PBS’s signature nightly news show, “NewsHour,” entered the HD era Dec. 17 when it went live from a new HD studio and control room at the WETA Production Center in Arlington, VA.
The new facility, designed, planned and integrated by Communications Engineering Inc. (CEI) in Newington, VA, not only ushered in a new high-definition look for “NewsHour” but also will provide PBS with the control facilities and studio it will need to cover next year’s Democrat and Republican national political conventions in high definition.
HD Technology Update spoke with Joe Strobel, CEI senior project manager, about the project.
HD Technology Update: What is the background on the WETA control room and studio HD upgrade for “NewsHour?”
Joe Strobel: The facility was a full standard-definition analog facility. Years ago there was a beginning phase in which WETA began a controlled and well-thought-out digital migration project. That started with the replacement of the routing infrastructure and the intercom and set the stage for future migration. But at the end of the day, after the conclusion of that project, the control rooms were still baseband analog SD using some very old equipment.
The design was intended to provide an HD version of the “NewsHour” to PBS. As you know, that’s a one-hour show every weekday. So that’s a big presence.
This migration had to occur without affecting current air operations. This led us to the model of building a third control room for HD that handled the more enhanced metrics that apply to the “NewsHour” production.
The facility is an old building that was specifically built as a production space, I believe in the ‘50s and it has been modified many times over the years. It was very difficult for WETA to find the space to free up for a third control room. It was a struggle for all of the station's departments. It had to compress people into very limited space. WETA operations management spent a lot of time arming its people and its client, the “NewsHour” production team, preparing them for this change.
In the beginning, there were a lot of unhappy people, but through the inclusion of a lot of different players in the process, they all became excited about this thing and suddenly started wanting to know when it was all going to be done. A lot of times, as a system integration company, we are stuck in the technology and the capabilities we are going to provide from a purely technological perspective. On this project, we were able to successfully marry the more intrinsic elements that the production staff had to live with and the obstacles they faced in their former control room to the solution.
In the old control room, WETA staff literally had to climb over each other to get in and get out as segment producers would come and go as they produce the show. It’s much more productive now and full of some wonderful technology.
HD Technology Update: Could you describe the technological lay of the land in terms of monitoring, production and workflow?
Joe Strobel: From a production workflow perspective, as we began the HD control room phase of the project, WETA was already utilizing a hybrid workflow, where acquisition was typically tape, most of it was ingested and morphed into a nonlinear workflow for preproduction and post production of the segments that would go into a composite show.
In many cases, these finished elements were pushed over to a server for playout, but being a hybrid in many instances a lot of them were then dumped back to tape and played in as tape segments.
WETA significantly empowered the workflow to be 100 percent file-based. Once it is in the file-based system, the station can take it all of the way to air in this form. Previously, it could not do this. There are extensive upgrades in the editing suites to allow the station to be HD capable. Upgrades were performed on a few suites to sustain this launch, and WETA will continue the process of converting additional editing suites. One of the key areas where WETA had to add capacity was in supporting the ability to take the finished nonlinear product, keep it in a file form factor, move it within the facility as a file and play it directly into the show. The station can now do this.
The monitoring for this project has been a challenge throughout the facility. When WETA performed the digital upgrade of the router for budget reasons, it had to leave a lot of the analog test stations in place. So the waveform monitors, vectorscopes and evaluation monitors were still predominantly analog based. That obviously wasn’t going to cut it for the HD piece, so one of the earlier phases of the project was the conversion of many of the key test stations within the facility to HD capability.
HD Technology Update: What is the technology setup in the studio?
Joe Strobel: The studio features six new Sony HDC-1000L cameras with Fujinon HA27X6.5ESM lenses. There also is a new Sony HDCX310 grid-mounted compact HD camera providing an overall studio shot. The HDC-1000s were transitioned to air prior to the official launch of the HD control room to help keep things sane.
The cameras were half of the piece. The other piece was designing an entirely new on-air look for “NewsHour.” The sets needed to be reformatted to support the HD aspect ratio.
WETA built all new sets for the show. One of the sets includes a large on-screen monitor. For what has been a fairly straightforward production, this has been a sea change for its on-air look. The comments that I’ve heard about the on-air look are very positive.
In addition to tailoring the set, the graphics package had to change, too. It’s a total new look for this production. For the graphics, the station went to the Harris character generators and still stores. This proved to be a little bit of a change as most of the people in this plant are accustomed to Chyron.
The Inscriber is a bit of a different model for an on-air graphics person. At WETA it is used primarily for lower thirds and for playout of pre-built graphics that the “NewsHour” graphics department creates using a myriad of software packages.
When you walk into the control room, the equipment that gets the graphics on-air are the two separate Harris Inscribers that have been dedicated for this use.
HD Technology Update: Speaking of walking into the control room, what production switcher is being used?
Joe Strobel: The Sony MVS-8000A. The decision to use it was not a management decision, but a decision by the entire group. The station looked at the Sony and the Grass Valley switchers many years ago. Also the Sony/PBS HD Production Pilot Project offered WETA an aggressive pricing package. So this helped seal the deal, so to speak.
Sony has been very aggressive in trying to make sure the operators are comfortable and proficient in driving the MVS-8000A.
HD Technology Update: Going back to monitoring for a moment, are you using a multi-image display processor for program and preview monitoring?
Joe Strobel: Yes, it’s a three-cube front access Barco wall with 70in cubes, and the engine behind that is the Miranda Kaleido-X. Miranda was very helpful in coming in and helping us commission the Kaleido-X. The company wanted to make it look as good as possible and make sure the screen layouts were optimized. Miranda was a great help in accomplishing that.
HD Technology Update: What sort of surprises did you run into along the way?
Joe Strobel: It’s funny, I can’t think of any disastrous surprises. But we did run into a lot of physical surprises. As I noted, this was an old building. The original footprint that was laid out with the architect for the control room used every square inch. Anything that would require us to deviate from this in any way would cause a great deal of stress.
During demolition the crew found that there was a very large roof drain pipe that was going right through where the TD would be seated in the control room. That caused a bit of a challenge. There were a lot of discussions with the architectural team that WETA brought in for this project. We established how much clearance was needed and they were able to reroute the pipe along with insulating it acoustically so we would not experience the gushing sound of running water during a thunderstorm. That was the first surprise.
The next was everyone knew we needed an isolated HVAC system for this room. The problem was the ducting. The mechanical team thought they would be able to cheat the ducting through an office above, but when they got finished invading that office with the duct, it turned into something like an office you’d see on a sitcom that’s given to someone who isn’t very well liked. It was unfortunate, but you get through that.
Obviously, the acoustics for the separate audio control room were very stringent. A lot of work was done in the architectural design to isolate and achieve the desired NC rating for that room. As we expected, the custom windows had an extremely long lead time. Unfortunately the timeline of the windows almost stopped us from getting this room fully ready for air in time.
Everybody, including the window manufacturer, eventually came in ahead of what they projected. It worked out OK. Physically there are certain building elements that you would like to have in place before you begin integrating sensitive electronic equipment. So the windows had a timeliness that we were all keenly aware of.
This was a compressed timeline project, and any task that extended beyond its due date raised our attention and caused us to play close attention to it and what it might affect. Once elements were authorized by WETA, things moved extremely fast. As we all know, the optimistic scheduling in the beginning of a project is never what we realize at the end. But it’s funny, the air date never changed. That just meant that we had to be creative and work a little harder than scheduled near the end.
HD Technology Update: Is “NewsHour” using 5.1 surround?
Joe Strobel: The room is built for 5.1 using an SSL C132 mixer and is equipped with 5.1 monitoring. There are Dolby DP570, 571 and 572 units to handle the 5.1. However, I believe right now the audio output is a stereo mix.
HD Technology Update: Will the new HD facilities play into coverage of next year’s conventions, and if so how did that affect the design?
Joe Strobel: That’s absolutely yes, and that’s primarily seen in the control room layout. I mentioned the different segment producers associated with the day-to-day “NewsHour” production. It’s quite an impressive thing to watch the change of personnel in that room throughout the show. At WETA there tend to be a lot of people that come in to watch the production of the show, whether they are donors, supporters, or distinguished guests.
So there was a request from every department including the “NewsHour” for additional space in the control room. The control room has three rows. The first row accommodates the TD, director, assistant director and graphics. The second row handles the producers and the EIC. The back row or third row is really a viewing area for people to sit and observe. There is not a primary function occurring in that row. Once we created that space in the third row we had the ability to truly address historic needs for election coverage.
All of the positions in the second and third row are configured to allow them to drop in additional equipment and gear specific for the election. And that’s the next thing they are going to start doing literally before the dust even settles in this room. They are going to start enabling some of those positions. The infrastructure is there, and the physical support of it is there so we shouldn’t have too many intercoms or control panels gaffer taped to the consoles for this election.
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