HD Syndication Debuts With Hi-Def 'Wheel,' 'Jeopardy'

(click thumbnail)LOS ANGELES

Sony Pictures Television spent about $4 million to upgrade "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune" for this month's 1080i high-definition debut. But the complexities of involving multiple players and high-def syndication created unique hurdles.

"The biggest challenge may be the whole distribution side, which we're not so involved in, as is CBS and King World," said Phil Squyres, senior vice president of technical operations for Sony Pictures Television, who oversaw the studio upgrade. "A syndicated show like this [is] not just distributed out to one network's owned and operated or affiliated stations--they have some technical challenges."

At press time, more than 50 of the 207 client stations showed interest in taking the shows in HD, said Bob Seidel, vice president of engineering and advanced technology for CBS.


Initially, the HD version will be distributed via real-time linear satellite transmission using the 1920x1080i/59.94 format at a data rate of 45 Mbps, according to Seidel. (CBS/King World expects to eventually transition from satellite transmission to Pathfire's store and forward system, which is used to distribute the SD version of the shows.)

Stations will need "to install traditional high-definition tape machines or HD servers for play out," Seidel said, and use an HD-capable satellite receiver.

"The high-definition signal contains both EIA 608 and EIA 708 captions, audio metadata, and broadcast flag on Line 9 of the VANC data space," Seidel said. "The Harris Net Plus 300 HD satellite receiver is capable of carrying VANC data signals [and] has a built-in cross converter."

However, due to incompatibility about how stations implement 5.1 audio, Sony Pictures decided to forgo surround sound for the time being.

"Unfortunately, right now every network handles surround sound in a different way--we negated it early on," Squyres said. The shows' HD debut will broadcast in stereo.

Squyres, with head technician Charlie Gertner and Sony's technical advisers "spec'd the entire facility" to upgrade production for both shows, which have adjoining stages and share a control room and equipment.

About two years ago, they bought Sony HDW-950s with Canon Super25HD lenses, but used them in SD mode. Last October, they hooked up the cameras to Sony HDW-M2000/20 recorders for HD review.

"We quickly realized there weren't really going to be a lot of necessary changes," Squyres said.

The lighting stayed the same and color was taken care of in the cameras and in post production.

"Color is slightly different, but it very well documented, and the equipment that is used to convert back and forth--it's a straight-forward process."


The new 16:9 aspect ratio was another matter.

"It basically amounted to making alterations in the set," Squyres said. "The director chose to spread the 'Jeopardy' contestants a bit further away from each other so that he could get clean singles--when the frame's wider, it has a tendency to catch a bit of the person next to the [single]."

Relocating contestants on "Wheel" would have required making a larger Wheel, so the idea was dropped. But the once distinctly separate audience and stage areas are now melded, as requested by the art director.

"The end of the stage now joins with the audience area--it's more of a 360 degree face," Squyres said.

His crew deftly converted its Sony DVS9000 SD switcher into an HD compatible MVS8000.

"The panel stayed the same, but the electronics package behind it got swapped out," Squyres said. But things weren't as easy in upgrading the shows' special effects or graphics.

"We literally had to do a wholesale change out of all of our graphics elements--the main titles, transitional material," Squyres said.

The game shows also rely heavily on transitional video effects and other image manipulation, which requires a 12-channel switcher.

"Up until our order, Sony was only delivering four channels built into the switcher," Squyres said. "At our request, they built an extra eight," the Sony MVE-9000.

Over the last few years, the show's post-production unit had also gotten used to the efficiencies of the tapeless, optical disc-based format that its Sony XDCAM offered. Unfortunately, when the HD upgrade began, there was no HD version of XDCAM.

"We went back to a tape-based format for recording--XDCAM-HD decks," the PDW-F70s, "at least for the primary production recording," Squyres said. Instead of locating material quickly, "you actually have to rewind the tape to the exact part that you need."

Sony later introduced an HD version of XDCAM, which the studio uses for interstitial playback of short pieces. But the decks are still used for the main record.

"We were not able to use [the HD XDCAM] for the actual main record for a number of reasons," Squyres said.


One reason was the integration of legacy material--like video clues for "Jeopardy "and vendor videos of prizes for "Wheel" contestants--which can arrive in digiBeta, Beta SP or any number of other 4:3 formats.

"About half of the HDWM2000 decks that we purchased are multi-format machines," Squyres said. "They will actually accept a digiBeta tape or a Beta SP tape and automatically upconvert as it plays back."

Evertz provided HD timecode, distribution, conversion, fiber interconnect and multiviewers. Editing is on an Avid Symphony Nitris, plus Adrenaline hardware with Unity storage; graphics are handled by Chyron's Hyper X graphics system with Lyric Pro Software and Clip Player; audio mixing is done on a Yamaha 48-channel M7CL digital mixing console; two Leitch upconverters, one for the stage and one for the edit bay convert footage, and monitoring is done on Sony 24-inch HD CRT evaluation monitors for critical viewing, plus 17- and 24-inch LCD HD monitors for source and continuity monitoring.