Leap Of Faith

Television broadcasting has not yet reached the point of all HD, all the time. But executives at Trinity Broadcasting Network, home of 24-hour faith-based programs like Praise the Lord, think that time is coming--and have established a new HD production facility in Costa Mesa, CA, to prepare for that eventuality. For TBN, the new facility is a leap into the future, one where the network will add an HD-only channel to its programming lineup.

"Quite honestly, TBN sees HD as an evolution, rather than a revolution," explained TBN Vice President Paul Crouch Jr. "It's akin to what happened in the 1950s, when network television began to move from black-and-white to color. One day there will be nothing on air except for HDTV. By upgrading our Costa Mesa studio now--and ensuring that everything we archive has been shot in 16:9 HD--we're getting ready for that future today.

"Besides, our Costa Mesa facility was definitely in need of an upgrade," Crouch continued. "It dated back to our early analog days and was starting to hamper our ability to stay current. Fortunately, the need to upgrade coincided with the drop in HD equipment costs. We had reached the delta curve crossover where high definition was not much more expensive than SD, so why not take the plunge?"

Before you dismiss it simply as a religious channel, understand that TBN has become a broadcasting empire of global proportions. TBN is available to 92 percent of total U.S. households and attracts 25 million visitors to its Web site monthly. Through television and cable affiliates, as well as satellites, its programming can be seen on every major continent. Plus, the network also owns and operates a number of other channels.

California-based broadcast/AV systems integrator TV Magic was hired by TBN to transform the Costa Mesa facility. TV Magic design engineer Craig Claytor was put in charge, and told to make it happen. With the exception of a few CRT monitors and some legacy audio equipment, all the equipment in the facility is new.

In general, Claytor had a free hand to renovate the Costa Mesa facility. The only real restriction he faced was installing an HD system that would interface with the building's extensive Triax cable network. TBN had initially cabled the Costa Mesa plant so that remotes could be shot anywhere inside the building--including other smaller studios and outside on the grounds. That was a capability the network didn't want to lose or to pay to replace, if at all possible.

"As it turned out, the overall layout of Costa Mesa's technical areas were nicely laid out, so we didn't have to do any major demolition and construction," Claytor told Television Broadcast. "We did have to rebuild the audio room with acoustics appropriate for 5.1 mixing, but that was about it."

In the studio, TBN was building a brand new set for Praise the Lord, which is taped before a live audience. To play up the visual advantages of 16:9, the network created a huge backdrop of the southern California hills, with 3D models of actual Los Angeles office towers in the foreground punctuated by LCD lighting.

"It's an amazing set," said Claytor. "One that works with the widescreen properties of HD extremely well."

To shoot the set, TBN and TV Magic chose Grass Valley LDK4000 cameras. "We held a shootout for camera and switcher manufacturers at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California," recalled Claytor. "Both our company and the client preferred the look of the Thomson Grass Valley LDK HD cameras."

An added plus was the fact that the Grass Valley cameras would work with Triax. "Given the substantial Triax network already installed at Costa Mesa," Claytor noted, "it made sense to choose them."

The Costa Mesa studio is loaded with six LDK4000s, all equipped with Canon HD lenses. Three cameras are on pedestal, one is handheld, a fifth is on a mechanical track, and another is mounted on a jib. "We move the pedestal cameras around as needed to other locations, including the news set, to provide complete coverage as required," said Claytor.

For switching, the Grass Valley Kalypso 2 HD was selected. "Besides being compatible with Triax, the Kalypso 2 is a wonderfully powerful switcher well-suited for live production," Claytor said. "Since this studio is focused on live broadcast, it was an ideal choice, especially because it has an internal still store and four DVE channels built in. As well, the Kalypso 2 interfaced nicely to the new Grass Valley Encore router control system."

For recording, TBN decided to stick with tape, with all content being recorded to Panasonic DVCPRO HD AJ-HD1700 VTRs. "This ensures that all of the archived content--because TBN archives everything they shoot--is up to HD standard, even though they're currently broadcasting in SD," said Claytor.

That's right: Although the Costa Mesa facility is shooting in HD, its programming is currently going out to viewers in SD. Granted, the feed is formatted as letterboxed 16:9, but an HD alternative is not available.

"Right now, 99 percent of TBN's audience is still using NTSC 4:3 television receivers," explained Claytor. "As a result, all of the content produced at Costa Mesa is downconverted using Miranda Technology terminals into NTSC. It's somewhat disconcerting to see this wonderful HD video and surround sound audio going out as SD analog. But once the TBN Tustin facility is fully converted to HD, the viewers will be treated to the best sight and sounds available."

In truth, that date is fast approaching, said Crouch. "We are planning to launch an HD-only channel later this year, using programming shot at Costa Mesa and supplied by other HD faith-based programmers. We will still downconvert Praise the Lord and other shows that are staples of our analog channels, but HD-equipped TBN viewers will soon start to enjoy the resolution and clarity of our HD shows as they were meant to be seen."

To view the LDK4000's HD output accurately, TBN has installed Ikegami CRT monitors. "We choose CRTs over LCDs because the latter still can't provide enough visual information to correctly calibrate the cameras," offered Claytor. "For the best accuracy, you still need CRTs." The control room uses an Evertz MVP monitor wall processor and three Clarity Bay Cat 46-inch LCD displays for monitoring.

For audio, a Solid State Logic C200 audio console was installed. "Although it handles 5.1 surround sound and is fully digital, the C200 has the look and feel of an analog mixer," Claytor said. "The audio mixers really like that feel, with all of the easily-reconfigured functions slaved to tactile knobs and faders."
Meanwhile, the entire facility has been fitted with wireless microphones, which is no easy feat given the plethora of analog and DTV stations in the Los Angeles region. The wireless transmissions are captured using Shure wireless receivers and processed with a Sennheiser eight-channel mixer.

As for graphics? That's something Coast Mesa doesn't need to handle. "Our main facility in Tustin, 10 miles away, produces all of our graphics," Crouch explained. "It then sends them to Costa Mesa via fiber. The production staff then stores the effects on the Kalypso 2 for call-up when required."

As mentioned earlier, Costa Mesa's HD feed will soon hit the airwaves. "Our goal is to supply it first to our 33 owned-and-operated stations, which already have their DTV transmitters on air," Crouch said. "We're also talking to cable and satellite companies about carrying it, and looking ahead to eventually switching our other networks in HD." When this happens, Costa Mesa will serve as the hub for TBN's digital programming distribution.

In the meantime, production staffers at Praise the Lord and other Costa Mesa-originated TBN shows are getting familiar with HD now, ensuring that the network remains at the top of its game in the battle for viewers in an increasingly HD universe. "Quite honestly, we consider HD to be an extension of what we call the 'Great Commission,' spreading the Gospel to the world," said Crouch. "HDTV will help us fulfill our mission better. That's why we're moving to it now."

James Careless covers the television industry. Contact him at jamesc@tjtdesign.com.