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WBNS-TV extends HD infrastructure

Since February 2007, WBNS-TV, the Dispatch Broadcast Group-owned CBS affiliate in Columbus, OH, has broadcast its local newscasts in HD. But lately, the HD footprint around the building has gotten a little bigger.

WBNS recently added a second Snell Kahuna multiformat production switcher as part of its HD infrastructure build out to support HD local productions done by 10TV Productions, its in-house production arm, as well as to integrate operations at the Ohio News Network (ONN), the broadcast group’s statewide 24/7 cable news channel, with WBNS.

According to WBNS director of engineering Pat Ingram, the upgrade of ONN and TV10 Productions was part of the broadcast group’s original, long-term plan for HD. In this Sound Off interview, Ingram discusses the station’s original HD upgrade, the latest phase of the project encompassing 10TV Productions and ONN as well as how the broadcaster is balancing bit allocation to maintain a high level of quality with its HD image while making way for one SD multicast channel and a newly launched mobile DTV channel.

HD Technology Update: You’ve been quoted as saying the Columbus, OH, market is one of the most competitive news markets in the country and that the only way to remain competitive is to operate as efficiently as possible. How did the desire to maximize news workflow efficiency influence the design of your HD plant?

Pat Ingram: I think one thing for WBNS itself is accuracy, and being first to air is of the utmost importance. I think it is impossible today to be competitive if you are using a tape-based workflow. All the stations in Columbus are either all P2 or mostly P2 now, so everybody is on a file-based workflow now. Everyone kind of plays tag keeping up with each other and trying to get ahead of each other technologically so they can have that edge when it comes to getting that news accurately on the air.

We switched to file-based nonlinear editing over seven years ago, and we just completed the acquisition side when we switched to all P2.

This all started with a total overhaul of everything in house, starting with our network. One of the first things we did was totally rebuild the network infrastructure in house to a total GigE network, and something that is expandable and has plenty of bandwidth capacity to transfer files between not only the newsroom and newsroom computer and editing systems, but between promotions an programming, so everybody could share video files wherever they need to be shared. Promotions can pull a news story so they can do a real quick promo and get it on the air.

Getting that file-based network system up and running where it should have been for this was very important.

Previously, we were on a 10Base100 network for a number of years. There were a lot of things that initiated this. First off, we were going to Omneon Spectrum servers. We went to an Omneon MediaGrid for an editing SAN for our Final Cut Pro people. All of this required high-speed transfer of files since it was all HD. Before we started those projects, the first thing we did was build out our network because we’ve known for a long time that we were going to a file-based system with a five-year plan for getting everything file-based.

The news people wanted instant access to their stories — not just from an edit suite, but from their desktops — and they wanted to be able to pull things out into the field and to send things in from the field. Our promotions people wanted to have that same access to news stories to build their promos and then send their product to our play-to-air servers. All of this can be done with file-based transfer now. It’s all part of our infrastructure plan to have a total file-based workflow.

To take it one step further, our routing system now is totally embedded. Although this has its good and bad points for a lot of stations, I think down the road it will pay dividends for us as more and more gear goes fully embedded. Then we can do our linear stuff through the routing system without having the issues of lip-synch problems and things that get stripped off video and don’t get added back. Everything stays intact as it passes through the station that way.

HD Technology Update: Could you outline the technology involved in upgrading the news studio, control room, weather and field acquisition for HD?

Pat Ingram: Starting with our news studio, when we went to HD, one of the first things we did was just some minor work to the set to get it up to speed for our HD launch. In terms of technology, one of the first things was purchase our HD studio cameras. At that point, our SD cameras were about 10 years old. We knew we could run our new Ikegami HD cameras in SD mode for a while before we actually switched the outputs to HD. At that point, we had about a four-week plan for switching over everything that was part of our HD studio, which included adding a Kahuna switcher.

We had purchased the Kahuna about six months before that, had it all installed and put it in a ghosting position for operators to train on because this was totally different from what they were used to.

We updated our Pinnacle Dekos, which were SD to all HD; we updated our Weather Central graphics to all HD and our weather radar, our own local radar.

In the field, we are all P2. At this point, it’s SD P2 16:9. The cameras are fully HD-compatible. They have all of the AVC cards installed for when we decide to go to MPEG-4. But until we can actually upgrade our news editing system, which will be later this year, we are acquiring in SD right now. Anything that we send in from our ENG trucks, we send in as anamorphic, and we let the Kahuna or the ARCs (aspect ratio controllers) we have attached to the news editing system expand them back out to 16:9 format.

We are in the final phase right now of finishing up our 2GHz Sprint Nextel relocation, which will finish in about four to six weeks, and we will switch over to our new band plan. At that point, we’ll be doing all digital, but still 16:9 SD from the field because it’s an upgrade of those radios to get them up to HD. We will probably upgrade our receivers first and a couple of our live trucks and then add more as we go. It’s just basically a license key to upgrade those radios.

HD Technology Update: Not only did the Dispatch Broadcast Group upgrade WBNS 10 TV News to HD, but it also upgraded 10TV Productions and the 24-hour Ohio News Network, which is located in the same building as the station’s studios. How did you approach that aspect of the project from an efficiency/workflow point of view?

Pat Ingram: This is all part of a long-term plan. When ONN — Ohio News Network — was initially started, it was an entirely separate entity. They had their own control room, their own studio and their own format. They originally were on SX. Our goal was to get them upgraded totally onto the WBNS system. So in the past couple of years, we’ve upgraded them to all P2 equipment. They’ve upgraded totally off the editing system that WBNS uses. We’ve gotten them away from their routing system. They’ve been attached to the new WBNS routing switcher, so they have access to all the same things.

Basically, we are bringing them in as an extension of the WBNS newsroom. They can still do their coverage from around Ohio, but WBNS has access to the material they shoot and vice versa. You don’t have to take a tape over to the other part of the building and have them ingest it that way. It’s all sitting on the same servers.

For 10TV Productions, that’s something we’ve always done at our building. But with news taking up a lot of your studio place, you really don’t have a lot of space to do production. As a result, ONN’s newsroom was actually in our second studio. We moved them into another part of the building and rebuilt our studio back out as a production studio. It still has ONN’s smaller news set in it, but now we have a location in there we can use ONN’s SD cameras or roll in HD cameras and use it.

We also put in another Kahuna production switcher for them, which mirrors the one that’s in WBNS’s control room and can share files back and forth. The goal is to get all the people from both companies comfortable with going to either control room or studio where they can pick the size studio they need and be comfortable using it.

We have a few more things to do to ONN to get them fully up to speed. Their studio cameras are still 16:9 SD, and also their Deko graphics will have to be upgraded to HD. That’s on the drawing board.

It’s not a big rush for them because ONN is distributed as a 4:3 format via cable and satellite. I think if we get them up to the level of HD, it would be accepted by the cable companies as an HD channel. I think it would be good for everybody.

Right now, it is not a priority for us to get that part of it done, but within the next year and half to two years, we would love to get to that point.

HD Technology Update: How are you treating SD file footage that needs to be integrated into the HD newscast?

Pat Ingram: Stuff that’s sent to us and material in our archive, we don’t stretch it. We add side curtains to it with our aspect ratio controllers to any 4:3 material, and all of that is done on the headend of the switcher and the headend of the editing system. So anything they want to pull off the archive, they can add side curtains to the stuff they are editing.

Also, you can take just about anything you want through the Kahuna and put it at whatever format you have the switcher set for. We still intermix SD programming with HD cameras and so forth for commercials and productions, and the Kahuna does all of the transcoding for that.

HD Technology Update: A recent estimate from BIA/Kelsey projects TV industry revenue dropped 22.4 percent in 2009. How does this economic climate impact taking on an HD upgrade?

Pat Ingram: You know, the longer you wait to do an HD upgrade, the cheaper it gets, but the economic conditions can definitely slow down your process. Your three-year plan can now become a five-year plan. Fortunately, we had a good 70 to 80 percent done before the bottom fell out, so to speak. We’ve been very fortunate from a station standpoint in that we’ve maintained excellent ratings, and we are getting through it pretty good. You can’t say that for all of the stations around the country. I think we are just filling out the blanks, working on wiring and getting documentation up to date as your capital is a little less than in the past couple of years.

HD Technology Update: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Pat Ingram: As we continue to utilize more of our bandwidth, a lot of stations have to consider if we want to stay at 1080i or move to 720p. If they are adding extra stations, what’s their level of quality comfort for extra stations? I’ve got a low level of comfort. I want to keep our level of quality as high as possible. We are also one of the first mobile DTV broadcasters in the country. It’s a very fine balancing act right now to do everything you want to do and still keep up your quality as high as you can.

Right now, we can run our HD at about 13.5Mb/s to 14Mb/s. That seems to be a good threshold for us running a 1080i signal because we are using a new NetVX encoder. It’s much more efficient than the Flexcoder we have. Currently, we are only doing one SD channel — an AccuWeather channel — and have staggered the bandwidth on it depending on what we need for our HD channel. So if we are running a sporting event, we’ll give the HD channel a little more bandwidth. If we are running the regular CBS programming, we’ll keep the AccuWeather at 2Mb/s to 2.5Mb/s. Mobile automatically takes about 2.5Mb/s for the first channel. We are only running one mobile DTV channel.