Saturday, Jan. 3 at about 11:30 p.m.—at the conclusion of an NFL playoff game that garnered a nice, healthy 22 rating—WBAL-TV officially launched Baltimore's second HD newcast.
The debut of the gleaming new HD studio at the city's NBC affiliate ranked among the career-defining moments of Jeff Halapin, WBAL-TV's director of engineering, who joined the staff in July 2007.
Armed with the financial backing of parent Hearst-Argyle Broadcasting, Halapin helped create the budget for the multi-million dollar project that he feels "favorably compares to any network HD broadcast facility in the country."
A panoramic view of WBAL's new 2,904-square foot HD-ready studio An industry vet who had previously worked in the engineering departments of seven other broadcast entities, he said the learning curve was just one enjoyable aspect of riding WBAL's wave into the future. "I wasn't an expert in HD before," Halapin said, "but I am now."
After the budget was decided, Halapin got busy negotiating with various systems integrators before striking a deal in late 2007 with Communications Engineering Inc. (CEI). The Newington, Va.-based company's primary responsibilities in the station's HD makeover included designing and constructing a video control room, an audio control room, the news production studio, a core equipment room and a video control area.
The effort encompassed ensuring the proper design of the technical space, including electrical and mechanical systems. Key equipment installs included four Sony HDC-1400L cameras with Canon HD lenses, a Sony MVS8000G production switcher, Wheatstone D-10 digital audio mixer, Barco OverView OV-715 video wall with three 70-inch projectors, Evertz routing system with an MVP video controller and monitoring equipment, Harris timing equipment, Vizrt image effects, Dolby encoders and decoders, DNF universal switch panels, an Image Video tally system, Wohler audio and video monitors, and Sony and Tektronix video monitors.
John Wesley Nash, executive vice president and CEO with CEI, said WBAL was "very open to suggestions that we had during the negotiations. That was evident when they opted for the HD router, the terminal equipment and the MVP system, all from Evertz."
"The other major influence that we had," he said, "was the addition of the Barco videowall," which CEI also recently installed to the HD control rooms at WETA-TV in Northern Virginia and the Newseum in Washington, D.C. "We also worked closely in the development of the custom consoles and the control room layout."
Preparation for the installation meant that WBAL's production studio had to be gutted. That meant 50 years of old wiring was ripped out before a new lighting grid was added for a lighting system that includes products from Brightline and DeSisti. The floor was floated to make it level.
At that point, Halapin was ready to let the games begin, so to speak. "I learned a lot from my colleagues at Hearst's HD conclave that was held last winter in Orlando," he said. "It was also uplifting that my corporate engineering head, Marty Faubell, gave me the leeway to build the control room that fit our needs. Hearst does not do cookie-cutter designs."
LIVE IN THE STUDIO
Halapin said that he gave WBAL-TV Creative Services Director Stephen Bamonti a "blank canvass" when they discussed what would be required to build a world-class studio, as local programming is a big deal at WBAL.
The picture Bamonti painted started with establishing a temporary set in the newsroom as the gutting was done "that will remain in use for many years," he said, "but the primary focus was to make the new studio flexible so we can showcase our local broadcasts. We produce at least 15 news and entertainment programs annually, in addition to our daily broadcasts," so that means four-and-one-half hours of news programming every day, more on weekends.
The station employs Duratrans to create different looks on the set for its various programs, which are now also enhanced by the 100-inch Optima Big Vision screen that is situated between the news anchor chairs. "It's only the third [screen] to have been installed at a TV station domestically," Bamonti said.
"[The Optima Big Vision] is big, bright and gorgeous," he said, noting that WBAL's HD broadcasts are also now en-hanced by three Vizrt graphics workstations that incorporate Adobe software. Not only does the Vizrt technology facilitate real-time rendering, faster connections to Hearst's corporate graphics gateway and quick file sharing capabilities, it also has enhanced the appearance of the news ticker that pops up at the bottom of the screen each morning with the news, weather, etc.
In addition, the station will soon receive the WSIMax weather presentation system, which facilitates enhanced weather coverage.
WBAL's new master control room RESULTS DON'T LIE
The only equipment that was not upgraded in the transition were the three robotic studio cameras (plus a fourth for the newsroom set), though they are already slated for a future upgrade. "While other Hearst stations have rebuilt their technical facilities piecemeal, we pretty much went for the big bang," Halapin says.
And what did WBAL receive for its bucks? "A network-quality broadcast, which is somewhat unusual for the 26th market," he said. "There is no difference between what you would find here at WBAL and at 30 Rock, equipment, or personnel-wise."
CEI's "main challenge in the project was to transition the main plant router to the HD router and the migration of the main SD sources to the HD infrastructure without disrupting day-to-day operations," according to Nash, who adds that he has been watching WBAL's newscasts since completing the upgrade and supported Halapin's observations.
"The broadcast looks beautiful," he said. "They have an absolutely top-notch setup that compares well to any station in the country," said Nash. "Our experience allowed us to offer WBAL the maximum amount of production capability and state-of-the-art technology within what I consider to be an adequate budget."
Halapin and company are now looking at taking the next step toward completion of WBAL's HD transformation—HD in the field. "Hearst handles upgrades in three phases" he noted: control room/studio, field acquisition and field transmission.
But for now, Halapin just wants to enjoy the fruits of phase one. "Not many people get handed the money to do a project like this, let alone the freedom and latitude to do it," he said. "We did."