More Campaign Coverage in Hi-Def

Will John McCain manage to unite Republicans before their convention, and will this riveting political reality TV series soon be viewable in hi-def?
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BUFFALO, NY
After dozens of debates, months of primaries and hundreds of campaign stops covered by the electronic media, will Democrats select a nominee before their August convention? Will John McCain manage to unite Republicans before their convention, and will this riveting political reality TV series soon be viewable in hi-def?

If so, it will be the first U.S. presidential race covered extensively in HD, by U.S. networks, (although Japan broadcaster NHK has covered the U.S. political conventions in HD for Asian audiences).

BUILT FOR SPEED

Although it might seem that covering the 2008 presidential race in HD would be the norm, to date, CNN has been the most active participant. With the launch of “Election Express,” CNN became the first U.S. TV news bureau to field an HD news truck, with the ability to accommodate four simultaneous HD or 10 SD feeds from outside or inside the bus, (they’re fed to Atlanta via a 1.8-meter satellite dish where they’re distributed in SD and HD. The SD is available to the Atlanta and Washington control rooms and the HD versions are fed to the New York bureau via an OC 192 fiber line).

“I used politics as a wedge to push for aggressive implementation of HD on the Election Express for the campaign, and beyond,” said David Bohrman, CNN’s Washington Bureau chief and senior vice president. “It’s designed around the premise of deploying multiple HD and other data paths simultaneously, while on the road. Everything is optimized for HD. It even has CNN’s best HD edit suite.”

Bohrman said that CNN’s Election Express is quite different than other HD production trucks because it uses smaller HD cameras, notably Sony PDW EX1 1/2-inch CCD camcorders.

“We started out with Canon XL H1s, but their tape-based recording didn’t mesh well with our tapeless workflow,” he said. “With the EX1s, we can insert their data cards into a Mac and begin editing in Final Cut Pro. Everything on the bus is built for speed.”

The Election Express’s first big HD test was a CNN-sponsored Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas Nov. 15, the first to air live in HD.

“We used Streambox HD and UNLV’s [T1] Internet pipeline for our redundant HD feed. For two straight days it was rock solid and looked great,” Bohrman said.

He added that the large debates do require more cameras, cable and other hardware than carried aboard Election Express, which functions as a remote studio/bureau. Bohrman said that he had to cancel its appearance at NAB to serve as the CNN bureau for coverage of the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, April 22.

CBS’ HD NEWS CONTROL ROOM


(click thumbnail)CBS expects to launch an HD version of “The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric,” after its new HD control room goes online in June.By contrast, most campaign coverage to date by the broadcast networks has not been in HD. However, CBS is busy gearing up to change that soon, starting with a new HD News control room.

“The [political] conventions will be our first big event in HD and our new [HD] control room should be online by early June, then we’ll start doing some news in HD,” said Frank Governale, vice president of operations for CBS News. “Editing will be a challenge because of all the SD [4:3] source footage intercut with HD. Our Avids [Adrenaline Newscutters] output only one channel at a time, either HD or SD. For the HD newscast, all the SD footage will be upconverted and standards converted on the timeline. Our router outputs will all have upconvertors so that we can output everything in HD. The existing infrastructure for SD is huge, so we’ll start upgrading where and when it makes sense, but it’s going to take time for a complete HD roll out.”

Camera readiness has also impeded HD coverage of the campaign to date, Governale said. “We’ve ordered Sony PDW 700s [and] we’ll roll them out on the campaign trail once we get our guys trained on them, and use them at the conventions for doing packages and other stories.”

Getting multiples streams of HD from the convention facilities back to the CBS Broadcast Center also presents challenges, considering that many satellite trucks haven’t upgraded to HD yet.

“We’re working with the telcos to have the fiber bandwidth necessary to feed several channels of HD at a time,” Governale said. “We’ll also have one of our trucks, and possibly others, equipped with Fujitsu encoders which can encode MPEG-4 HD for uplinking using SD bandwidth. We’ll have plenty of redundancy so we’re not tied to any one source.”

AT THE READY

NBC will also cover both conventions live in HD and will provide pool coverage of the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., a first for their news division.

“We’re HD-ready now,” said Jeremy Gaines, spokesman for NBC-Universal. “Our crews have HD cameras and our bureaus possess HD edit capability. We also have three HD uplink trucks on the road with a field travel pack for an eight-camera HD production.”

Gaines said the network was still deciding on a house format and field cameras. “NBC is currently operating with an interim digital solution which is tape-based,” he said. “Without a clear format winner emerging from the expanding list of HD camera vendors, and the campaigns well underway, we’ve decided to use the next 12 to 18 months to evaluate the options and decide on a final HD field solution by renting a package of HD cameras [HDW F900s] and VTRs for our election coverage needs.”

AN INCREMENTAL PATH


(click thumbnail)CNN Technical Production Manager Steve Dolce uses a Sony XDCAM EX1 camcorder to shoot the CNN Election Express outside Graceland in Memphis, Tenn.ABC is also adopting an incremental path to HD news and election coverage. The network’s HD news experience includes “Good Morning America” and several prime-time hours and special events, including two State of the Union addresses and the 2005 presidential inauguration. But it will ramp up its efforts in a big way in 2008, starting with the launch of its “This Week” in HD when the Sunday morning news program moves to the new Newseum in Washington, D.C., this month.

ABC also plans to broadcast both conventions in HD and launch HD broadcasts of its nightly news programs “World News Tonight,” and “Nightline,” as well as its newsmagazines, the week of Sept. 8.

According to ABC News President David Westin, most field newsgathering, (presidential campaigns included), will remain in SD for now.

“Initially, we will continue to acquire in the 4:3 format so that we can get used to the cameras and to give us time to set up the edit rooms for the larger, 16:9 format,” he said in a recent memo to ABC News staff. “By the end of the year, we will be moving to 16:9 across the board.”

ABC, which selected 720p for broadcast, also has reservations about the crop of cameras currently available. “We have yet to find an HD/SD camera that suits our newsgathering needs,” said John Arrowsmith, executive director, news operations for at ABC. “For that reason and because feeding HD from the field is still not as efficient as it needs to be to do it routinely, we will start by phasing in widescreen digital SD from the field.”

Arrowsmith said that ABC would transition to HD newsgathering in a couple of years as cameras and transmission technologies mature. During the primaries, ABC News added resources to campaign coverage for its Web site and its 24/7 digital newschannel “ABC News NOW.” The latter did wall-to-wall coverage of the Super Tuesday and March 4 Presidential primaries and caucuses, both streamed live on abcnews.com.

One new tactic ABC has been employing is the use of reporter-producers embedded with the candidates on the campaign trail.

”They file stories which they shoot [in DV] and edit themselves [on laptops] and feed via the Internet,” Arrowsmith said. “Many of these stories are unique, personal, behind-the-scenes portraits of the candidates that we can’t get with ENG camera crews. We’ve used their footage on the air including the reporters themselves, on occasion.”

For equipment suppliers, retooling for the digital transition seems to have been intensified by this year’s presidential campaigns, which has jolted many broadcasters and networks into making purchases of cameras and support gear which can be used with many, if not most, cameras.

“We have been at our busiest in years filling orders for higher capacity lithium and nickel metal hydride batteries and also camera lighting, especially HMIs,” said Jim Crawford, president of Frezzolini Electronics, a Hawthorne, N.J.-based provider of professional lighting and batteries for broadcast. “Many of our broadcast customers are gearing up right now to cover the election campaign and other news. Many of them have just bought new HD cameras and now need batteries and lights for them. So far, the elections have been good for our business.”

EARLY STAGES

PBS launched its HD news programming with the debut of its nightly news program “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” in hi-def in December, but HD coverage from the campaign is still spotty, according to Rob Flynn, vice president of communications for WETA-TV in Arlington, Va., where the program originates.

“We’re using HD packages from the campaign trail whenever possible now that our own crews have the HD [XDCAM-HD] cameras,” Flynn said, “but we’re still in the early stages of the transition.”

The network’s biggest stumbling block to full HD coverage involves getting HD footage back to the studio in a timely manner, Flynn said. “Many of the trucks can’t handle many or any HD formats yet, and those that do are expensive,” he said. “Often we have to downconvert campaign interviews and stories shot in HD, in order to uplink them and then upconvert them here in the studio.”

As part of its coverage leading up to the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, The News Hour will spotlight different cities in the Keystone state in HD. “We’re starting our ‘Election Spotlight’ series in Pittsburgh, April 20-21, just before the Pennsylvania primary, working with the PBS station there to do a live, anchored, HD interconnect,” said John Dee, director of production for “The News Hour.” “We’re fortunate that nearly half of all PBS stations already have some HD production capability.” As for the conventions, “we’ll have our own crews and equipment at both conventions so that we can broadcast live in HD each night,” Dee said.