Transitioning to HD news
After the introduction of digital television, many broadcasters searched for the killer app for their new digital broadcast spectrum. High-speed data or multiple-channel broadcasting were just two of the more popular choices. While new encoder technologies allow for multicasting with minimal impact on the HD signal, the early encoders did not provide enough horsepower to allow additional services within the ATSC stream without seriously affecting the HD signal. This was particularly noticeable with high-action video such as NASCAR racing or stadium pans during sporting events.
Remember that the objective of finding the killer app is to maximize revenue and acquire or maintain leadership in the market. In early 2003, Cordillera Communications decided that for our group, high definition was the killer app. During the DTV buildout of all 11 Cordillera stations, we consistently passed through any network HD programming and built out even our smallest system with the design intent to eventually transition to local HD production. In January 2007, we decided to transition our two largest stations — WLEX-TV in Lexington, KY, and KVOA-TV in Tucson, AZ — to local HD news. Our goal was to be HD for the May rating period.
The transition to HD news is neither a news nor an engineering project, but rather a system upgrade that involves the entire station. An engineering manager might tend to think in terms of switchers, servers and cameras, while the news manager will be considering the news set, graphics packages and upgrades to the weather system. Obviously, all of these are key elements of a successful transition. Like any major project, planning, communication and the involvement of all affected parties are critical for a successful launch. As much as we want to avoid the bleeding edge of technology, the transition to HD is almost by definition in that arena. Every station will be different, and every station will have its own distinct challenges. Putting together all of the required parts for a given facility is the real challenge. Areas you'll need to address include:
- an HD production switcher;
- nonlinear editing;
- studio cameras;
- field cameras;
- HD lenses;
- character generation;
- weather graphics;
- station graphics;
- news set;
- HD master control;
- HD servers; and
- conversion equipment.
Manufacturers have designed their equipment to work within a specific set of parameters. Unfortunately, those parameters may not meet the needs of the station.
As an example, manufacturer “A” may have a beautiful interface from its HD production switcher to its newsroom edit system. But your station may use an edit system from manufacturer “B,” and perhaps your character generator is from manufacturer “C.”
Getting all of the pieces of equipment to talk to each other is probably the most daunting challenge. As an end user, you'll spend a significant amount of time working with the various manufacturers and getting them to talk with each other. Our experience has shown that manufacturers welcome those opportunities, but require an end user as a catalyst for those discussions.
Electronic newsroom systems and MOS interfaces certainly seem to provide all of the needed requirements for a very streamlined operation — that is, until you actually try to implement those systems and their associated interfaces. Software revisions come quickly, and while the latest revision may fix one issue, it often creates others. Check the update carefully before you commit.
These are extremely complicated strings of software code, and you will most likely be trying to get several different manufacturers to comply with your specific application. Keep the lines of communication open with all of your vendors.
Field acquisition is another challenge. We chose to initially record 16:9 SD video and upconvert to HD at the output of the news playout server. The quality was sufficient enough for our first foray into HD, and it allowed us the needed time to concentrate on the studio side of the conversion.
We are currently moving toward HD field acquisition, and starting with the 16:9 upconversion allowed us greater flexibility for the studio build-out. It also gave us the time to hold for a more robust HD field technology.
Live ENG microwave is yet another issue. While the technology is there, the small to medium market budgets may not be. It may make more sense to step your transition across two or three budget cycles as opposed to taking one big bite in a single year.
The daily routines of master control must also be taken into account. How will you handle EAS, school closings and any sponsored L frame squeezebacks? We chose to use a single master control feed and center-cut the 16:9 HD signal to feed the 4:3 SD analog signal. That is not a simple process. The little features like bug insertion can wreak havoc if they are not considered in advance.
The requirements will vary from station to station, and certainly the network feeds will also affect how you handle your signals. Is closed captioning provided on your network's HD feed, or is it only available on the analog feed? Does your network provide a different signal for digital 16:9 and analog 4:3 feeds?
Aspect ratio changes for either dealing with archival video or new third-party news video also needs to be considered. These issues will affect the equipment users the most, and training and familiarity with how to handle various circumstances will need to be addressed.
Mixing archival 4:3 information in a new 16:9 HD story can be done successfully, but it takes a new thought process. Simply having the hardware tools won't help if the equipment users aren't trained in their use. Equipment training can add weeks to system implementation schedules, but is well worth the time.
Remember that the conversion to HD requires a complete rework of the station's visual image. This includes weather systems, Doppler radar and a new graphics package for opens, closes and promotional purposes. All of these items have significant costs that can't be dismissed during the budgeting process.
You may choose to implement a new news set during your kickoff campaign. What are the logistics involved with keeping your news product on the air while your studio is being torn apart for the new set? Remember, at the same time you may also be installing new edit stations and perhaps a new newsroom computer system.
Many stations have long used a grid camera or a newsroom camera, which in smaller markets might simply have been repurposing an older field cam. These too must be addressed. The good news is that there are some relatively inexpensive box cameras that can be equipped with remote control units and provide excellent HD images.
Other good news is that many of the HD production switchers have multiple DVEs and clip servers as options. Character generators can be configured for multiple channels with still store and clip server options, and many of the former post-production “bells and whistles” can now be included in the finished news stories from within the nonlinear edit bay.
While this may sound obvious, we chose to block diagram everything from day one. We were able to use those block diagrams as a planning and communication tool for both the vendors and ourselves. I've often been asked how best to prepare for the conversion to HD. My answer has consistently been to realize that things will not go perfectly. Don't dwell on it, get over the hurdle, and move on. Whether we like it or not, we're all still on that bleeding edge. Getting equipment to work as advertised or function within a system built of equipment from multiple vendors is not a sure thing. Be prepared to use work-arounds until a permanent solution can be developed. Use your block diagrams, but don't be afraid to go back and use an eraser and redraw the lines.
There is no one way to transition to HD. Each station will have its own requirements and its own challenges. Preplanning and keeping an eye on the long term will be the keys to success. We'll be living in this HD world for quite a while, and cutting corners now will impact us for many years. Certainly technology is changing, but how long can you afford to wait if your objective is to acquire or maintain leadership in the market?
Andrew Suk is the vice president of engineering and operations for Cordillera Communications.
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