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Final Four offers glimpse of HD, SD complications, difficulties

Although the games were shot in HD, directors and technical directors watch 4:3 aspect ratio monitors as did camera operators in their viewfinders.

This month’s NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball semi-final and championship games from St. Louis provides a perfect chance to gauge the progress that’s being made in live production of a major HD event for both SD and high definition audiences.

Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports senior vice president of Operations and Engineering, probably has the best handle on that issue. Having worked for 36 years in the television business, Aagaard spent 19 years with NBC and worked for FOX Sports, ESPN and owned his own sports production company before joining CBS Sports.

Responsible for the technology used network’s production of the event, Aagaard seemed like the perfect person to turn to for perspective on where producing a large event for a mixed HD and SD audience stands.

HDTU: During CBS Sports’ preparations for covering the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Semi-Finals and Championship games from St. Louis, you described producing the games for a mixed SD and HD audience as “difficult and complicated.” Could you elaborate?

Ken Aagaard: Complications arise. In a small little world of a simple football game or a basketball game with eight to 10 cameras, that’s pretty easy to do.

But when you get to a large shoot in 16:9 HD and graphics that need to be reconverted, the production gets far more complicated. The difficulty arises with a larger show. You have to mix a lot of archival footage and acquired ENG footage that are in different formats.

There’s historical material, 16:9 material, 4:3 NTSC material, HD material — all of which must be integrated and used in pre-game. Then we have to figure out how the graphics will work. It’s confusing.

It’s not just the video that’s complicated but the audio as well. Audio is a big piece of where the problems are.

Primarily, we cannot mess around with the SD audience. We can’t sacrifice that. That does in turn mean you can sacrifice 5.1. You can’t allow problems to happen with the SD audience in the process of producing for the HD audience. That is one of our other dilemmas.

Then you take the whole traveling circus on the road, and you are adding trucks and cameras. Complications grow exponentially. The bigger it gets, the more problems there are.

HDTU: How long will producing large sporting events for an HD and SD audience present these problems?

KA: I think the issue of 16:9 and 4:3 will go on long after I am gone. But how we handle it and integrate it into a full studio show will get better over the next couple years. A lot of it is making everyone understand we have to have anamorphic tapes on an ongoing basis. And shoot all our graphics on 16:9.

We are still going to have deal with 4:3. Everything has to be 4:3 because that’s our audience for a long time to come.

All of our acquisition is in 16:9 and all of our audio tracks must be uniform and discreet. When those two things start to happen it will get a lot better.

We are not the only people going through these issues. So vendors are looking at it and coming up with solutions. Eventually, it will be Kleenex, and it will be easy. But right now it’s a big deal.

HDTU: What lessons did CBS Sports learn from its production of the NCAA tournament and Final Four in HD?

KA: What we learned is that we have to work at it harder. We get wrapped up in the day-to-day. We have to plan it longer. We go from a very busy NFL season to post NFL play to college basketball regular season and then to the Final Four. So that period from August to April is holy smokes we have to get it done. And a lot of times not having the time to coordinate to make sure everyone’s on the same page to get it done.

HDTU: How would you compare this year’s HD production of the Final Four with six year’s ago when CBS Sports did it’s first high definition coverage of the event?

KA: When we first started everything was discreet. Everything was a stand-alone. We were doing HD separately with separate announcers, trucks, and we weren’t sure anyone was watching. In some ways, we were doing it for ourselves and were able to experiment. There really was a lot less pressure.

Now, there are a lot of people watching and a lot of influential people watching so there’s a lot more pressure. Not that we didn’t care before, but the pressure wasn’t sitting on you.

When we combined the HD and SD production, there was a lot of pressure not to cause problems with the SD part.

We’ve come a long way and are very proud of what we’ve accomplished so far. But it is always a struggle. Getting through all of that is still a challenge. We are certainly over the hump.

HD — it is not a matter of if it is coming. It is here, and we have to deal with it. It is something that we have to do.

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