KUSA Flying High with HD News Upgrade

Gannett's Denver NBC affiliate is Sony beta site for digital rollout
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Gannett's Denver NBC affiliate is Sony beta site for digital rollout

DENVER

A rebuilt studio set for HDTV newscasts. Seven new HDTV studio cameras; a prototype HDTV mini-cam on a robotic boom jib; a new HDTV digital switcher and router; an innovative custom-built HDTV helicopter-what else could any local station desire?

With new digital equipment installed, KUSA-TV in Denver was ready for its April 29 launch of HDTV local newscasts. Not only was the NBC affiliate the first Gannett-owned station in America to begin HDTV news broadcasting, but 9News was the first local operation to go live with Sony HDTV equipment.

"We were facing a 'chicken-and-egg' scenario two years ago," said KUSA President and General Manager Roger Ogden, who is also a senior vice president of Gannett with five stations reporting to him. "We saw that there was not enough digital content being produced because there were not enough digital receivers being sold, because there was not enough content being produced. We decided to break the logjam."

Ogden said he could see the situation was on the verge of changing in late 2002.

"The price-point for digital receivers was starting to come down at the same time the networks were being pushed by affiliates to offer more HDTV programming that would draw audiences beyond the early adopters, like the sports fans," he said.

So, the Denver broadcast veteran successfully pitched to Gannett the idea of making Denver an HDTV beta test site for the national chain.

"We do this with a lot of endeavors," he noted. "The idea is to get one to three stations to try something new in their markets, and then see what happens."

Denver was ideal for the project, Ogden told Gannett, because the metro area's demographics skew affluent; according to the Consumer Electronic Association more than of 12,000 local homes already had HDTV receivers. With advertising commitments from Comcast digital cable and a local consumer electronics retailer, SoundTrack, Gannett approved the effort.

EXACTING STANDARDS

In early 2003, KUSA approached Sony Electronics about a test site for its HD equipment becoming.

"We already had a long and satisfying relationship with Sony," said Don Perez, KUSA director of technology and operations. "It made sense to take the model we'd already developed with Sony for SD broadcasting and apply it to HD."

During summer meetings in Denver and Sony's offices in Park Ridge, N.J., they addressed the technical challenges facing 9News.

"Don Perez has some pretty exacting standards," said Robert Willox, general manager of content creation for Sony's broadcast and production systems division.

"He purchased very appropriate HD gear, but not necessarily the 'best of breed' or the most esoteric. He wanted a balance between functionality and cost-effectiveness that still delivers great image quality at the end of the day."

Heading the equipment list were seven Sony HDC-930 HDVS portable studio cameras that capture 1080i HDTV images on a 2/3-inch 2.2 million "square" pixel CCD. The cameras also can capture SDTV images in 480i in 16:9 aspect ratio or 576i in 4:3 mode. The HDC-930 cameras feature 12-bit A/D conversion and an advanced digital signal processor (ADSP). Picture quality is further improved by a signal-to-noise ratio of 54 dB. Mounted on these cameras are Canon 17.7X7 HD lenses.

The studio cameras sit on Vinten robotic tripod pedestals, said Perez, yet the newscast operation also needed a smaller camera to mount on a Vinten jib arm that could run on auto-pilot from pre-selected menus. Sony stepped up by offering exclusively to 9News the first prototype of the new HDC-X300 compact high-definition camera, which just debuted at NAB2004.

With a body about the same size as the lens, the HDC-X300 is the first Sony HD camera to contain three half-inch 1.5-megapixel CCDs. Designed partly for studio automation, the camera's other applications include point-of-view (POV) acquisition in the field, large-screen projection, and 24p cinematography. Shipping in July, the camera will sell for less than $20,000.

"The resolution of the X300 is a bit less than the 930 camera," Perez said, "but it's worth it to get a good camera that weighs only two pounds onto the end of a jib. With a wide-angle Canon lens, we can cover the entire news set."

STUDIO A

The cameras were installed in Studio A, a 5,000-square-foot space the same size as Studio B, which had been used for morning, afternoon, evening and late-night newscasts while Studio A was being rebuilt for HDTV. About 18,000 square feet of space is devoted to production within the relatively new 108,000-square-foot KUSA building designed by Rees Associates that sits on Speer Boulevard within a half-mile of KMGH (ABC), KCNC-TV (CBS) and KRMA (PBS).

Studio A now features a raised platform with a wider desk able to handle widescreen shots of the two news anchors, along with the weather and sports reporters. Off to one side is a new Sony LMD170WS 17-inch, multi-format, 16:9 LCD monitor.

Within the control room for Studio A, Sony upgraded the MVS8000 multiformat switcher processor, purchased two years ago in preparation for the move to HD. Running in SD mode since acquisition, the switcher is now configured to handle both standard- and high-definition digital video.

Mounted into the walls of the reconfigured control room are rows of Sony LMD230WS 23-inch multiformat, widescreen LCD monitors, as well as an array of Sony PVM9L3 8-inch HR Trinitron CRT monitors with 450-line resolution. These screens are used to track all the video coming from studio cameras, ENG crews, the Avid edit suites, the 9News helicopter, the national NBC feeds and the broadcast antenna signals from atop Lookout Mountain west of Denver.

At the heart of KUSA's internal digital network is a new ultracompact Sony HDSX5800 22RU multi bit-rate router. With up to 264 inputs and 272 outputs, the router can handle almost every SD or HD format within ATSC, operating at speeds from 143 Mbps up to 1.5 Gbps. The router is designed to complement the Sony MVS/ DVS series production switchers.

While both Ogden and Perez seem excited about the new HDTV news set, a special lilt comes into their voices when they talk about the innovative HDTV helicopter developed for KUSA by MRC and Helinet, which was exhibited at NAB. Joining the design team were members from Sony, Tiernan, NEL, Tandberg Television, Pinnacle and Ikegami. The team met in Denver through most of last summer.

HD CHOPPER

Ogden gave special credit to Helinet President Alan Purwin for developing a way to mount an HDTV camera on conductive gimbals that directly feed the video signal to the transmitter onboard the Eurocopter AStar 350 aircraft.

"Inventing a way to reliably transmit HD to a station up to 60 miles away from a helicopter flying at 100 mph was a truly pioneering effort," said Perez.

The solution developed by MRC and the multivendor team involved an 8-30 MHz microwave beam at 12 Mbps in bandwidth allocated by the FCC.

With all these elements in place, Ogden said, the last hurdle before the April 29 launch was convincing the news talent that with the new Sony HD cameras and the new Kino Flo lighting system, "they actually look much better than they expected."

"KUSA already had a very good on-air look in SD," Wilcox said. "The station did not want to scrimp or compromise when they converted to HD. Now I believe the video quality at the station can compete with anyone in America."