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HD Move Puts Letterman Team on the Curb

NEW YORK: For the average visitor, the northwest corner of 53rd and Broadway is most notably the home of Rupert Jee's Hello Deli, the sandwich joint cum set piece of the "Late Show with David Letterman." To Howell Mette, vice president of engineering at CBS Broadcasting, this stretch of side street represents the show's recently completed transition to hi-def.

The Hello is around the corner from the Ed Sullivan Theater, home of the Letterman show for the last 12 years. Gesturing toward general bustle in front of Rupert's, Mette conjures the specter of the 53-foot Game Creek expando that served as the "Late Show" control room while the TV infrastructure inside the building was torn to smithereens.

"The truck was parked here from late March to August," Mette said. "CBS cut to the truck in April during NAB."

Four months later on Aug. 29, the show made its hi-def debut in 1080i.

Going from standard to high definition is a fairly common occurrence nowadays, but each conversion has unique demands. With Letterman, the show had to continue uninterrupted in a gutted facility.

"Other productions may have moved," said Jerry Foley, producer and director of the "Late Show." But Letterman is a performer, he said, "who's very dependent on his surroundings. It would be unfair to him to upset that for technical needs."

Foley said the CBS engineering team "got it." They brought in a truck and moved the production crew to the curb* after some serious planning.


Mapping out the logistics for the $20 million project began in 2002, when CBS bought three Canon-equipped Ikegami dual-mode HDK-790Es and eight HDK-79E handhelds. At the time, the network downplayed the notion that a move to HD was imminent. The purchase was referred to as "future proofing," while other factors were weighed* chiefly, how to convert the production plant in a 76-year-old officially designated landmark. The Ed Sullivan Theater, built in 1927, was first renovated to accommodate the "Late Show" in 1993. To convert Letterman to hi-def, the building was retrofitted with fiber, from the control room in the basement to the editing suite on the seventh floor.

"The plumbing had to be cleared out of the shaftway to get it done," Mette said.

While the control room was taken down to cinder block, production continued in the Game Creek mobile unit, which was conjoined to the seventh floor with an unearthly umbilical of coax.

Meanwhile, the basement space comprising an employee lounge, the control room, audio and videotape* roughly the size of a two-bedroom apartment* was reconfigured. The wall of the videotape room was moved three feet, apparently ending the necessity of sliding into the space sideways. A small employee lounge was converted to accommodate lighting and video control. A new Calrec Alpha 100 was installed in the audio room in anticipation of doing 5.1 at some point next year.

Upstairs, the editing room itself was temporarily moved. Mark Spada, supervising editor on the "Late Show" prefers the spacious new suites.

"We were in a closet for three months," he said. "We worked back-to-back. It was guerilla editing."

While the new arrangement is a bit more civilized, it also represents the most dramatic shift in the workflow. The show was previously live-to-tape and cut to time. It's now ingested into an Avid Unity system and cut on an Avid Nitris DS.

"The nonlinear conversion was the biggest change," Foley said. "We were cutting tape before. The advance has been in our ability to edit faster and turn around video during the show. When Dave throws a pencil and it gets stuck in a wall we can replay that instantly."


The show itself is a montage of such signature spontaneous moments and prerecorded segments like "Guess What's Under the Robe," where an innocent bystander was challenged to identify a large lump under a justice's robe worn by Rupert the deli owner. (It was four pounds of raw bacon.)

CBS engineers put A/V boxes throughout the building for doing off-stage segments. The Hello has a box right outside; there's another on the roof to catch big street tricks, like the guy who flipped a snowmobile on 53rd. There are a total of 46 camera locations and 11 camera control units, all connected via a fiber-optic patchbay designed by John Ferder, director of CBS studio and post-production systems engineering, and his crew.

The prerecorded material is ingested into Grass Valley Profiles configured with two channels for recording and six for playback. It's edited on eight Media Composer Adrenaline systems, also networked to an Avid Unity system. The Adrenalines, also used for iso camera edits, will be updated to Avid HD AirSpeeds in the first quarter of next year.

The Profiles are controlled from four DNF Controls shotboxes; three in videotape and one at Tim Kennedy's cockpit in the control room. Kennedy, technical director of the "Late Show," rides shotgun with Foley during the show at the helm of a Sony MVS8000 switcher that can route a signal five ways from Sunday. The console itself is made up of configurable modules, allowing Kennedy to put the functions he uses most within reach. Take the monitor wall controls...

The control room is dominated by three 70-inch Barco Solaris monitors driven by an Evertz MVP. Kennedy is no different than any other guy with a giant new TV, even though his are comparatively Testarossas. The transition here is from the channel dial to the remote. He no longer has to wander back in the racks and unplug something to change a monitor view.

In the course of the show, the production team has to be prepared for Letterman to request just about anything, from a U-matic clip to an on-the-spot graphic* created on Macs outfitted with Pinnacle Deko HD software. There are also 17 cameras available during the shoot, although seven are typically used. After Kennedy wrangles the multitude of sources into a coherent piece, Spada pulls it to do the final edit, which typically involves cutting to time.

Letterman tends to start and end on time, given, "it's Broadway," Foley said, relating Letterman's sentiment. "There are a lot of other shows people can go to. The band plays exactly at 5:30."

The live show begins at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. On Mondays, two shows are recorded; one at 4:30 p.m. and another at 7 p.m. for Friday.

On a good night, the editors will cut a few minutes, add bumpers and black slugs for commercial insertion. Working right behind Spada, another editor creates three copies on Sony HDCAM SR tape; two of which are carried over to the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th. Eventually, the goal is to air the show from the production facility at the Ed Sullivan by feeding it to the Broadcast Center via fiber. An impromptu test run on Oct. 3 was successful.

Next up for CBS: "The Early Show." The A/V boxes in front of the General Motors Building at 5th and 57th, where "The Early Show" studios are located, has been wired with fiber for HD, Ferder said.

"The control room has to be out of service to go HD," he said. "We're looking at strategies for 'The Early Show,'" though no definitive date has been set.