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HD has arrived, but a few challenges remain

Two weeks ago in Universal City, CA, Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports senior VP of operations and production services, told the audience assembled to hear his keynote speech at the HD Technology Summit that HDTV has come of age.

While challenges remain, Aagaard laid out the case that the network is in the home stretch of producing and delivering HD coverage of major sporting events.

HD Technology Update caught up with Aagaard later and asked him to elaborate on the remaining challenges and to retell a story from his keynote speech about a nerve-wracking incident during the production of Super Bowl XLI.

HD Technology Update: While the era of HDTV has arrived, you say there are still a few challenges to overcome. You identify 5.1 surround audio as one. Could you describe where 5.1 surround is today at CBS Sports and where it’s going?

Ken Aagaard: It’s now still a work in progress, and it’s been a work in progress for a couple of years. More than likely it will continue to be that. I really feel we have a handle on it now.

Last year, it was truly the Wild West. This year, we really have set better standards and requirements for ourselves to make sure that all of the settings that we have from the truck through the broadcast center are all standardized.

Our engineering crew was able to accomplish that over the summer. We came up with standards we felt would put us in a situation where every game we listened to would be doing the same thing — having the same loudness levels, same mix to announcers and crowd once it comes out the final spigot, whether it’s 5.1 or downconverted to stereo. So, we think we have that situation fairly licked as it relates to getting to the broadcast center.

From the broadcast center though, you are still sending out metadata in the 5.1 scenario to the digital HD networks all the way to the home, and there are still a lot of things that can mess up that signal along the way, whether it’s the affiliate or it’s the headend of the MSO or the tuner, or set, itself.

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done on the far side of the broadcast center, and we continue to try to work with all of those different entities to be sure we are getting the best signal out there.

HD Technology Update: You also identified 4:3 safe HD commercials as a challenge. Could you describe the situation and what steps CBS is taking to address it?

Ken Aagaard: We have declared to the agencies supplying us with all of the commercial material that all 16:9 commercials must be 4:3 safe. This declaration went out a year ago, and was pretty much ignored. But then it was sent out once again six months ago and then three months ago, and people are really now starting to get the message, because it’s not just CBS that’s making the statement any longer. It’s really coming from all the broadcasters as well as those who are in similar circumstances. Basically, they are putting together HD facilities. They are feeding HD signals out and a 4:3 is being derived now and passed by affiliates and MSOs, and eventually even at the tuner level. In some cases, even our owned and operated stations — Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago, in particular — are only taking in an HD signal and basically deriving their SD signal from that HD signal.

Once they do that, and they cut that down, if your commercial is not 4:3 safe, tough. It’s not going to be protected. We think that as we go into this basketball season, we are following those rules.

Once we get to the NCAA Tournament, we’ve told our sales people and reiterated to all the agencies that we are in a position facilitywise that we can only do HD and derive the SD from the high def. So, all commercials, when we get to the tournament time, the commercials need to be 4:3 safe. The time has come. It’s here.

HD Technology Update: In your view, are all the pieces in place to do live HD sports production?

Ken Aagaard: Most of the pieces are there. From a live remote point of view, there are very few things that we can’t do that are not in high def. We used to have issues with wireless cameras and super slo-mos; there were some disk-based replay devices that maybe weren’t there. But now, all the manufacturers are there. From a field point of view, go try to find something that is SD; you can’t really find it anymore.

With high def, as it relates to the broadcast equipment that’s in the field, the manufacturers and the vendors have all put HD out there. There may be some specialty things — POV cameras and some high-speed cameras that are not totally HD quality. But those things are all unique anyway and can be put in a 16:9 format, so it works for the viewer.

All of the virtual information from various companies that all of us use for first down lines and other production elements are all HD ready; graphics are all HD ready. You can still take SD graphics and upconvert them and no one knows the difference. So, from a field point of view, HD is there. Audio gets to the 5.1 issue, which is something we all are still working on.

HD Technology Update: You told a story at the HD Technology Summit about production of this year’s Super Bowl where you were forced to do the entire day’s production on a single generator. Could you relate that story?

Ken Aagaard: This happened in Miami this year. Remember, this was the third most-watched show ever. So there is always a lot of pressure doing a Super Bowl. But early that Sunday morning, at about 7 a.m., we found out that the entire compound, which runs off generators, lost power. We fired the generators back up. They ran for about a half hour, and they went back down again. We had to make the decision to untie the generators because that was the only way they seemed like they would continue to run.

Remember, you almost have to run the compound off generators at these big events because if you rely on land power, you are really putting yourself in jeopardy. The stadium now has a lot more requirements. Around a Super Bowl, you have the NFL Experience, Jumbotrons and everything going on. So, you really need to have your own power source, and when we do that, we use generator power. When we do that, we back ourselves up with redundant power and it’s really important to have that power with a redundant switch over, so if for any reason one generator is lost, the other takes over without any interruption. Various things can trip that. A generator that size powers a TV compound that is basically a city. That kind of setup very complicated.

We knew there was some sort of problem with the generators. They were talking to each other and it was causing them to both shut down, so we separated them. Now, it’s 10 o’clock in the morning, and at 11 o’clock, we were live with a news program from the Super Bowl and we were in production getting ready for the pre-game at noon.

There was no way to experiment, so we had to make the call at that point to go on a single generator not having an automatic backup. What that meant is if we lost that generator — because all of our equipment are basically computers — we’d have to turn everything off, fire up the other generator and turn everything back on. That could take five, 10 or even 15 minutes — 10 minutes on an average. But if you lose five seconds in a Super Bowl, it could be a big deal.

There was a whole lot of crossing fingers and hoping that we were not going to have any problem with the one generator we were on. Fortunately, it held up and everything was good, but you always worry about the Murphy’s Law problem. It was pretty nerve-wracking and very scary for us. Every year, the Super Bowl is the largest television audience that exists, and there are a lot of people who are anxious to watch this game.

We backed ourselves up with the international feed that has three cameras in the stadium, and we were using a separate power source and separate distribution system. We actually brought that into New York as a backup, so if we went down, we’d have some video we could put up and tie it together with Westwood One radio so we would have some audio and a video source we could feed out while we tried to recover if that were to happen.

HD Technology Update: What else would you like to add about HD sports production or HD in general?

Ken Aagaard: I’m really proud of the work CBS has done over the past several years to get where we are. I think we have had a lot to say about how high def is done in sports, and it’s very satisfying to look back and see how far we have come.

It’s kind of exciting. We’re now almost to the point where HD is not as big a deal. Basically, we are now just producing another show that happens to be in HD.

From an NFL point of view, we still have a way to go. Every Sunday, we are producing eight games simultaneously, and we still are not fully prepared in our distribution system to handle all those games in HD, as well as all of our routing in the broadcast center. In 2008, we’re going to get closer, and in 2009, we hope to be actually done and all of the way home.

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