HD newsgathering

It’s the last frontier on the HD map
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HD newsgathering. Avoiding the issue? Don't know quite how to plan for this last piece of your otherwise HD broadcasts? Well, neither do the experts.

There is no right answer, no one solution, according to Rex Reed, director of business and product development for E-N-G Mobile Systems. Going digital in the field is about accommodating more than one way, one being HD, another SDI.

HD beyond sport

Two years ago, Neon Broadcast Services had UK-based E2E build an HD truck for its fleet of broadcast and production trucks. While most HD trucks in the field focus on covering sport, Colin Vinton, managing director for Neon, said that this truck was designed for recording music events and other live shows. The 11m-long Mercedes Atego truck accommodates 12 cameras — half the number used for most sport events — and it doesn't expand. These apparent limitations give it the ability to fit into much smaller spaces — a key to covering events at many music and small live venues. This said, the truck hasn't seen as much HD action as Vinton would like.

What's holding broadcasters back? Updating camera channels and videotapes. While his company provides kits, equipment and crew for broadcast and other live production, it also rents cameras, which aren't always available in HD.

Then there is general hesitation. Everyone knows the next step is HD, but many are not quite ready, Reed said. They say, “I want this truck to be exactly like my older trucks, but make it HD-ready.” This seemingly benign statement is a frequent request to a truck builder. Defining and fulfilling that request is a complex challenge. How can you keep it the same, yet make it totally different?

The old needs

The physical aspects of trucks have changed little. According to Reed, there have been some innovations by truck manufacturers in the past 30 years, but the truck package itself hasn't changed much. Systems within the trucks, on the other hand, are changing significantly and rapidly.

It's not that people are trying to avoid new technology, but they don't want to let go of the human interface because it's an environment they're used to. And this is for more than nostalgic purposes. It's for the sake of the operators, Reed said. The operators in the field may likely be photo-journalists rather than engineers.

“If it seems to you that technical complexity of the truck and operator skill sets have gone in exactly opposite directions, your observation is correct,” Reed said. “Not only that, there are fewer people within the news organizations to maintain the equipment. More than ever, the pressure is on the truck builder to be the expert, to advise and direct the truck user to make prudent decisions that will survive the ever-moving target.” According to Reed, the term “HD-ready” has an elusive meaning, with many definitions and solutions.

Until recently, there were proven paths to designing and installing the system. The families of equipment were well known, and most trucks were equipped with similar fundamental elements. Now, those equipment families are falling apart, and old standard pieces are disappearing due to lower production demands.

Infrastructure labor

From a cost perspective, putting together the infrastructure of an HD truck doesn't cost much more than for SD, according to Tim Dye, senior proposals engineer at Megahertz Broadcast Systems in the UK. Monitoring is a bit more expensive, but even that is coming down in price. The cost is mostly for the manpower in a labor-intensive process, be it for an HD truck or an SD one.

The cost of HD is in the encoder, which can be triple the price of an SD encoder. Upgrade that to an MPEG-4 encoder, and the price is even higher. So, for many, HD-ready means HD for everything but the encoder. That's the case for Arab Radio Television (ART), which just received three SD uplink vehicles from Megahertz. The infrastructure — the routing, monitoring and fiber links — is mostly in HD, but the encoders will be upgraded when ART begins delivering HD. For those not ready to send a live signal back in HD, Dye highly recommends still recording everything on HD VTRs.

The multiple needs

In today's broadcast environment, simplicity has given way to the need to accommodate multiple formats, as well as ways to move between those formats. All this must be incorporated into the design, Reed said. The first transition was SDI capability, and then the addition of A/D and D/A converters and some changes in monitoring and switching equipment. A more recent transition is the move to make HD the final output of the truck, but not at the expense of the heritage infrastructure. The result is systems that must manage many more forms of signals than in the past.

If this wasn't enough to shred any hopes of maintaining a user interface that was as simple as the old trucks in the fleet, there's still more that needs to be added to the mix. Field acquisition cameras are in a slow transition, due mostly to their expense. As the cameras change, so do the needs in the truck. For example, mast-mounted cameras were not initially available in 16:9 format, even though the rest of the equipment in the truck was available in the format. Mast cameras, once an inexpensive novelty feature on trucks, have become nearly as sophisticated and expensive as the handheld camera.

Audio and video

Local newsgathering is often not even in stereo, Dye said. This makes the jump to 5.1 feel even bigger. The industry tends to forget sound, he said. Also surround could mean a lot of extra work for the sound crew. Audio in trucks has remained analog, primarily to accommodate ease of microphone mixing, even though video is mostly digital.

Whether or not to embed is a frequent question, Reed said. The audio delay problem is another issue that must be dealt with when building current systems. As the video is processed and the audio is not, there is a departure in the timing between image and sound. How much delay is acceptable and what to do about it is now part of the system engineering discussion.

To be tried and true

The fast pace of change feels unnatural to the OB truck world. In the past, the equipment could endure the life of the truck and live again in a new truck. This has changed. Now, some equipment is short-term, to be replaced in a few months or years when the station purchases new cameras or begins full HD news broadcasts.

HD equipment is expensive, and it is not as easy to determine what equipment has the architecture and stamina to withstand the tides of change. Also, product design changes more rapidly than in the past.

“Make it SDI today, but upgradable to HD for tomorrow” is a common request, Reed said, but to what extent is the system HD? How much are you willing to invest now in order to ease the eventual transition? The truck business is very competitive, and even a slight difference in interpretation of this request can change the overall cost of the vehicle.

You many not need to broadcast in HD yet, but that is where the industry is headed. Keep these issues in mind when you need to upgrade your OB fleet.

Spring Suptic is an associate editor for Broadcast Engineering.