While many television broadcasters are exploring the idea of multiple platform distribution-where programming is fed over the air, through the Internet, and via mobile phone services-WRAL is actually doing it.
WRAL-DT, a CBS affiliate serving the Raleigh-Durham, N.C. market owned by Capital Broadcasting, distributes news programming live on its main channel and produces live news for its sister station, FOX50.
Select WRAL Channel 5 newscasts, including the noon show, are also streamed as a live Webcast on WRAL.com. WRAL-produced news and weather snippets are also distributed to mobile phones by the WRAL-developed News Over Wireless service, or NOW, which runs on Sprint and Verizon phones.
On Aug. 22, WRAL started offering a continuously updated 15-minute news wheel streamed on its Web site, as well as on the WRAL NewsChannel, launched in February 2003. NewsChannel also airs on WRAL digital subchannel 5.2 and is carried by most local cable companies. Since launching its Web site in 1996, WRAL has offered news, special reports, and documentaries as video-on-demand fare, and in some cases, as programming for sale on DVD. There's also a 24/7 weather channel produced as a DTV subchannel of FOX50.
"Last year, we decided to produce our news product for multiple programming outlets simultaneously. And since we were ahead of the market, it took a year to design and integrate all of the technology involved," said Peter Sockett, chief engineer for WRAL-TV and WRAL-DT. WRAL has a history and reputation for pioneering and innovating, having been in the vanguard with the launch of its HDTV channel in the mid-1990s and live HDTV newscasts in the fall of 2000.
"We're not running the same news content on every medium. We're actually producing fresh programming that's tailored to meet the needs of each outlet and its viewers," said Sockett. "We have implemented a workflow that enables us to serve all of these outlets using the same shared media in a timely, cost-effective manner."
WRAL was also among the first broadcasters to buy and deploy a helicopter outfitted with HD camera and lens as part of its HD newsgathering operation. While many stations merely upgrade their SD news to HD, Sockett said WRAL's HD ENG operation starts with an arsenal of Panasonic DVCPRO HD camcorders shooting native 16:9 HD in the field. The HD ENG operation currently uses a "tape-based backbone," but in the near future, HD acquisition will shift to a nonlinear recording method in the field once the station has evaluated all of the choices on the market.
"When our news photographers go out each day to cover the news, they shoot in native 16:9 1080i HD protecting for the 4:3 safe area," he said. "They also make sure they capture ample footage knowing that we won't be limited to airing just what is cut for the 5 p.m. news. They realize that outlets like our 24/7 DTV NewsChannel and Web site offer the luxury of time, allowing us to go beyond what we can deliver in a time-constrained, traditional half-hour newscast. So the video is shot once, but it's cut into different length packages depending upon how much time each outlet wishes to fill."
Upon returning to the station, the news footage is ingested into WRAL's BitCentral HD server, which is wired as a storage area network connecting 11 Grass Valley Canopus Edius nonlinear HD/SD workstations, capable of editing in full HD resolution. A desktop NLE, the Canopus Edius was chosen because editors can mix and match video of different formats and resolutions-including DVCPRO 100 Mbps HD and 37 Mbps MPEG-2 long-GOP-on the same timeline with no rendering delays. The Canopus system also includes a built-in encoder which can output the finished HD news segments as HD or SD.
The Associated Press ENPS Newsroom Computer System was also installed last year to manage news production, including the rundown of stories in each newscast. Sockett said that since ENPS is MOS-enabled (Media Object Server protocol), the ENPS rundowns are also available to the news team producing the news wheel for the Web and DTV NewsChannel.
"Using the same HD footage and graphics residing in the BitCentral server and the ENPS rundowns, our news producers work to build our 15-minute SD news wheel. We built a small news studio with a Broadcast Pix Slate 2000 production switcher that a single TD or producer can operate to switch between two cameras, as well as handle all of the lower-third supers and over-the-shoulder graphics overlays," Sockett said.
WRAL's news anchors, such as Valonda Calloway, read news copy from teleprompters to introduce each news segment in the news wheel and to give the 15-minute presentation a polished, cohesive look. Since the original media was shot in HD, the downconverted video on the Web has superior clarity when playing in a Real Video or Windows Media player window. The news wheel and NewsChannel are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Conway said the news wheel targets the "at-work" viewer.
"Basically, our news producers are updating this 15-minute news wheel throughout the day with fresh stories and weather reports," said John Conway, general manager for WRAL.com. "We have separate news teams devoted to producing live newscasts for both WRAL and FOX50, for the news wheel that runs continuously on the Web and DTV NewsChannel, as well as other video fare, such as documentaries and special features that are available as video-on-demand from the Web site."
"Since the programming is produced fresh for each outlet, pieces shown live over the air or streamed on WRAL.com can cross-promote each other," Conway said. "And we've turned the traditional broadcast model around by occasionally airing some news content first on our Web site, then airing it on our DTV channels afterwards."
For big news stories, Conway said that news anchors often refer viewers to additional material, such as a press conference shown in its entirety, on the station's 24/7 new media outlets. While the news wheel does not currently cover sports, Conway envisioned that WRAL and FOX50 could one day offer many 24/7 "channels" via the Internet geared to high school sports, traffic, and other advertiser-supported niche programming.
"We have to concern ourselves with respecting the rights associated with third-party produced programming and commercials. For example, our WRAL noon newscast, which is one that we simultaneously stream on WRAL.com; our traffic department never books any spots that aren't approved for national viewing," Conway said.
WRAL is currently testing and studying the prospect of airing all of the content available on WRAL-DT on WRAL.com, essentially turning PCs into TVs. In a Webcast produced a few months ago, and currently archived on the Web site, Capitol Broadcasting CEO Jim Goodmon said, "We're only going to be 'turning on' this station within this market. We'll be using technology that restricts viewers outside of the ZIP codes in our 'contour' area from receiving our TV signal on their PCs."
Goodmon predicted that continual advancements related to the Internet will eventually enable the streaming video to be full HDTV quality.
TitanCast from Decisionmark, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa is the technology that restricts access outside of the station's contour.
A press posted on the WRAL.com Web site said that "viewers who want to sign up for TV via the Internet will enter a credit card number, and Decisionmark uses that information to verify the location of the viewer and grant access to programming.
Decisionmark uses that information to verify the location of the viewer and then grants free access to programming that is also available over-the-air via antenna."
WRAL recently launched the service on a limited basis using station employees as a test bed for the initiative. However, the issue of copyrights related to affiliate stations carrying network programming and other third-party programming on their Web sites is yet to be resolved.
A TALL ORDER
According to Sockett, "Our Web site gets 30 million page views per month. And a research report published last year by Houston-based International Demographics, Inc. ranked WRAL.com as the second most viewed local media, including print, TV, and radio, in the country behind The Washington Post."
Sockett said that viewers want to access the same programming in many forms. In July, WRAL produced "The Parade of Tall Ships" in Beaufort, N.C. in HDTV for its main channel, streamed it over the Web, offered it as video on demand on the Web, and even successfully sold the show on DVD via its Web site. The show was unique in that WRAL engineers leveraged Nucomm wireless HD cameras mounted on several ships and boats for breathtaking views that could otherwise never have been obtained.
"The Internet is critical to our station's future strategy and growth," Sockett said. "We believe that viewers want to get the news they want in the way they want it. And the trust and loyalty they feel for WRAL extends to our Web site."