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HD news 'comes alive' for CNN Worldwide

At the beginning of September, the era of HD officially touched CNN with the launch of CNN Worldwide in HD.

The move is the first public step of the international news organization toward HD, but internally, the network got serious about planning for HD about 18 months ago. The undertaking is massive, touching everything from the smallest bureau in the field to master control. The network expects it to take two and a half to three years to complete the HD switchover.

HD Technology Update spoke with Bob Hesskamp, VP of technical operations for CNN Worldwide’s news division, to learn more about the effort.

HD Technology Update: When did the plans for HD operations at CNN begin?

Bob Hesskamp: From the time we built our CNN facility at Time Warner Center in New York, we’ve been planning, knowing that at some point we would have to convert to HD. So, we did the best we could to buy equipment that was HD-ready in New York. We bought HD-ready, HD-capable equipment. We cabled the facility so it would meet HD requirements. We bought HD cameras and HD-capable switchers from the start. We knew this day would come.

So, HD has been in the works for some time. We started about a year and half ago to look seriously at this project. Then about a year ago, we began in earnest with the budgets and the project management around it. It took us about a year to get to this point.

HD Technology Update: Has HD demanded significant changes in your workflow?

Bob Hesskamp: One thing we tried to do in our design was to keep the workflows in the control rooms as similar to today’s as possible. We were able to do that with auto-sensing upconversion, so we could route any signal and get it into the control room and it would be in HD. They don’t have to think, “Is it SD or HD?” It’s coming to them in HD or SD depending on what they need.

HD Technology Update: Could you give me some more detail on how you are approaching serving news content to both an SD and HD audience?

Bob Hesskamp: What we are doing is producing our New York-based shows in HD. That’s our first step in this. We are converting a significant part of our newsgathering operation, including trucks and cameras. The scale of our operation is so large that it will take us a number of years to complete.

As far as the SD audience, we not only have to think about the SD audience, we need to think about the other SD networks we support. In addition to CNN U.S., we have CNN International, Headline News and CNN en Español that still rely on our HD content for their SD feeds, so we have to get the content to them in SD.

We have two master controls that are controlled by one person. We have a full SD master control path and a full HD master control path, so the shows that come to us in HD from New York will be downconverted before they hit master control. Then we will put in a separate set of SD graphics on that feed, and the shows that are produced in HD will go right through the HD master control and have a separate set of graphics put on in master control. The ticker, some of the bugs and stock information will all be HD.

Then SD shows that come to us will get upconverted and the HD graphics put on. Obviously, the side panels go on in master control.

HD Technology Update: You have more than 25 years of legacy footage that you have to deal with. What’s your plan?

Bob Hesskamp: We absolutely do. We have 27 years of archive and then other archives that we use. Like I said, the newsgathering transition is going to take place over the next two and a half to three years before we can completely replace our newsgathering infrastructure. You can imagine how extensive it is throughout the world, and how much we have to do on that end and to our infrastructure — how we move our signals around among our facilities in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, London and Hong Kong — how we get all that information back to us and from the field as well.

We are going to upgrade a number of our trucks to HD. The CNN Election Express has four HD transmission paths on it as well as some HD editing capability. We are making a significant step into HD newsgathering, but the entire transition is going to take about three years.

HD Technology Update: What will your acquisition format be?

Bob Hesskamp: We announced at NAB that we were going to adopt Sony XDCAM HD as our newsgathering format to replace SX.

HD Technology Update: In the newsroom, journalists and producers are working on their stories in a file-based workflow. What’s been necessary to make these HD elements — video, graphics and text — available to them to build their stories?

Bob Hesskamp: What we are doing is dual ingesting the material in HD and SD. They are looking at the low-res version in SD on their desktops to pick those shots. Then, they’ll go into the HD edit rooms to edit those HD pieces.

HD Technology Update: Does HD allow CNN’s journalists to tell their stories better? If so, how?

Bob Hesskamp: We are already shooting documentaries in HD. Anderson Cooper’s “Planet in Peril” and Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s “Fed Up: America’s Killer Diet,” are lending themselves very well to HD. “Planet in Peril,” for example, is Cooper, Gupta and Jeff Corwin traveling the world. All of the stuff we are getting back from them is just incredible. Video from the Amazon, video from the North Pole, from Asia and Africa blows you away.

I think from a news standpoint, that’s what’s really exciting. HD gives us the ability to bring our viewers closer to the story. It comes alive, much like when you watch a sporting event in HD — the game is more real to you. I think the news is more real to you when you see it in HD. It’s beautiful. The disturbing news may be more disturbing and the beautiful, inspiring news is going to be more beautiful and more inspiring.

HD Technology Update: What’s next?

Bob Hesskamp: As a team here, we’ve worked on a renewal and replacement strategy over the next few years. As we look at the equipment we will have to replace anyway, we’re looking at that with a more strategic eye. If we’re going to replace this anyway, how much closer does it get us to HD in our other facilities?

I guess we will look at the business to decide where we make the strategic investments toward more HD production. For newsgathering, we have a plan to upgrade all of the newsgathering over the next few years.

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