HD News

On June 29, 2006, WFTV Orlando became the tenth station in the United States to broadcast a high definition newscast. They did a lot of things that you would expect, some that you wouldn't and some that you might not agree with. But the first thing they had to do was answer the question: Why HD news and why now?

The driving force for WFTV's HD newscast was Bob Jordan, the station's news director. "I believe that HDTV adds significantly to the viewing experience," said Jordan. "The vastly improved video and audio add to the emotional punch."

Jordan doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk as one of HD's early adopters. "When I got my first HD set four years ago, I was blown away by the picture quality," said Jordan. "I knew instantly that it was only a question of 'how soon'--not 'if'--we'd start doing news in HD."

It turns out that viewers like Jordan (who has three HD sets at home and who's giving away his 36-inch NTSC Sony XBR) were the key.

The Orlando market in central Florida (which just moved from DMA 20 to 19) has a high concentration of HD viewers. Out of approximately 1.4 million TV households, about 200,000 are HDTV viewers, whether through over-the-air or cable (Bright House Networks, with approximately 80% pass by, supports all of the HD off-air channels in Orlando).

"We were ready," said Shawn Bartelt, vice president and general manager of WFTV, who started her television career as a reporter. "We had the penetration, the ratings and revenue strength, plus the talent."

One of the first things WFTV did was to look at the stations that came before them in the HD news universe.

When looking at those who have done something before you, there are two simple rules: Do what works...but better, and throw out what doesn't.

With that in mind, WFTV's News Operations Manager Dave Sirak went to find out what was done well and what wasn't.

Last February, Sirak, armed with a portable HD DVR, a laptop with an HDTV tuner and a bunch of antennas, covertly visited hotels in Atlanta (WXIA), Cleveland (WJW), Denver (KUSA) and Seattle (KING and KOMO) to record the HD newscasts available in those markets.

The best HD newscast? That would be KUSA, according to Sirak, which had the best integration of graphics, an HD helicopter and an overall great HD news experience.

With the information gathered from Sirak's HD news road trip, WFTV got down to the nitty gritty of an HD newscast.

WFTV, an ABC affiliate owned by Cox, was already two steps ahead of the game. The station's infrastructure was digital and they had been switching news on a standard definition Grass Valley Kalypso since 2004, according to John Demshock, WFTV's director of engineering.

With its Kalypso easily upgradeable to HD, cameras were the big question. "We wanted the best pictures we could absolutely get from the studio cameras," said Demshock. That meant a shootout. But there were a few rules. First, the top price point could not exceed the cost of the Sony HDC-1500 camera ($90,000 U.S. list price). Second, WFTV wanted to have the same lens on each camera during the shootout to compare apples to apples.

Canon provided four of the same lenses for WFTV's shootout between four vendors with the winner being the Sony HDC-1500. Three cameras each with Canon's Digi Super 22xs HD compact studio lenses were ordered for the studio and a smaller Sony HDC-X300 camera was ordered for the newsroom to record interstitials and Web reports.

Demshock expects the studio cameras and lenses, which were installed in May, to be able to last at least 10 years.

The next issue for Demshock was mixing aspect ratios. While studio and field footage was always 16:9, network and archive footage was 4:3 SD. While WFTV installed Evertz standards converters to upconvert, the one thing Demshock didn't ever want to see was 4:3 video stretched to 16:9, like a lot of stations do to get their regular 4:3 SD newscast on their digital HD channel. To avoid this, he developed an aspect ratio switcher and a workflow rule that has editors ingest 4:3 material with a graphic sidepanel making it 16:9 and which allows users to pass through native 16:9 material untouched on its way to the Avid Unity.

Everything would then be 16:9 with the final 4:3 SD version for analog broadcast being center-punched by an Evertz standards converter.

Going HD in the studio meant a new news set. FX Design Group of Ocoee, FL, was called in to handle both set and lighting. Only two years ago, WFTV had built its Severe Weather Center 9 set. That set had a 16:9 HD flat panel as its main display, but 4:3 CRTs located throughout the set. FX replaced the 4:3s with 16:9 flat panel HDs to go along with the new Eyewitness News set.

Also built into the set was a rear projection system behind each anchor (each with a redundant projector) that will be integrated into the five weekday newscasts in the future.

One of the issues with a widescreen newscast is the chemistry of the anchors on the set, according to Jordan. Shooting widescreen means the anchors can no longer be as physically close to each other as they had been in the 4:3 world, or they would appear in the other's over-the-shoulder shot. But in a two-shot, they look further apart than they did in 4:3.

And we all know that just as HD can magnify the attractive features of an anchor, it can also magnify flaws.

"The anchors were concerned that HD would provide too great a level of detail, making every small flaw on their faces visible," said Jordan. "Thanks to the technology of the cameras we bought, where detail in the skin tone area can be toned down, that is not a problem."

What can be a problem is makeup. "Lip gloss is a no-no. So too is heavy pancake," adds Jordan. In the world of high definition news, less is more.
When it made the transition to HD news, the station brought in a local makeup expert, who watched each member of the live studio team and adjusted their use of makeup. HD resolution can show heavy makeup, so the general rule is to use less makeup than what used to be acceptable.

The station did rehearsals because of the new set. "HD, in and of itself, does not require rehearsals," said Jordan.

One other thing. As HDTVs in the home get bigger, viewers will notice more. Case in point: One viewer emailed the station saying they could see the reflection of the teleprompter in the anchors' eyes. Sure enough, when you look a big enough picture, you can.

In hurricane prone central Florida, weather is king.

One of the issues that Sirak brought up after his HD news road trip was the lack of HD weather in other markets. There are two issues at play here: Radar and visualization.

Just as the 2006 hurricane season was getting started, the station installed a Baron Services' VHDD-350C radar with high definition VIPIR and FasTrac, making WFTV the first station in Florida with a high definition weather center, the first station with FasTrac HD and the second station in the country to have VIPIR HD.

The Baron 350C radar, branded Early Warning Doppler 9 HD, is an immense upgrade from the station's previous radar. With an additional 100,000 watts of power, meteorologists can now see farther with higher resolution and display the results in HD. For example, the new radar has allowed the weather team to watch thunderstorms on the South Carolina coast, 371 miles away from their radar site in central Florida, and to see deep inside storms.

The radar sits on a new pedestal that spins nine times faster providing returns every 10 seconds. That radar is continuously broadcast on WFTV's secondary digital channel 9.2.

High definition weather visualization from WSI's TrueView HD has helped WFTV become the first station in the country to present complete, full-resolution HD weather coverage.

"The high definition TrueView fly-throughs and the 5-day forecast look fantastic," according to Jordan.

Teamed up with high definition weather was a new HD graphics package designed by Giant Octopus of Clearwater, FL.

No, it's not.

In the field, WFTV shoots 16:9 standard definition shot in 25 Mbps with Panasonic DVCPRO 50 P2 camcorders purchased in 2005.

Is this an HD cheat? Are they pulling a fast one on the viewing public? No.
WFTV has always been clear that their field footage is 16:9 (non-stretched) standard definition upconverted to HD.

So why not shoot HD in the field?

With an HD newscast price tag of just under $2 million, some things didn't make economic sense.

"The ROI wasn't there," said Bartelt.

Let's look at the numbers.

WFTV fields 21 news crews (eight of which are microwave ENG and two which are SNG), a helicopter and staffs two bureaus. That would mean a lot of HD cameras and support equipment (all crews have five P2 cards, Avid Newscutter Pro laptop NLEs and Maxtor drives). It would also mean replacing cameras that have less than two years of service.

Then there's the microwave issue.

The station is waiting for their Nextel 2GHz transition before even considering HD in the field.

"Right now we have a problem with RF reflections with HD ENG, which downconverting conceals pretty well," said Demshock. But downconverting HD to SD would defeat the purpose. "The Nextel conversion will take care of that."

Now let's look at the picture.

Some might say, whether theoretically or philosophically, that not shooting in HD but in widescreen 16:9 is cheating. But the proof is in the viewership.

According to Bartelt, who has received lots of emails from viewers congratulating the station on its HD newscast, there hasn't been a single complaint from a viewer about field footage being 16:9 SD instead of HD. Experts can argue all they want. Viewers are what really matter.

Truth be told, I could tell that there was a quality difference between the studio and the field shots, but the difference didn't take away from the newscast.

Demshock also believes that one of the reasons that viewers have accepted the 16:9 SD field footage is that it's 16:9 native, with no stretching.

And, just to be clear, 16:9 does make a difference.

"Television is a visual medium," said Bartelt. "It's about storytelling. Full 16:9 on fieldwork enhances storytelling."

At the end of the day, WFTV knows that doing news in HD isn't enough to gain or even maintain viewers. "In the end, it's the content of the newscast that makes the difference," said Bartelt.

Michael Silbergleid is the editor and associate publisher of Television Broadcast. He can be reached at msilbergleid@silverknight.com.