Fox is taking the HD plunge. And to accommodate its new format, the Fox Network Center in Los Angeles will undergo a build-out over the next year and the network is in the market for 720p equipment from ingest to final satellite transmission, including servers, videotape machines, format converters, distribution and routing, video compression and Dolby Digital gear.
Fox hasn't yet made equipment selections, but Fox Engineering President Andrew Setos said that there are plenty of options for equipment that can carry 720p. "The marketplace now has a lot of competition in 720p-capable equipment and that's good news for us," he said.
Even though the equipment list hasn't been finalized, the workflow and system planning is well underway. Key to the design is overlaying 720p onto the 480p infrastructure in way that's seamless to the personnel staffing the 15 "Net Rooms," where programs, commercials, promos and other content are integrated. Fox uses three Net Rooms for time-zone feeds; the rest are used during for NFL and Major League Baseball coverage. No major changes are planned for the Net Rooms, which will be format-agnostic, except for the addition of 16:9 720p displays.
Setos said that the rooms will control both 720p and 480p equipment with the same control surfaces that are currently installed, so as not to disrupt operational familiarity. "We place a high premium on reliability, and personnel familiarity with operational systems is one of the major determinates of reliable operations," he said. "We don't let anything get in the way of that principle."
Setos envisions supervisors making any necessary switches between the two formats behind the scenes, off-line and ahead of time, per the programming schedule.
For ingest, new 720p-capable servers and VTRs will be installed along with color picture monitors and Dolby Digital monitoring. The Technical Operations Center (TOC) will be upgraded with segments of the various routers made 720p-capable and the large monitor wall will be reworked to accommodate 16:9 displays. The Fox Network Satellite System will be upgraded to increase its payload rate and interfaces at the 194 affiliates.
Setos said that Fox will request that producers deliver in 720p widescreen and in trying to get delivery in Dolby Digital as well. Shows delivered in 480p and 480i will be converted and/or de-interlaced to 720p as required.
For movies, Setos said either of the two common film aspect ratios, 17:9 (1.85:1) or CinemaScope 22:9 (2.4:1), will be letterboxed. "The viewer will see a small black band top and bottom," Setos explained, "But since virtually all DTV sets have large 16:9 images, it's a good compromise. We put a very heavy emphasis on faithfully representing what the producer's intentions are for the sound and picture experience."
For the Fox Network Digital Satellite System, Setos said Fox will purchase 720p -- capable MPEG -- 2 video compression equipment. The System operates at 8PSK and is encrypted. Reception gear will also be placed at Fox's 194 affiliates.
"We wanted one spatial resolution that would work for both live action and film content, and that format is 720p," Setos said.
The move to 720p isn't restricted to over-the-air broadcast. The company told the FCC that it had entered into an agreement with Time Warner Cable to provide 720p telecasts of NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball games, starting as soon as this fall. Network President and Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin added that more such agreements would be forthcoming providing "more than 500 hours of high-definition [sports] programming."
To entice viewers to watch its HDTV, Fox will develop promotions on a number of fronts. Chernin said that the network will be looking for a partner on the consumer electronics side for a DTV promotional campaign In addition, current "enhanced definition" and future HDTV programs airing in a 16:9 format include a lower screen graphic banner, displayed at the beginning of a show, indicating that the show is available in "widescreen high-resolution digital TV." And beginning this fall, the Fox Network will run promotional announcements to let viewers know about programming available in enhanced definition.
Fox told the FCC it would transmit at least half its primetime programming in 720p by the fall 2004. The network has not announced which shows would migrate. Currently, the Fox Network provides "enhanced" 480p digital feeds to affiliates in all day parts, with 16:9 feeds during select programs.