WPVI launches HD newscasts; aspect ratio becomes surprising challenge

ABC-owned WPVI in Philadelphia became one of about a dozen television stations in the United States to begin broadcasting local high-definition newscasts when it went on-air with its own HD news July 23.

While many might assume the conversion from standard definition to 720p high definition would be the most difficult aspect of producing an HD newscast, station vice president of engineering Jim Gilbert says the surprising challenge was the number of aspect ratio conversions needed to integrate HD shots from studio, portable and airborne news chopper cameras and HD graphics with 4:3 ENG shots, file footage and legacy graphics.

“Everywhere you turned around, you have a 4:3-16:9 problem to work on,” he says. “It was and still is an issue because 4:3 isn’t going to go away. It’s going to be there. Even when we turn off the analog transmitter, there will still be people out there with 4:3 sets, and they are going to be watching 4:3 material.”

Currently, the station shoots ENG footage in 4:3 SD, “putting wings” on to fill out the 16:9 aspect ratio and upconverting it to 720p HD, he says. In the newsroom, editing is done on a Thomson Grass Valley brand NewsEdit station, where the same approach is used with 4:3 footage before being edited with native HD footage.

WPVI expects to begin 16:9 SD field acquisition within the next month, says Gilbert. But before that can happen, the station’s camera operators and editors have to be trained to shoot and edit in that aspect ratio while still being mindful of the station’s vast 4:3 audience.

The core of the station’s graphics are three Chyron XClyps and three HyperXs set up in various configurations, says Gilbert. New graphics work is being done in 16:9 HD designed with a 4:3 safe area in mind. Legacy graphics are being upconverted, he says.

While the fledgling HDTV newscasts give WPVI bragging rights as the first station in Philadelphia to be on air with high-definition local news, HD ENG is not in the immediate future, says Gilbert. Doing so would require a complete conversion of the station’s microwave infrastructure, including ENG trucks and inner city relays. However, Gilbert has reason to believe the 12MHz digital channels that are a part of the 2GHz Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) relocation will be sufficient for point-to-point transmission of HD live shots based on the station’s experience with its HD news helicopter.

“We’re scrunching it down pretty good, but we do get it through and it looks pretty good," he says.

Editor’s note: Be sure to check out the next edition of HD Technology Update for a more in-depth interview with Jim Gilbert on WPVI’s HD newscast.