QVC takes on massive upgrade

If all goes according to plan, QVC will begin a significant upgrade this month of its SD production facilities with HD cameras, lenses and infrastructure.

While the broadcast direct marketing channel currently does not plan to offer HD programming, the new HD infrastructure positions the shopping network for an HD future.

What makes this HD upgrade particularly challenging is the scope of the project and the need to maintain 24-hour live operations while the work goes on. HD Technology Update spoke with Ron Schiller, director of broadcast engineering and technology, about QVC’s upgrade.

HD Technology Update: Please explain QVC’s HD rollout plan.

Ron Schiller: At this point, the only planned rollout of HD is in our international section, and that will be for QVC Japan. That’s scheduled for the fall of 2007. What I discussed at NAB is some of the infrastructure upgrade to make us HD capable or HD ready at our Studio Park facility for the U.S. distribution.

Because our facility is so big in the U.S., it takes us quite a bit of time to upgrade the infrastructure. We will have the benefit of a higher-quality production package from cameras (Sony HDC1500L) to switchers (Sony MVS8000A) to monitoring and distribution. When the time is right for us to look at our strategy long term, we’ll be in the right position. We like to position ourselves to make sure we are ready when the customers we support are ready. But at this time, we have no plans to roll out HD in the U.S., we are just preparing for HD.

HDTU: Could you describe how this infrastructure upgrade will be done working with a demanding live 24/7 broadcast schedule?

RS: It was a planned upgrade. We knew that the lifecycle of our facility was at the end of its time, and we knew we would have to make an upgrade. A cost-benefits analysis showed us that it was just not cost-effective for us to do a standard-def upgrade without a consideration of the future. That was the first challenge.

The second challenge was to build an island in place — separate and apart — from the main facility. Because we are on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we could not shut anything down. So, we created a new digital infrastructure as a shell with the intent that we could cross tie between the two facilities — each one with its own challenge, from internal distribution to cabling. Our facility is quite large.

We have to change from a coax- or triax-based camera system to a fiber optics-based camera system because of the length of the cable runs. Some are as long as a 1000ft. So, by going fiber and multiplexing the fiber, we were able to get better use of bandwidth.

In addition to some of these challenges was determining the type of lenses we were going to use. We partnered with Canon, which has always been our lens supplier, to look at the right lens and to look at before and after shots of everything from product display, jewelry, fashion, beauty aids and home improvement. We wanted to see some of the difficulties we may or may not have as a result of shooting with a higher quality lens and camera.

HDTU: Does the fact that this will be HD at some point impact how QVC will display its merchandise given its higher resolution?

RS: We set up methods, metrics and measurements to determine the best way to showcase merchandise. Showcasing merchandise is what we do best. To understand how it is presented, to make sure that the lighting is correct, the sets and props are correct, required that we take care determining that. That transcends to the live show with support, guest hosts and models. That’s an ongoing process. The more we get into this, the more we learn and will continue to learn and improve upon.

HDTU: What lessons have you learned so far?

RS: I think lighting is a very integral part of our live production because we try to showcase the area as best we can. There are specifics that we have looked at. There will be a lot more to come. I think you will probably see a softer lighting rather than a key.

HDTU: How will this infrastructure upgrade impact the quality of what your SD audience sees?

RS: I know I will see an improvement of the overall signal process — even at standard def. I think from the lens to the camera to the distribution backbone, the increased bandwidth, the interoperability with the systems, you’re going to get a richer, warmer picture through the lens. I think we are going to capture more image detail than we do now, and I think that will eventually translate back to the customer. It still depends on the cable system we service and their quality level.

But from what we’ve been able to determine, there will be an improvement.

HDTU: Looking forward to the day that there is a switch to HD, could you discuss in general the significance of being able to show the QVC shopper merchandise in high definition?

RS: I think in general, just the improvement and preparing a better quality picture is going to allow us to educate a consumer as to what their purchase may be. I think it is a better representation of merchandise overall. It’s an assumption on our part that if the future holds the distribution of a higher definition picture, then that’s something that has to be discussed.

I think if we were to do something like that, it would be on a limited basis. It wouldn’t be full 24 hours.

HDTU: Could you discuss the upgrade project in a little more detail and how it’s coming together?

RS: I think the project that we talked about was really a joint venture with three strategic partners. Sony was the anchor because of their cameras, monitoring and switching; Canon provided the lenses; and Vitec, the Vinten Group, provided the robotics. All three were involved with our system integrator, Beck Associates, from the early stages when we conceived the project back this time last year, and have worked with us in developing the scope and implementation. If I was to rank it compared to other projects, it is an equipment replacement, so I wouldn’t say that was the difficult part of it. It was logistics that became quite difficult. Trying to turn a facility with 48 cameras online and half of our robotics in a 12-hour window and stay on the air — that’s some of the magic involved in this. We have to make sure we have contingency plans because we don’t have a chance once we make the transition; we can’t go back.

Our research showed us that you can’t be half. You can’t have half the facility with one type of camera and one core base and phase out. It has to be a very quick turnaround, and somewhat seamless and transparent to our user base. That’s what I think is the biggest challenge in this, and that’s what I think is so unique — the magnitude and number of cameras and doing this all at the same time.

HDTU: What is the date of the transition?

RS: We are tentatively scheduled for the end of this month. We’re in final tests and do a little bit each day. We want to do this right. We can’t go back, so we have to make sure we are 100 percent.

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