Now It Makes $ense

Hey, General Manager! Yo, News Director! It's time to stop musing about converting your newscast to HD, and to start doing something about it. It's time.
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"HD News? It's absolutely inevitable," says Mike Strein, ABC's director of DTV development and media planning. Having "helped architect" ABC's HDTV coverage of the 2004 State of the Union Address pool feed and 2005 Bush Inaugural, Strein has become a true believer in HD's newsgathering capabilities. He's not alone at ABC: "If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said news would have been the last thing in this company to move into the HD realm," Strein tells DigitalTV. "But this is definitely not true any more!"

"Converting to HD news is an investment in the future of the station," says Randal Stanley. He's news director at WUSA (CBS); the first station in the Washington, DC market to produce and broadcast its newscasts in HDTV. "Our aim is to lead this market in HDTV. Broadcasting news in HD complements everything we're doing to make this a reality."

"I don't think the question of converting to HD news is an issue of 'if' anymore," adds Don Perez. He's director of technology and operations for KUSA; the Gannett NBC affiliate in Denver, CO that is producing its newscast in HDTV. "These days, the decision to move to HD news production is simply an issue of 'when'."

Why HD News Now Makes Sense

For cash-strapped general managers and station managers, the notion of upgrading news to HD is not a welcome thought. After all, it isn't just the cameras that have to be replaced, but every link in the video production chain. To say the least, this isn't going to be cheap!

Unfortunately, not upgrading to HD could also prove to be expensive; not in equipment costs, but to a station's bottom line. With 1,491 U.S. TV stations now broadcasting in HD, according to the NAB, TV stations are hyping HD to define and differentiate themselves against and above the competition. Like color television decades before, HD is being seen as something to attract viewers, boost ratings, and increase ad revenues--finally!

Not surprisingly, this attitude is starting to bleed over into news. Take WUSA's move into HD news: "We're excited to be the leaders in this new technology," trumpeted WUSA president and GM Darryll J. Green in a WUSA news release. "HD will provide our viewers with a dramatic, vibrant, and sharp viewing experience. It will be like giving them a front row seat in our studio."

Overall, "ratings will demand that stations have HD news," says Dave Walton, JVC's national marketing communications director. "This is why it doesn't make any sense to invest in SD newsgathering equipment: If your station isn't producing news in HD in the next few years, you're going to have a real ratings issue."

It's easy to dismiss Walton's assertion as mere marketing hype; loyally delivered on behalf of the company that employs him. However, common sense suggests he's right, while the ubiquity of color television proves it: Is there a commercial newscast anywhere in the U.S. that's in black and white? Of course not! Who would watch a newscast in black and white, when the competition has the same stories in color?

The same logic that spelled the death of black and white news will do the same for SD news. "If you own an HDTV, you'll want to watch stations that provide you with HD programming, including news," says WUSA's Stanley. "Meanwhile, as more and more people switch to HDTV, they are going to remember which station was out front in this new format; was blazing the trails in HD."

Easing the HD Cash Bite

The fact that HD news makes ratings sense doesn't make a full-scale upgrade any less painful and expensive. This is why pioneering stations such as WUSA and KUSA are actually not 100% HD on-air, despite what their PR departments may claim.

The cost savings don't occur in the studio; both stations being equipped with the latest in HD studio cams and production equipment. Instead, WUSA and KUSA are keeping conversion costs down in the field, where their crews are using 16:9 wide aspect SD camcorders. "For the time being, we are using 16:9 Panasonic DVCPRO SD camcorders for ENG," says Stanley. "When the time and price is right, we'll step up to HD in the field, but not yet."

Of course, mixing HD and SD footage can be risky: The last thing a news director wants is for viewers to notice that the studio video looks markedly better than the field footage. To minimize this risk, "we are very careful in how we manage our signal system," says KUSA's Perez. "We have also put a lot of effort into training our camerapeople on shooting wide-aspect SD footage, so that the final product looks really good on air."

The Manufacturers Step Up to Sell...Er, Help Out

deally, any station that is touting an HD newscast would like to be producing everything in this format. After all, no matter how carefully SD field footage is shot and shown on an HD newscast, it's still SD.

Clearly, the solution to this problem is cost-effective HD camcorders; units so inexpensive (in broadcast terms) that stations can afford to upgrade their ENG operations to HD now.

Certainly this is JVC's intention, says Dave Walton. At NAB 2005, JVC will be unveiling a 3-CCD HD camcorder with interchangeable lenses "that will sell for less than $10,000," he says. "We're very excited about this; we think we'll have the busiest booth at the show."

Panasonic is also going to release a sub-$10,000 DVCPRO HD P2 camcorder according to David Craig, Panasonic Canada's product manager for DV, DVCPRO, and HD.

Grass Valley will have a tapeless HD camcorder, but price details are unavailable. Other camera makers will likely follow suit when it comes to targeting the budget-priced HD ENG market.

Clearly, "There will be more than one sub-$10,000 HD camcorder at NAB 2005," predicts KUSA's Perez. In fact, it is already possible to buy prosumer HD camcorders for much less, but "I would not see a prosumer $3K HD camcorder as a realistic solution for HD news," he notes. "I think a camera that will survive in a ENG world will require more and will cost more."

Of course, all this manufacturer generosity does have a price tag attached: Even at the bargain price $10,000 per HD camcorder, this remains money that stations will have to pay to acquire these units.

Still, $10,000 is a lot less than HD camcorders have been selling for to date; and after all, every station has to replace its current crop of camcorders sometime.


Face It: HD News Is Coming


There was a time when TV broadcasters could prevaricate about converting to HD news, but that time has past. With HDTV rapidly becoming the color television of today, bringing newscasts up to this standard has become a necessity.
Is this a good thing? A bad thing? In the world of competitive television, such value judgements don't matter. All that matters is providing viewers with compelling reasons to watch your station, rather than your competition's. If you upgrade to HD news, you will be giving your viewers another reason to stay tuned. If you don't, then your competition will thank you.


The History Of HD News


May 1999: Seattle's KOMO airs what it called the first local daily news in the world to broadcast in HDTV.
June 1999: KOMO rival KING in Seattle starts its HD newscast.

By 2001: KOMO was using full-motion HD news graphics and KING was working with a new HD weather center.

January 2001: WRAL in Raleigh, NC began broadcasting all of its newscasts in HD. WRAL was the first station in the nation to broadcast digitally on July 23, 1996.

The difference between these stations is that most of KOMO's and KING's ENG video was shot in SD widescreen, while WRAL's ENG footage is all HD.