HD newsrooms

Production of news in HD and the upgrading of newsrooms have been somewhat late arrivals to the DTV transition. Recent industry counts report that less than 10 percent of the more than 1500 terrestrial broadcasters are producing their news in HD.

Even so, in order to remain competitive, broadcasters have no choice but to produce their daily news programs in HD. This is especially true for local broadcasters, because news operations generally are where they make their money. When one station in a market goes HD, the others must follow.

Two paths

Once a commitment to an HD newsroom has been made, there are two possible migration paths. The first is an upgrade of an existing facility; the other is a green-field design and installation. Each has its pros and cons. The choice depends on how much (if any) of the existing infrastructure is HD-ready.

Upgrades require staying on the air and necessitate scheduling equipment installation and commissioning around production and broadcast schedules. Because newsrooms never sleep, this is not an easy task. However, if the facility has converted to digital and installed HD-capable distribution equipment, ingest and playout servers, some of the existing infrastructure can be used.

A green-field design offers the advantage of being free from the constraints of daily production, and equipment can be installed and commissioned uninterrupted. However, new equipment must be procured, and therefore, the undertaking will cost more than an upgrade of an existing facility.

A serious challenge in any upgrade may be getting all the diverse equipment to work and communicate as a system. The equipment is still evolving, and manufacturers frequently offer new features. These factors make it difficult for a station to make the proper decisions without outside expertise.

Beyond this point lies the great unknown. The devil is most certainly in the details of an HD infrastructure. This is where the use of a knowledgeable systems design and integration company may prove invaluable. Many unforeseen problems can be avoided or resolved before they wreak havoc on a system. In a complex undertaking, there is no substitute for experience.

Consider the source

News operations face a particularly difficult aesthetic challenge compared with syndicated content or even local studio programs. Especially true for HD is the fact that program quality depends on the source. Set design, lighting and makeup must stand up to the new HDTV displays. Fortunately, most stations are meeting the challenge, and talent can actually look better in HD, provided that makeup is properly applied. HD-friendly sets are available from theatrical design and lighting integrators and others who specialize in news set design.

A major challenge with HD news production is that source content may arrive in a plethora of audio and video formats, all of which must be properly format converted, transcoded or transrated for production and distribution. Video can come in 1080i, 720p, 480i, NTSC, IMX, P2, HDCAM, HDV and many other formats. Audio can be analog, digital, mono, stereo or 5.1. For the time being, broadcasters will have to handle both 4:3 and 16:9 imagery. This requires a thoughtful solution.

Finally, broadcasters are finding that user-generated content (UGC) is an increasingly important part of the newscasts. Even an HD production system needs to be able to ingest, edit and playback low-quality imagery from a variety of handsets and service providers.

Historical footage

One problem that will never go away for newsrooms is the need to use historical footage. This creates several issues. The footage may reside on multiple tape formats, from quad to 1/2in or M to VHS.

This poses a serious challenge when converting to HD news production. Money spent on equipment needed to convert legacy material for HD broadcasts may be more expensive than the depreciated value of the device. The decisions made here will affect what formats can be ingested in the future.

It may be significantly more cost-effective to digitize and ingest content that has a high probability of use prior to its being needed for a segment and then decommission the equipment. Or, equipment could be kept on-hand and operational for ad hoc conversion as needed for a breaking story. Whether you can find a quad-knowledgeable maintenance engineer is an entirely different question. In any case, an experienced systems design firm has probably faced these issues before and can discuss the merits of each approach based on your production workflows.

Visual aesthetics

How HD content will be presented in SD requires some thought. The simplest approach is to use a 4:3 center cut for SD broadcast. Another approach is to downconvert and letterbox a 16:9 image in a 4:3 SD display. This alleviates the need to consider framing a shot for both aspect ratios. Some broadcasters try to leverage the best of both worlds by creative integration of graphics and windowing that is visually appealing in both 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios.

Graphics packages may now need to support two aspect ratios. Although existing graphics that were produced for SD may initially be used for HD broadcasts, at some point, new graphics need to be produced in HD.

Sound decisions

Audio requires special consideration. Even if a production has "gone digital," it is still probably only producing stereo audio for SD resolution video. Dolby Digital encoding will be needed for program release. A decision must be made as to how audio should be formatted and distributed during production. Discrete and embedded audio require different distribution and processing techniques.

Because viewers now have high-quality audio systems in their homes, consistent audio presentation is imperative across live studio and remote segments, preproduced clips and commercials. Changes in level and quality from segment to segment that were not previously noticeable are now glaringly obvious and annoying.

Differences in source volume levels can be a large problem in HD audio presentation. Appropriate Dolby metadata must be generated and included in the audio bit stream. This will require an upgrade in audio equipment and the added attention of audio production personnel. Monitoring becomes critical. (See the December 2007 Broadcast Engineering article "Dialnorm: A good idea gone bad?" for further background on the use of dialnorm in broadcast environments.)

IT matters

Because many newsrooms have already migrated to a tapeless, file-based production workflow, one important consideration when converting the newsroom to HD is the increased requirement for network bandwidth and storage capacity. Regardless of the house compression format, HD data rates are considerably higher than SD. Expect to double or triple storage capacity and the network backbone bandwidth. The challenge is to develop a production workflow and infrastructure that maximizes quality and minimizes HD content data rates while staying within budget constraints.

Large HD files require greater bandwidth than SD files when sent over IT networks. A network that works fine during normal production may fail under the strain of a breaking news story, when double or triple the number of newsroom personnel are trying to access the content. This is when a failure or glitch will have the largest effect on production. Production delays could allow a rival to break the story first.

It's necessary to upgrade video servers to HD capability and significantly increase disk storage. Network bandwidth should be for HD file-based production. Deciding on a network and storage topology is also important. A key decision is whether to store content in a federated storage area network (SAN) with local proxy editing or employ local editing of full-resolution video as the preferred workflow.

Maybe the answer is both. An experienced systems design and integration firm can present viable system implementation options based on its experience. It can work with your in-house IT department to ensure the broadcast and production networks are properly integrated with the business and corporate network and applications. At this time of transition, knowledge of the particular needs of broadcast IT can be transferred to nonbroadcast technologists.

Take heed

Physical considerations cannot be overlooked. New HD systems are more compact but are power hungry. This may strain the existing power and cooling infrastructure. It is also important to avoid placing racks and consoles against walls and in tight confines. Not only will they rapidly overheat, but access to the equipment will be difficult.

Signal distribution of HD-SDI at 1.5Gb/s requires significantly more care than SDI at 270Mb/s. Cable types and lengths become critical. Fiber will be needed for long connection paths. Observing bend radius specifications and proper splicing and termination is imperative. A lot of time can be lost tracking down marginally performing equipment only to find that the cabling is faulty. Compromised digital signal systems — HD in particular — have the disturbing characteristic of looking great right up until the point that they crash because of errors induced by poor cabling.

Many older pieces of equipment will not pass embedded Dolby or vertical interval time code (VITC) and other forms of ancillary data. This will affect the need to support both 608 and 709 closed captions. A broadcast facility will require an appropriate conversion system to support the HD workflow and the purchase of conversion equipment.

Monitoring systems must support Dolby and non-Dolby audio, as well as SD and HD video. Dolby E and AC-3 will have to be decoded at the test stations. This means purchasing upgrades or new systems and possibly additional interface devices.

The HD value proposition

Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for an HD newsroom upgrade. Each station has particular needs and workflows that must be carefully analyzed. Every station has budget limitations. Partnering with an experienced design and integration company enables the broadcaster to focus on the HD newsroom workflow. Converting to HD news production will probably be more expensive than the optimistic figures generally put forth. Consider whether these numbers based on the current cost of SD versus HD equipment, or on the prices of SD equipment from years ago and now adjusted for inflation.

Your staff will have to learn how to use the new equipment and the nuances of producing in HD. Be sure to allow for adequate training and rehearsal time. HD workflows may be different, and the production staff will need to adjust its practices.

An infrastructure must perform flawlessly. For this reason alone, the use of an outside partner in the design and implementation process should be carefully considered.

Phil Cianci is a design engineer for Communications Engineering Inc. in Newington, VA.