HD News Migrates Outward

High-definition ENG is gathering steam at TV stations, but incorporating it into a station infrastructure is neither easy nor cheap. Is it worth it? Isn’t doing just the studio portion of a newscast in HD enough?

Not according to Jim Willi, principal and senior vice president of Audience Research & Development, a Fort Worth, Texas, firm that does news consulting for over 100 stations. Willi said that despite relatively low HD set penetration, that when someone in the audience spends a couple of thousand dollars to buy one, they go in search of high-definition programming.

“I think just doing [HD from the studio] is not enough,” he said. “I think the real tiebreaker is when you go out and shoot everything in high definition—shooting from your helicopter with a high-definition camera. That’s where the dramatic difference comes in. Otherwise, you go out and shoot it in the old format, and then in the studio your anchors look great, but you go to your stories and they look pretty much the same as everybody else.”

Desirable though HD ENG might be, few stations around the country appear to have full, end-to-end hi-def operations. A survey of the six microwave radio vendors in the business turned up just one—KLAS-TV, the CBS affiliate in Las Vegas.

Doug Kramer is director of engineering at KLAS, one of two stations owned by Landmark Communications in Norfolk, Va., which recently floated both for sale.

“We do HD ENG 99.9 percent of the time,” he said, explaining that one of the HD links was down. Otherwise, it would be 100 percent.

The digital radio swap initiated by the Sprint Nextel 2 GHz relocation was key to KLAS adopting HD ENG. Las Vegas was one of the first medium to large markets to actually have completed the gear swap and subsequent spectrum retuning. When KLAS had all its digital microwave gear installed and operating in the months before the scheduled October 2006 retuning, it was ready with HD ENG.

The bandwidth requirements for hi-def video complicate the migration of ENG ops to full HD. An HD picture has about four times the data in it as an SD signal. Compression allows stations to transmit an HD signal to viewers on the same 6 MHz channel that an analog SD signal filled. However, less compression is preferred in the production process, which means more bandwidth is needed to acquire, record and transport HD video.

Within a studio, this can require a pricey suite of cameras, lenses and higher capacity storage and routing gear. However, the studio is generally climate controlled and dry. Converting ENG operations to HD requires changing microwave equipment on trucks, mountaintops, tall buildings and towers.

High-definition from the field starts with an HD-capable camera, but there’s a lot more to it, said Tim Carroll, president of DSI RF Systems in Somerset, N.J. DSI designs and installs transmitter facilities, remote camera systems, satellite facilities and microwave systems.

The KLAS-TV all-HD vehicle“They have to relay that to the truck, and then transmit it from the truck to a receive site capable of HD,” he said. “From your receive site, it’s got to stay in that bandwidth all the way back to your plant.” Any link in the signal transport chain The KLAS-TV 100 percent HD ENG vehicle that can’t support an HD signal becomes a chokepoint. “It becomes a question of logistics,” he said. “You’ve got to get to all those receive sites, a lot of them in out-of-theway areas.”

Carroll noted that replacing equipment on towers could require the added expense of specialized crews. As with KLAS, the Sprint Nextel 2 GHz relocation program could provide an impetus for upgrading to HD ENG operations, but stations still have to pay the added expense of the upgrade. Sprint’s deal with the government is to replace broadcasters’ analog 2 GHz microwave equipment with comparable digital broadcast auxiliary service gear.

WFAA-TV, Belo’s ABC affiliate in Dallas, is one of the stations waiting for digital microwave gear from Sprint. The station is not scheduled to have its ENG spectrum retuned until the fourth quarter of this year. Craig Harper, vice president of technology at Belo said other parts of the ENG signal path back to the station need to be upgraded. Meanwhile, they have established one HD receive site dedicated to pulling down HD microwave signals from the station’s helicopter.

“The same day we turned the studio into HD, we turned the helicopter on to HD,” he said.

Additionally, in order to achieve widescreen format of HD, the station made sure that when it bought its standard-definition news cameras and lenses several years ago, that they were capable of handling 16:9. All field material, whether it comes in via microwave or is brought back to the station with the news crew, is 16:9.

“Another thing we’re trying to do is to acquire our sports highlights in widescreen, still standard definition, of course, but we’re bringing it in in an HD format, and recording it on the newsroom server, which is still standard definition, but we’re recording it widescreen.”

The Scripps Television Station Group is aggressively headed toward all-HD ENG, with three of its stations—WXYZ-TV in Detroit, WEWS-TV in Cleveland, and KNXV-TV in Phoenix—doing a substantial amount of the field reporting in HD.

“Full high-def is really contingent on the Nextel BAS replacement, because we don’t have fully installed digital microwave everywhere,” said Michael Dobback, vice president of engineering for Scripps.

“We’ve really kind of sketched out scenarios where we know we’re going to have digital microwave, or we’ve got fiber in the area, or we can use a satellite truck, and all of our stations have one, two or three of those,” Dobback said.

One major piece of gear necessary to migrate SD transmitters and receivers to hi-def is an HD encoder. Scripps found a way around buying new standalone encoders by making a large group purchase of HDV camcorders that offer an output of encoded MPEG. With a relatively inexpensive ASI bridge, the camera’s live, taped or hard-drive stored material can be transmitted to the studio via SD digital microwave radios.

Several more stations are on the cusp of going all-HD ENG, including KYW-TV, a CBS O&O in Philadelphia, and KRNVTV, a Sunbelt station in Reno, Nev. Both stations have total high-definition studios, but are awaiting the Sprint BAS microwave radios to close that last link. KYW’s news cameras and editing are all HD, said station director of engineering and operations, Rich Paleski.

“We shoot in high-def, we edit in high definition. When we send back material via microwave, we send it in SD and upconvert it at the station,” he said.

From there, it is handled as high definition. Where most high-definition encoders use MPEG-2 compression, Paleski said KYW is testing an MPEG-4 encoder. At Reno’s KRNV, director of engineering David Feher said that until the Sprint digital microwave radios arrive, the station leases digital radios from its vendor for high-profile events. Similar to KYW, when standard-definition live shots come into the studio, they are immediately upconverted to HD and handled as such through the rest of the workflow.

Feher expects to be all-HD ENG by the 2008 NAB.