Throwing The Switch

On February 2, 2007, Belo Corp’s WFAA, channel 8, threw the switch to become the first station in the Dallas/Fort Worth market to originate local broadcasts in 1080i HD. But for this ABC affiliate, technological innovation was hardly new. Back in 1954 WFAA broadcast the first color TV signal in the North Texas region. It was also first in the market with VTR machines, and deployed the first mobile news unit in town.

The path to that historic February day began some 10 years ago as a technology demonstration at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. It was September, 1997, and fairgoers were treated to the first HD images to be shown in Dallas. According to 35-year station veteran and current production manager Jerry Cadigan, viewers were amazed by the clarity and the quality of the signal. Dave Muscari, WFAA’s VP of product development, recalls that “we had finite financial resources and some of the technology available was in very early stages of development—some hadn’t been invented yet.” Still, somehow those folks at the fair witnessed the emergence of HDTV.

By February, 1998, the station was broadcasting a digital signal from its Cedar Hill tower to an audience of one. Somewhere in a lab at Texas Instruments in Plano sat an HD receiver as engineers viewed sparse and repetitive programming. December of that year saw the broadcast of the annual Neiman-Marcus Adolphus Children’s Christmas parade in HD to national syndication, predating by several years the HD broadcast of the Rose Parade.

With corporate support, in the ensuing years WFAA’s management moved along the path to HD. Equipment purchases were made with the ultimate goal in mind of being first in HD in Dallas. The project was codenamed Acme Speed Tools and its existence was a closely guarded secret. Within the last two years development accelerated rapidly as the digital mandate approached, demand for HD grew among consumers, and as the station set out on an ambitious parallel project to construct a new studio at Victory Park in Dallas.

Two years ago the decision was made to purchase new studio cameras. So as WFAA geared up for HD while still broadcasting in SD, it chose Grass Valley LDK 4000 cameras, not only for their dual 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios capability, but, more importantly, because they can output a simultaneous SD and HD signal. Currently there are six cameras at Victory and four at the main Young Street studios. The task then became one of acquiring all necessary equipment—even to the extent of converting graphics, weather and in-house production to HD gear.

As profiled in Television Broadcast last month, the parallel Victory studio project represents an important component in the HD path and itself required architectural, technical and conceptual innovation. Victory began as a concept in 2005: a state-of-the-art HD studio of an open glass and steel design, with outdoor screens and a ticker for the crowds in this popular downtown Dallas gathering place. All control functions were to remain at Young Street, and this is where David Johnson, WFAA’s director of technology broadcast media, says things became interesting.

The two studios are about a mile apart. Communications and control had to be reliable and without latency. Johnson decided that black fiber would be the most effective means of transmission and managed to source it from InnerCity Fibernet in Dallas. A total of eight black fiber lines were run between locations. Part of the services rendered to the station by Beck and Associates of Austin was the recommendation of a full line of equipment from Evertz Microsystems. Using the Evertz equipment, today all signals between stations are muxed (and demuxed at the other end) to three fiber lines, leaving the other five lines empty to handle future expansion. This includes all video, audio, RF, VoIP, intercom, camera shading control—“everything”, Johnson said, “except electricity and one POTS line for 911 emergencies.”

One the first challenges encountered was weather systems. The initial concern was the expense of creating redundant Weather Central 3D and Baron’s FasTrac radar systems at each of the locations. Through the use of KVM splitters and extenders, however, the control of the weather system could be split and run over the fiber, thus allowing a meteorologist at either location to control the weather computers.

Jim Fenhagen of Production Design Group designed the news set at Victory for HD. The Young Street news set was redesigned first with 16:9 in mind and then for HD. Programs originated by WFAA include a 5-7 a.m. news broadcast, a 9 a.m. talk and information show, Good Morning Texas, a one-hour newscast at noon, plus the 5 p.m. newscast at Victory. Local news at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. generally originates from Young Street. The station also airs other live and taped programs from there, including a live nightly local sports show, the taped Gordon Keith Show, and Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars pre-game specials.

Data flows from Victory over fiber in the morning, and later via internal cabling, to a dual HD and SD workflow. The control room centers on a Grass Valley Kayak 3 M/E HD switcher with a series of displays both in HD and SD. One of the earliest decisions that needed to be made was about the format of the SD signal. After much discussion, it was decided to do a center-cut 4:3 rather than letterbox, feeling that viewers do not react as well to letterbox as they do to a signal filling their TV screens. Thus control room monitors display the 16:9 HD signal with other monitors displaying grid lines for the 4:3 center cut. While control room personnel view programming on a Panasonic BT-LH2600 LCD, final reference still uses Sony BVM-series HD CRT monitors. The control room also contains a remote control with presets for the 3 HD tower cams at Victory. The helicopter camera is also HD.

Master control is split into HD and SD sides. HD playback is through a Profile HD server with a Grass Valley M-2100 Master Control Switcher.

All in-house production and graphics have been taken to HD. There are currently four Apple Final Cut Pro edit suites and one Quantel eQ, and the latest acquisition is an Autodesk Smoke suite. Graphics editors work on Macs with Adobe Photoshop and After Effects, as well as Final Cut Pro just for timeline layouts. On-air graphics are designed on Vizrt software products and map visualizations are by Curious Maps.

Legacy footage always presents an issue in HD conversions. In prior years, much in-house promotion department production was shot on 35mm film. For the last two years, the station has been transferring that film to HDCAM tape. The tape room is a veritable timeline from old to new. On the HD side, the rack contains Sony HDCAM, Panasonic D5 HD and Sony XDCAM HD decks. SD decks include BetaSP and SX as well as a one-inch machine, and a very well worn U-matic deck. A Grass Valley switcher manages traffic in this room.

Regardless of what might occur in engineering and technology, it is news that is a station’s face to the world. All newscasts originate in studio in HD. Yet news is hybrid HD since for now all field ENG is still shot in BetaSX with cameras switched to 16:9 aspect ratio. Additionally, the microwave link from truck to station is analog. SX news footage is captured via SDI into Final Cut Pro, where it is edited.

A Sony Newsbase server is currently in use but the search is on for an HD solution. While no decisions have been made yet, the goal is to acquire an open-architecture system to allow integration of a wide range of sources, from FCP to Quantel to Smoke, as well as any future systems that may be acquired.

Once the SX footage has been edited and prepared for broadcast, it is then upconverted using Evertz equipment. This is the only upconversion that takes place in the whole process. Because the workflow is digital from start to finish, the upconverted SX footage looks almost as pristine as pure HD except, of course, for microwave-sent footage where analog has been introduced. The switch to digital microwave transmission is forthcoming.

It was announced at NAB that Belo stations would be acquiring Sony XDCAM HD cameras for ENG work. No timetable for this acquisition has been finalized, but when this and the microwave change occur, WFAA and the other Belo stations in the project will be entirely HD.

Johnson added that Bob Turner, former director of capital projects and engineering at Belo, always had HD in mind. At the same time, Craig Harper, executive director of technology, embarked on a project to take news at Belo stations in four major markets—Dallas, Houston, Seattle and Phoenix—to HD. That goal was accomplished on April 30, when Phoenix went on line.

As expected, HD presented special opportunities and challenges for on-air talent. WFAA news anchor John McCaa observed how HD can change the way in which he reports a story. “HD means to me less narration for news stories. By that, I mean, there [is] no longer a need to describe [the images]...these pictures can show that. I love the pictures, the richness of the image. As someone who started watching TV before cable or satellite...I marvel at how much information can be sent out with every second of video.”

Some on-air talent became petrified at the thought of HD. Would it show every wrinkle? McCaa confides that old thick makeup has been replaced by a thin, lighter makeup. Everyone had to learn new makeup techniques. Ironically, those who feared HD discovered that the combination of new makeup and HD actually made them look better.

New media finds its way into the WFAA HD workflow as well. The station has a mojo (mobile journalist) equipped with a Sony HDV camera to shoot for its website. If he should happen to capture that elusive amazing shot, that HDV footage would be processed and broadcast. Likewise, photographers at The Dallas Morning News, WFAA’s next-door neighbor and sister Belo subsidiary, are equipped with Sony HDV cameras from which they grab stills, shoot Web video and even share those one-in-a-million shots with the TV news team.

The benefits of this HD conversion were seen immediately. In house, Cadigan, Johnson and Muscari all agree that the synergy of corporate and station management has created “new energy and enthusiasm in the house.” The publicity generated by the HD switch propelled all three afternoon and evening newscasts to higher ratings in February, with the 10 p.m. news recapturing first place for the first time in 10 years. Vendors Sony and Grass Valley have shared the success of the WFAA conversion with other customers. And sellers of consumer HD sets report sales increases, with many customers saying that the addition of local news in HD was among the deciding factors.

WFAA faced many challenges in moving to HD, including the integration of equipment, dealing with aspect ratios, the constant advancement of the technology, and the need to buy wisely to avoid early obsolescence. But there’s a payoff. As Muscari put it, “So many of us got into broadcasting because it was a creative endeavor. However we have an FCC mandate to serve the public interest and provide a community service. Enhanced images broadcast in high definition add to the quality of the experience for the viewer.”

Ned Soltz is an editor, writer, filmmaker, trainer and technical consultant. He was among the founders of the LA Final Cut Pro User Group and is a frequent contributor to print and online publications.