we bought it.

HDTU: Is your news production tapeless or a mix of tape- and file-based workflow?

JG: The acquisition is tape but once it’s ingested, they are editing from servers, and we playout from the servers.

HDTU: Will the station’s file-based production support HD? Is there enough network bandwidth?

JG: No. We will have to upgrade to Grass Valley’s Aurora HD product to support HD editing. Hopefully, we will be in a new plant when that rolls around because that would be a pretty large project to repeat in this building.

Right now, the aspect ratio conversion is an issue using our Advance Edit desktop systems. Advanced Edit is not capable of handling 16:9. Grass Valley is working on it, and they promise they will have something ready by the fall.

HDTU: Do you see any role for HDV in newsgathering?

JG: It’s hard to say. When we were all using 3/4in and Beta, I never thought I’d see a VHS format make it into broadcasting, but it did. How many years have we been getting VHS tape from stringers? So, it’s probably not a stretch to say that HDV will make it into broadcasting one way or another. But we don’t have any plans right now for HDV.

HDTU: What lessons did you learn from the conversion to an HD newscast?

JG: The thing that surprised us the most was not technically getting from standard definition to high definition. The biggest challenges were in converting from 4:3 to 16:9. Every time you turn around you have a 16:9/4:3 problem to work on. It was and still is an issue, because 4:3 isn’t going to go away. It’s going to be there. Even when we turn off the analog transmitter, there will still be people out there with 4:3 sets, and they are going to be watching 4:3 material. It’s something we will have to deal with for a long time.

For graphics it was a challenge. The artists had a lot of work to do in a short period of time. They did a great job adapting to the 4:3 protected area.

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