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Obstacles on road to local HD news not as impassable as imagined, Hand says

Putting a local HD newscast on the air is a sizable undertaking, but not as big of a challenge as it would have been without the help of others who had done so already, said WSOC-TV chief engineer Ted Hand.

The Charlotte, NC, station, which took its newscasts to HD last month, is the latest Cox Television station to offer its local news in HD. According to Hand, the station benefited from the HD experience of those at the group’s stations in Atlanta and Orlando.

Hand shared some of that insight with HD Technology Update.

HD Technology Update: What were the top engineering considerations made when WSOC decided it wanted to produce its local news in HD? And did the experience of other Cox Television stations producing local HD news help you address those considerations?

Ted Hand: We thought it was important to have as many HD sources as possible. We didn’t want to just have a couple of studio cameras and that be it. We wanted as many possible sources as we could. We have HD studio cameras, HD tower cameras, HD helicopter, HD graphics, including HD Viper Radar and WSI Weather — all HD. The only thing that we currently are not in HD with is gathering news ingested in the field, but we are showing that in 16:9, 480.

As far as our Cox stations WSB in Atlanta and WFTV in Orlando, we used those resources greatly. We visited their sites and they sent people up to us and helped us out on this end. So, that was an enormous resource for us.

They had showed us some of the bumps we might encounter so we didn’t have to fight them alone. They had already fought those battles before we got there.

HDTU: What sort of bumps?

TH: It was mostly being an ABC affiliate with Cox. We run at 720p instead of 1080i, so there was a lot of crossconversion that we had to do. Some of the cameras we had were 1080i only, so we had to crossconvert those. There were workflow issues with how to use the P2 cameras. We take that in as 16:9. How you are going to ARC (aspect ratio convert) that, and how to do the workflow — center cut, put wings on that.

And the other Cox stations had already figured out the workflow before we got there.

HDTU: Currently, you are shooting 16:9 SD in the field and upconverting to HD. Under what circumstances would it make sense to transition ENG to HD acquisition?

TH: Our bottleneck is how we edit back at the station. We have the ability. The cameras we have are HD P2, but we are running them at 16:9 SD. So, the cameras are there. We are able to record it and get it back.

Our biggest problem, or bottleneck, is the actual editing system. Our current Avid system doesn’t do HD, so we will have to upgrade our nonlinear editing in house and playout for it.

It’s more of a donut. Everything in the field that records is in place and everything that distributes it and shows it on the air is in place — it’s that part in the middle that we have to upgrade.

HDTU: At the same time the station was transitioning to HD for its newscast, it was moving to a file-based workflow. Did the simultaneous transition make it easier or harder to launch local newscasts?

TH: That came about after a great deal of discussion, and it was decided that we would just swallow the whole thing at one time. It was thought to just chew it off and get done with it and get through it, because if we had gone tape-based, then we would have to cross that bridge again.

We thought it was better to just have the cameras shoot 16:9 and go ahead and go P2, do the workflow on it and just get it all in place. Actually, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It wasn’t plug-and-play, but it wasn’t the big disaster that I thought it might have been.

If I had to do it all over again, I would do it the same way. When it comes to things like that when you are trying to do two or three things, like when you go from tape to servers and you’re going to automation, I’ve always found that it’s better to corral all that stuff at one time and climb the hill at once and be done with it.

HDTU: Where does WSOC stand with the 2GHz BAS relocation?

TH: We have currently put the package together and submitted it to Nextel, and I’m expecting the contract any day now.

HDTU: When that happens, will the microwave portion of HD ENG be easier to swallow?

TH: That, of course, will make you digital, which you’ve got to be to do HD ENG. But the Nextel plan doesn’t have anything to do with the HD end of it. It’s only comparable services that you have now.

The big bottleneck on going HD in the field live is going to be encoding. The price of HD encoders has to work its way down. With HD encoders that you are buying now, you’re paying anywhere from $25,000 to $35,000 per encoder. And if you have eight vans, as is our case, you’re talking a quarter of a million dollars.

So, even though digital will be the backbone that that rides on, encoder prices have to come down some before we can do that.

HDTU: What’s been your experience so far with your news helicopter that’s been upgraded with an HD camera and microwave system?

TH: I just got that done today. We finally got a picture where we got video and audio back. That is definitely not a plug-and-play scenario.

HDTU: What were some of the issues with the HD helicopter system?

TH: We didn’t really get the helicopter back until after the launch. It would have been nice to have it beforehand for testing. Of course, we don’t have any other HD field equipment, so I had nothing to test the receive flow. I didn’t have any way to test the HD receive until I got the helicopter back.

There are a lot of different things to get the bit rates right. When you do forward error correction, you’ve got to get all these parameters, PID numbers and stuff when you set up encoding. It’s a lot different when you microwave an SD signal back than when you do an HD signal. The payload bit rate is just night and day.

Once you get that all plugged in, of course, it works like a charm — it’s just getting to that point with all your parameters. Of course, we are backhauling this from receive sites. It’s not like we are picking it up at the station. Then you have to 7GHz microwave it back to where we are. You just have to take it a step at a time. You get this part fixed then you move to the next domino and the next, and by the time you get it back to the station, it lights up in your room and you’re good — you can actually see it.

We are using MRC equipment with COFDM for modulation. Wysong put together the helicopter end and I designed the receive end using Tiernan decoders with Microwave Radio Communications gear.

We’re also bringing back these high-def tower cameras. So, you have to convert that, encode that, send that from high-def to ASI. We are sending three ASI paths down one microwave link, so you’ve got all these different streams. It’s not like you have one piece of rope. It’s like you’re putting a bunch of rope in a pipe and you’re trying to get it all to come out the same end at the same time all straight. And you get there, it just takes time. It’s not plug and play.

HDTU: How many receive sites are there for the helicopter?

TH: There are four total. Currently, two are capable of doing HD and we have four HD towercams.

HDTU: Your general manager Lee Armstrong said WSOC does not ignore the HD wings. For instance, animated over-the-shoulder graphics extend into the wings. How does that composition look to your SD audience? Have you taken any steps to rescale things for SD?

TH: We have done everything safe title. In the studio and field cameras, we’re using the white bars that are in the viewfinder. We did have a couple of things on the first day where we did have some graphic banners and all that were out of place, but we’ve eliminated that now so we are what we call “4:3 safe.” And we’ve taken great steps to do that — even as much as in the weather area where we have a hi-def monitor, we’ve put a thin piece of masking tape across it so the weather people don’t get out of the box. There are things simple as that. They are simple but really helpful.

HDTU: What surprises did you encounter along the way?

TH: Well, we were not only going HD, but we were moving to a new control room. So, we were doing a control room move at the same time we were doing an SD to HD move.

There are always little things that you find like audio embedding, lip syncing issues, those kinds of things. We had some lip sync issues the first night, but we had those fixed by the next 6 o’clock show the next night.

There are a lot of little things like that that you really can’t test out until you put it on air.

It wasn’t as bad as I thought it could be. You always have that worst case scenario in the back of your head. But I was surprised. It went extremely smoothly, all things considered.

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