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KMBC-TV launches HD local news from new broadcast center

HD local news came to HD Technology Update’s hometown last month when KMBC-TV, the Hearst-Argyle ABC affiliate became the first station in the Kansas City market to offer viewers its newscasts in high definition.

The roll out of HD local news roughly coincided with the launch of a new broadcast facility. HD Technology Update spoke with KMBC director of engineering Jerry Agresti about how he approached putting HD local news on the air.

HD Technology Update: Within the past month, KMBC made the transition to HD with its local newscasts. I believe you are working from a new facility as well. What were the primary engineering considerations that went into the design of your new facility with the knowledge that HD newscasts were coming?

Jerry Agresti: The biggest concerns were to future-proof the technology as much as possible and to stay within budget.

HD Technology Update: What are your plans for live ENG shots in regards to HD contribution?

Jerry Agresti: Presently we are shooting 16:9 SD in the field. Hearst-Argyle as a company is looking for the correct solution in an HD ENG camera. In addition, the implementation of digital ENG brought about by the Sprint Nextel BAS relocation will also affect when we are able to actually shoot and bring back true high-def from the field.

HD Technology Update: The other component in that equation is HD encoding and decoding. What are your thoughts about that aspect, particularly the cost?

Jerry Agresti: Once digital, the up charge for the encoders and receivers is in the neighborhood of $60,000 per transmit receive pair. As with most technology, every year the price goes down.

We’ve received positive responses from our viewers seeing the 16:9 upconverted SD. Although there is definitely a difference between studio and field resolution, I think viewers are pleased to have their screens filled up.

Since it is hard to eat the whole apple at market size 31, I think the transition as we are doing it is the right way to go. It’s a little more on the conservative side, but we feel we are taking the appropriate steps as we phase into local HD broadcasting.

HD Technology Update: Do your reporters, producers and editors produce their stories in a file-based workflow?

Jerry Agresti: Yes, they do.

HD Technology Update: Can you describe how HD has affected that workflow, for example working with lower res proxies?

Jerry Agresti: We use Avid NewsCutters and edit full res. One of our biggest issues is aspect ratio; it gets a lot of attention. Maintaining the correct aspect ratio was a challenge from the first day and remains a challenge today. As I said, we shoot locally in 16:9. Anything that comes to us from another station if it’s taken direct to air needs to go through an upconverter and the side panels are added before it goes to the switcher.

Anything that is recorded that is edited gets fixed in post. It comes out of the editors with the side panels on it.

So the aspect ratio is fixed, or should be fixed, before it hits air. If it’s live breaking got to get on the air now, we’ll take it to air anyway we can get it. But as a normal operating procedure, it gets fixed to go live, or if it’s recorded for later playback, it’s fixed in post or in the editors.

HD Technology Update: At the same time you’ve launched an HD local newscast you are also distributing video content to new platforms like the Web. How has that impacted your workflow serving the multiple distribution platforms?

Jerry Agresti: We use I.B. (Internet Broadcasting) for our Web provider. They’ve requested 16:9 images. Currently, we hand them a downconverted 16:9 image.

HD Technology Update: What surprises, if any, did you run in to along the way in your launch of HD news on a local level?

Jerry Agresti: The biggest surprise that I had was the amount of conversion gear required. The number is huge. I don’t want to sound like we went into it with our eyes closed, but the count of conversion devices is amazing.

HD Technology Update: Can you quantify that a little bit?

Jerry Agresti: Most every source needs to be tweaked. For example, our analog satellite receivers have to be digitized and have the audio embedded before they are sent to the router. With embedded audio whenever we route these sources to our audio console, we have to de-embed the audio, which has the potential for timing errors.

So the minutia that comes into play when you are trying to serve all the formats and the aspect ratio, whether to add side panels or not, makes the production of news harder.

The other issue of which we were aware but was still a “gotcha” was that none of these formats play well with monitors. Any output of the production switcher fed to monitors in the studio either has to get downconverted to SDI or analog, or it has to pass through an interface device just to enable it to be displayed. As an example, the monitors we use on the set are 42in and 50in plasmas. If you don’t purchase a higher end plasma TV - a commercial grade TV - then you’re stuck with buying an outboard device that has to convert either HD or SD to analog RGB. You’re looking at adding another $800 to $1000 to the cost of the monitor.

The monitors that we are using as our prime display set pieces have optional interface cards. Again, it’s $600 or $700 up charge, but they will actually take native HD or SD and do the conversion inside the monitor rather than having an outboard box with its power cord and associated cables that usually need to be hidden.

HD Technology Update: Could you discuss the challenge of maintaining lip sync?

Jerry Agresti: That’s one advantage of doing embedded audio because in most cases, the audio stays perfectly synced with the video. When you do break it out to go to an audio console, such as the Wheatstone D10 mixer we have, there is a per source delay adjustment. So, any lip-sync issues should be corrected in the audio console, which works very well.

For the air chain, we are no different than any station when converting digital to analog for transmission. Most of the conversion gear does have audio adjustment. Lip sync is something we are very cognizant of and constantly monitor to ensure that it isn’t maladjusted.

HD Technology Update: Is there any place for surround sound in news.

Jerry Agresti: That’s pretty difficult both to quantify and produce. Most all news audio content is either talking heads or theme music. I don’t think that during a high-pressure newscast, it’s possible to produce professional quality surround. Furthermore, I don’t know that it has an application in a newscast because what are you going to surround?

HD Technology Update: Do you take your stereo and then synthesize surround?

Jerry Agresti: Yes, we do. We just started doing that for a number of reasons. It made the choice of “Are we stereo? Are we 5.1? Are we high-def 5.1? Are we high-def stereo?” much easier. The boxes that are out there right now, unlike the old stereo synthesizers, are much more accurate. Also, the added benefit is the box that we use is also a compressor/limiter.

HD Technology Update: What have you done in terms of makeup for talent or lighting in the studio to accommodate the higher resolution of HD?

Jerry Agresti: Our talent came in by appointment and spent about an hour and a half with a makeup artist in front of the cameras. At that time, we set the cameras. We have the newest Sony cameras and in concert with “best practices” added in skin detail circuitry to soften the face.

The impact to our viewer was backwards from what one would have thought. Our viewers wanted to know why the talents’ faces were so out of focus and why we couldn’t focus our cameras. The eyes, hair and clothing were rock solid, but the faces were too soft.

We now run the cameras with no skin detail softening at all. So we are taking a high-def camera and running it at full resolution with no detail loss on the face and our talent looks great. Makeup and lighting makes the difference. And our viewers want to see people the way they truly are. That was a revelation.

HD Technology Update: That must have put pressure on the makeup and lighting designers.

Jerry Agresti: This is key. We used a lighting director from Boston who’s been used by some of the other stations in our group. Our sets are lit to 85 foot-candles and the cameras are running at a -3 gain at f3.0. They look fantastic. I would have never thought we were going to get away with that little bit of light, but we do and our talent loves it.

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