HD news offers clear benefits: higher ratings and more revenue

Broadcast Engineering and Broadcasting & Cable magazines co-produced the News Technology Summit in Atlanta last month where about 150 leaders in television met for 36 hours to discuss how the latest technologies are impacting the gathering, production and distribution of television news.

While everything from alternate distribution avenues, like the Web and cell phones, to the 2GHz Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) relocation was discussed, production of local newscasts in high definition seemed to be on everyone’s mind.

HD Technology Update spoke with Ed Casaccia, Thomson product development manager, Grass Valley server, storage and digital news production, who participated in the summit about HD newsgathering and production.

HD Technology Update: What are the benefits, disadvantages and costs associated with rolling out an HD newscast at a local station, station group and/or network?

Ed Casaccia: The benefits are clear. Competitive news content is one of the most significant drivers in both ratings and advertising revenue for broadcasters. The appearance of news content in HD compared to standard definition is markedly better, offering viewers more detail and a sense of immediacy to what's being covered. Some news outlets have reported that their newscasts have consistently ranked No. 1 in their respective markets since they began HD newscasts.

Producing HD news — and automating and speeding those workflows — requires specific equipment, including camcorders and media recorders, cameras, fast craft nonlinear editing systems, servers and storage systems, as well as integrated control and production systems — all of which Grass Valley offers in SD and HD versions. Costs can range from $250,000 to several million dollars, depending upon the station size and system complexity.

HDTU: HD news at local stations seems to be rolling out in definite stages. With the studio, including cameras, lenses and new news sets, at the top of the list and ENG vans at the bottom. What steps are you observing as common among stations adopting HD news, and what are the unique challenges at each stage?

EC: Stations first must convert their infrastructure to SDI digital, which helps facilitate the handling of news content as digital files. This would include installing production equipment capable of handling HD signals, such as a video production switcher, routing switcher, and HD modular gear.

NLE systems, open storage area networks and software to locate and retrieve clips would be the next step a station takes to move into the HD news realm.

HDTU: To your knowledge, have stations begun acquiring HD news footage in their local markets for likely-to-be-needed file footage for future HD newscasts?

EC: We see several stations that have purchased HD cameras for studio use, but are not broadcasting HD at the moment. They say that HD gives programs a shelf life that they wouldn’t have otherwise in SD. Once a station goes to full HD operation, most SD programming will have to be upconverted in order to see the light of day. We’ve also heard that downcoverted HD images make the SD channel look better.

HDTU: Please discuss the need to and challenge of supporting a file-based workflow in HD acquisition, news production and playout.

EC: Well, certainly, most everyone is moving to a file-based infrastructure because it saves stations time, money and resources in the news creation process. The challenge is installing equipment that works well together in a seamless way to streamline the workflow.

HDTU: What role do you see for less expensive formats, such as HDV and AVCHD?

EC: AVCHD is targeted at the consumer, so we don’t see much use in the professional world until a broadcast-grade camera is developed. HDV, on the other hand, is allowing many small-market stations and independent producers to begin shooting HD programs to fill their digital channels.

However, technical issues aside, for competitive reasons we feel that a program acquired with a 1/3in chip will look terrible next to a program shot with a 2/3in DPM chip. The difference in on-air signal quality will be so significant that it may cause some viewers to stop watching the station using HDV. At the end of the day, it’s about ratings. We feel HDV has some applications for local news, perhaps as alternative to B-roll footage to insert into a larger program.

HDTU: Will 12MHz-wide digital channels be sufficient for transmitting HD from the field to the station as is being implemented under the BAS relocation plan.

EC: This depends largely on where a station is located. Unhindered line of sight to the transmitter will be critical to sending and receiving a reliable signal. A 12MHz channel will carry highly compressed HD material, so quality may suffer in the short term, especially while MPEG-2 continues to proliferate. Once MPEG-4 and JPEG2000 gain a strong hold, however, 12MHz might be sufficient to carry a fairly large file-sized HD signal. We think a lot more testing needs to be done to find out for sure. Also, using Wi-Fi and other mobile video protocols might also provide some solutions for ENG applications.

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