WRAL-TV's pioneering HD news operation celebrates third anniversary

This month as WRAL-TV in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., marks the third anniversary of its industry pioneering HD news operations, station manager Chuck deCourt is pleased with the station's high-definition news product, but acknowledges a few hurdles remain.

From the ENG crews in the field through editing, from the studio to the weather system, everything in the WRAL news arsenal is HD. Photo courtesy WRAL-TV.

From the ENG crews in the field through editing, from the studio to the weather system, everything in the WRAL news arsenal is HD. Such an ambitious effort brings with it a few headaches. "The biggest challenge is finding the hardware in the HD world that can live up to the expectations that were created in an analog hardware world where the equipment has had a chance to mature over time," said deCourt.

The station manager identified three areas where HD news operations face challenges: latency in ENG feeds, latency in election night graphics and asset management of feeds, files and formats.

WRAL's ENG crews shoot HD in the field, which is brought to the truck and downconverted to standard definition so that it can be microwaved to the station. Once at the WRAL studio, it's upconverted to 1080i.

Surprisingly, the problem with this approach isn't quality. "Even doing that, the picture quality is light years ahead of traditional analog," said deCourt. The challenge for WRAL is the latency introduced by the process. Currently, the station is seeking a solution to reduce latency to under a second.

WRAL's control room. Photo courtesy WRAL-TV.

Generating election coverage graphics on the fly is also a problem in HD. "Like other stations, we have an automated election system that pipes results into the Chyron (to generate on-air graphics)," said deCourt. "When you are telling a Chyron to do that in 1080i, there is so much more processing that goes into creating the graphic that latency issues are dramatic.

"In an analog world, you just call up a race (and the results are displayed). Now there is a time period that can be up to 10 seconds (to generate the graphic)," he said. WRAL is seeking a solution to eliminate the latency for the 2004 elections.

The remaining challenge facing WRAL's HD news operation is management of media assets. The station currently is tape-based. It shoots HD and pulls in SD analog network feeds. "We require HD," said deCourt. "How do you manage and integrate those products? And there are so many flavors of HD out there. The real issue will be how you manage your video assets." So far the station is studying its options.

Being a pioneer is never easy, but according to deCourt the challenges and occasional headaches of gathering, producing and disseminating news in high-definition pale in comparison to the benefit of seeing the end product.

"Once you've seen the news in HD you never want to go back," said deCourt. "The bottom line is the product looks absolutely wonderful."

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