The Weather Channel takes on HD

This month, The Weather Channel saw the culmination of nearly two years of preparation when it took its telecasts into the HD era.

The $60 million HD conversion project, which touched everything from the set, the control room and SNG trucks to each cable headend, is all the more remarkable because of the corporate direction to accelerate the original rollout schedule and the channel’s historically lean workforce.

This week, “HD Technology Update” presents the first of a two-part interview with Ross Kalber, VP of engineering and IT operations, and Michael Smereski, chief engineer, for The Weather Channel. In this interview, the pair discusses the planning and challenges encountered. Next week, they will focus on the technology employed for the conversion.

HD Technology Update: When did the planning for HD begin, and what challenges did you anticipate would be the biggest? Were you right about those, or did others appear that proved bigger?

Ross Kalber: We made the decision to migrate to HD in the summer of 2006 and started the planning in earnest in the fourth quarter of 2006. There were a number of challenges. Distilling it down to the key ones, we knew first and foremost that we had an existing studio that could not be converted to HD.

It was a renovated traditional office work space that didn’t have high ceilings, didn’t have studio flooring. To deliver HD-quality images in the right way, we needed to build a new studio to do that, so that was one of the biggest challenges for us.

The other one we knew was that, historically, we are a very lean organization. So the staffing levels we have, it’s easy for me to say, are less than what most national cable networks would have available. We knew the people issue was going to be a big part of the equation, because they have to maintain the entire existing infrastructure, which they had full-time jobs doing, and try to take on this HD project here. That was going to cause us a number of challenges along the way.

HD Technology Update: How did you meet those challenges?

Ross Kalber: It depends on the point in time. During the early phases of design and construction, to the best of our ability, we tried to carve out some of our people and have them dedicated to HD, so they weren't trying to serve two masters as it were.

We were pretty successful in doing that. Later on in the project, it was harder. Once you start building the infrastructure and transferring that infrastructure on air, it was much harder for us to do that, because we have such a lean staff.

Michael Smereski: Outside of the core design group, the triad of engineering that did the overall global designs, we zoned the work among areas. In other words, we would just give a part of the designs to a person and not tax them with a very large global project, but a zone at their level of expertise for that part of the system.

We at the engineering management level were looking at that globally to make sure all of the pieces would connect together.

Ross Kalber: So we tried to be smart with the way we allocated the work across the workforce, and that seemed to be pretty effective.

The other thing we did is bring on a systems integrator to help, because this project wasn’t wholly done in house. It wasn’t just a systems integrator; we brought on a number of consultants, contractors and others to help us through the migration.

As any infrastructure goes, you can’t outsource 100 percent of it, so we were knee-deep in the entire project.

Some of the other challenges included scheduling. We knew schedules were going to be a big challenge. The original plans that I put forth had 12 more months on the project originally, and our parent company really wanted us to be very aggressive in our planning and execution of this program.

Michael Smereski: Our clients’ — the distribution companies’ — requests for HD were sooner than we originally envisioned.

Ross Kalber: Right, when we made the decision, there was a conscious decision in the summer of 2006 to convert to HD, and that was way before DIRECTV arrived on the scene and before we reached this critical mass in the consumer adoption of HD sets. Certainly among the distributors, you barely had any conversations going out there. It may have been on some of their radar, but most weren’t really embracing HD at the time till the third quarter of 2007. We were ahead of the curve in terms of planning for and executing our HD strategy, so we could come in at the right time with an HD signal.

All along the way, we tried to advance the schedule more aggressively than we originally planned. We met or beat most of our milestones along the way, so we were pretty successful.

The last challenge is one of funding. There’s always a financial challenge out there. We had a completely ground-up construction project for the new studio, including infrastructure for the new studio from electrical improvements to extension of our technical core areas. All of that occurred within our existing facility and outside in our ground-up studio build while we’re planning and trying to execute the infrastructure upgrade and trying to do all of this on schedule in an accelerated fashion and trying to maintain the best kind of financial control and do the best from that perspective. That was certainly no small undertaking. The financial challenges were always top of mind for us throughout the project.

HD Technology Update: How much money did The Weather Channel invest in the HD transition?

Ross Kalber: The total HD investment for us is about $60 million. Not all of that is the studio. It’s a combination of the studio, construction of the new studio, all of the infrastructure improvements here. We’re also re-engineering what we call our Weather Star technology, which is the device that allows us to localize our feed at the cable headend. That work is still in progress, and that is included in the total.

HD Technology Update: Many other broadcasters have said the shrinking premium for HD equipment versus SD has helped them meet their budgetary requirement as they built out their HD facilities. What was your experience?

Ross Kalber: I don’t recall seeing any favorable price reductions during the course of our project. I would agree that over time, the price of HD equipment has come down, but it’s still above an SD equivalent.

Michael Smereski: The challenge still is that holistically changing out an entire facility is a daunting cost.

HD Technology Update: Graphics obviously play a critical role in The Weather Channel’s programming. What weather graphics are being used to meet HD requirements? Are all of the pieces in place from a technology point of view to meet the HD weather graphics challenge, or are there areas where improvement is still needed?

Ross Kalber: I think there is always room for improvement. We use WSI graphics — the Titan systems — and we use Vizrt’s VizWeather systems. Generally speaking, all of the products are in place; we are happy with the way they function. There are quite stunning images that come off these devices, so we have been really pleased.

To be honest with you, I thought early on that we were going to have more challenges with the weather graphics than we ended up having. However, you have to bear in mind that we are unique. We’re different from anyone else out there when it comes to weather graphics. We have teams of people that focus on nothing but weather graphics development, system support and integration.

It’s also a little different for us because we require a number of modifications and other things that other broadcasters would not necessarily need. That said, it’s working quite nicely for us.

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