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HD for “Good Morning America” offers broader lessons

In November, ABC began broadcasting “Good Morning America” in high definition from the Disney-owned Times Square Studios in New York City.

While “Good Morning America” is the marquee show originating from the studios, it’s not alone. ABC’s “Nightline” and some ESPN programming originate from there as well.

Fresh from its design and installation of the year-old $200 million ESPN HD facility in Bristol, CT, National TeleConsultants tackled the high-profile studio rebuild with a degree of knowledge and experience that, in the words of NTC project manager Steve Mendel, allowed the engineering consultants “to hit the ground running,” taking their client through “the whole learning process with a lot of things that don’t come to mind unless you move across that HD threshold.”

While the scope of the project — which involved a rebuild of two studios, two control rooms, outdoor standup positions, and a redesigned master control facility at ABC’s 66th St. location in Manhattan linked via fiber to the Times Square Studios — may be beyond what most broadcasters will be required to do in converting their stations and studios for HD origination, the Times Square Studios upgrade to HD is instructive.

HD Technology Update caught up with Mendel to get a sense of the project and what tips local broadcasters can glean from the experience that will make rolling out HD origination easier.

HD Technology Update: While HD origination was the primary goal of ABC, standard definition is still a reality and will be for a long time to come. How did the SD reality impact the HD design?

Steve Mendel: One of the challenges for “Good Morning America” is the show is still living with one foot in the SD world and the other foot in the HD world. A great deal of content is brought in and sent out in some SD format. But a large amount of content is now originating from Times Square Studios in HD. Consideration was needed for the fact that affiliate stations may transmit the SD, HD, or both versions of the program.

The work at Times Square Studios was performed in tandem with upgrades at the ABC 66th St. facility in Manhattan, where master control, graphics production, news ingest, editing, playout, and the release control room are located. NTC was heavily involved in upgrading both the Times Square Studios and the 66th St. facility. We had to understand the “Good Morning America” requirements and how to integrate both HD and SD content into the program. A great deal of upconversion and downconversion was required. ABC treats “Good Morning America” as a remote from the Times Square Studios. Considerable fiber optic capacity exists between 66th Street and Times Square Studios to move SD and HD content. The server-based news and feature content, along with most graphics, are played back from the 66th Street facility and are integrated at Times Square Studios. The facility can produce in SD and HD; the switcher and router are multiformat.

HDTU: Like many broadcasters who will be converting origination to HD, the SD show must still go on. How difficult was it to pull off this rebuild while “Good Morning America” still needed to be on-air?

SM: We were working in a live plant while programming was ongoing. The SD program video was being handled in a truck outside and audio inside. Keeping that running while we were working — installing around their live operation — was challenging.

And it was more than just “Good Morning America.” There was a great deal of engineering consideration to keep in mind for other Times Square Studio users and incredible last-minute requests for programming requirements that can’t always be anticipated and planned. We had to give them a design that could be used in that untested environment.

HDTU: Your client was actually Times Square Studio. What were their requirements?

SM: Their prime requirement was providing maximum flexibility in a limited facility router. There were constraints relating to the size of the routing switcher even though a complete second routing switcher — roughly 256 squared —was added. NTC needed to make sure that the client could do everything in HD that they were already doing in SD — and then some.

HDTU: Could you anticipate all of the design requirements prior to installation? Or did you have to make changes to accommodate the unanticipated?

SM: Projects such as this major conversion tend to be organic. Once we started developing the design and understanding the new workflow it became obvious that we had to modify and massage the design. When “Good Morning America” began HD rehearsals later in the day after the SD version wrapped they would find certain things that weren’t to their liking or didn’t exactly mesh with their needs. We were making subtle modifications throughout the design and build process. When we got to the on-air date of November 3rd it was a technically flawless launch for viewers of both HD and SD.

HDTU: What were the biggest surprises you encountered?

SM: There were not so much “surprises” as there were challenges that came in a variety of flavors. Lots of new equipment — “serial number 01 issues.” But the manufacturers were responsive and the head-scratching was kept to a minimum.

Then there was the more daunting piece for us, a strict requirement to limit our work to very specific times of day. The 66th street network facility is the origination point for all network HD programming. In this mission-critical environment, we couldn’t take “extra time” to complete our work on a particular sub-system; the work had to be done correctly within the allotted schedule with no exceptions.

One instance in particular was well-planned mayhem. At the network side of the build, we had to remove an existing router, audio, video, and control levels, and replace it with an entirely new system in four days. That was an incredible feat. When they came back online, they had to have an entirely functional facility. There was not a single instance of installation-related outage. We were basically rebuilding the ship while it was afloat.

HDTU: What lessons can local broadcasters take away from your experience with this project as they approach retooling for HD origination?

SM: First of all, they probably all understand at a high level that they will be dealing in a multiformat environment for some time. But it doesn’t fully come home till you sit at the console and ask yourself “How do I get this from here to there?”

It’s important to sit down with the real users and understand the requirements from the people who will be using the facility. You’ll learn what has to get from here to there and what needs to be crossconverted, downconverted, etc.

A typical example: Everyone shows up for technical rehearsals before the program is supposed to go on-air. They often find out way too late that they are missing capacity or resources. For example, router space is consumed at high rates; you’re adding a lot more sources to the facility seemingly just to do the same programming. It’s a whole other layer that moves in with the upgrade process. It’s important to plan and to know that up-front.

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