WRGB kicks off local HD newscasts with clever twist

WRGB, the Freedom Communications-owned CBS affiliate serving Albany, NY, became the first station in upstate New York to deliver its local HD newscasts when it went on-air with its 11 p.m. report Jan. 13.

The next morning, the broadcaster’s duopoly CW affiliate, WCWN, went on-air with its own HD newscast, produced by WRGB. Planning for the conversion of local news to HD began in 2006 and picked up momentum throughout 2007, according to WRGB director of engineering Fred Lass.

HD Technology Update spoke with Lass about the project to learn about his approach to HD and uncovered a surprising twist that helps the station bridge the gap between its new 16:9 HD audience and 4:3 SD viewers.

HD Technology Update: When did you decide to take your local news and origination into HD?

Fred Lass: It was an evolving process. Initially, we were thinking of doing 16:9 SD, but when we went with the Ross switcher and OverDrive for automated production, we put in the multidef version of it, and that made it an easy decision to do everything in real HD instead of upconverted SD widescreen.

HD Technology Update: Was there a period after putting that switcher in that you started to put the other pieces into place?

Fred Lass: The planning for that began in 2006; 2007 was a busy year for WRGB and WCWN because we rolled out the OverDrive system and a new editing system for news. Basically, we installed our new editing equipment in December 2007, and when we put it in, we switched all of our Ikegami cameras to 16:9 on that day and we went on the air with it centercut, and nobody knew the difference.

When we went to true HD, we were upconverting the SD widescreen output of our video servers and intercutting that with studio cameras, which are true HD, and a graphics system that is true HD. We also upgraded the Albany bureau to HD at the same time.

HD Technology Update: Did you upgrade your existing control room to HD while you continued to use it to produce your SD newscast, or did you set up a temporary control room?

Fred Lass: We signed off SD on Sunday morning, and at 11 o’clock at night we were HD the same day.

HD Technology Update: In the process leading up to that, were you working in little windows of time in your SD control room to make the switch to HD when the room wasn’t being used to put your SD newscast on the air?

Fred Lass: We had an option at 6:30 that evening to do a local newscast or carry “The CBS Evening News,” and in order to lengthen the window, we opted to carry “The CBS Evening News” on that one Sunday evening.

HD Technology Update: But for the months leading up to the transition, were you at work in the control room in the windows of time between newscasts preparing for HD — for instance, installing a new HD news graphics system?

Fred Lass: Actually, we bought the Vizrt in the summer of 2007 developing the graphics on it and continuing to use the FX Deko for SD. One of the last minute changes was to switch from the FX Deko to Vizrt.

HD Technology Update: What did you do regarding HD monitoring in the control room?

Fred Lass: It’s an Avitech multiview monitor.

HD Technology Update: Could you walk through the technology you’re using?

Fred Lass: The field cameras were Ikegami HL DV7Ws. That was a simple matter of just throwing the aspect ratio switch and changing the graticule in the viewfinder for photographers to help them frame their shots.

In the studio, we replaced Sony BVP-7s with Panasonic AK-HC1500Gs. We basically put those cameras online the week beforehand and downcoverted and centercut them, so on the day we were switching over, it was just a matter of pulling the patches on the downconverters and letting the HD signal go through.

HD Technology Update: Was your master control previously upgraded to HD?

Fred Lass: Yes, we did that in 2006.

HD Technology Update: What are you doing about 5.1 surround-sound audio?

Fred Lass: We’re not doing any 5.1. Our audio is as comprehensive as it can be without doing any 5.1. We’ve talked about it, but there are no plans to do it at this point. We could. We have the audio board to do it and all the rest of the equipment, we would just need the VANC metadata inserter to describe the audio coming out of the control room as 5.1, and we could switch it easily with all of the other equipment we have. But right now, it’s not in the cards.

HD Technology Update: Some stations have used the opportunity of transitioning to HD to also move from a linear tape-based news workflow to a file-based approach. What’s your experience?

Fred Lass: We’ve been file-based here since 1997. We completely changed it from the old EditStar system to the (Harris) Leitch Velocity system with NEXIO servers. We are using these in the SD mode and upconverting the output. Remember, our field cameras are still SD, so there is no advantage right now to having HD servers.

Another important thing is because all the servers are configured for widescreen, we can even take highlights from ESPN and other HD signals. We downconvert them on the way into the servers, so we can even do sports feeds in widescreen and it looks pretty good.

HD Technology Update: What type of converters are you using?

Fred Lass: We’re using a mixture of Ross UDC 8225s, an assortment of Miranda (Technologies) XVPs and QUCs and some AJA FS-1s.

HD Technology Update: Where do you stand with the 2GHz BAS relocation project? And what do you plan to do about HD ENG?

Fred Lass: The purchase orders have been submitted to Nextel. We are awaiting delivery of our equipment, and we’ve worked out a plan where most of our intracity links can be converted to digital. But with no HD cameras in the field, it’s not going to be HD.

HD Technology Update: What were the biggest surprises or challenges you encountered with the conversion to HD origination?

Fred Lass: The first challenge was how to shoot for both 16:9 and 4:3 simultaneously without having a huge difference in the look. We decided to do something that I don’t believe anybody else did. We’re actually downconverting our HD for our SD channel using a 14:9 scheme, which means there is a slight amount of black on the top and the bottom of an SD TV set, but in most cases, that is in the overscan area of the CRT tube and most people don’t even notice it. That made the design of our graphics much easier because we did not have to protect for centercut. It also made our photographers’ job easier because as they are shooting, they can shoot tighter than they would otherwise.

The on-air look for the HD channel doesn’t look as loose as it would as if you went to a centercut mode.

HD Technology Update: Were the viewfinders for the cameras available with a 14:9 graticule?

Fred Lass: No, you have to interpolate between the graticules.

HD Technology Update: What was the other surprise or challenge?

Fred Lass: What was more of a challenge was how to do our Albany bureau in HD. We came up with an interesting scheme. We put an HD encoder at the Albany bureau and then converted it to IP, and we put it on a 5.8GHz IP radio that goes to our digital transmitter site where it’s turned around and brought down to the studio on 5.8GHz IP. The radios are 45Mb. They are Harris Velox LE50s and we are running 35Mb HD video over the unlicensed links.

HD Technology Update: Have you experienced any interference because you are using unlicensed spectrum?

Fred Lass: We’ve been using 5.8GHz here since 2003 and have never had any significant interference issues with it nor any reliability issues with it. It’s a very cost-effective and interesting approach. There are some other aspects to it that get a little technical with respect to VLANs, CISCO switches and because of where our Albany bureau is located. It’s on the third floor of a 24-story building, so to get the data back up to the roof, it had to go on fiber. The distance over ordinary cable is too long, and the distance from the HD skycamera on the roof of that building is too long for anything but fiber.

The studio camera and the skycam are both Sony BRC-H700s, and we have the fiber-optic CCU with that for the skycam, and that’s worked out extremely well.

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

Fred Lass: Probably the surprise that most people wouldn’t think about is that when you do a change like this, you think you know what to expect. But because we are using news production automation, there was an additional learning curve for the news department in how to make OverDrive work properly with new codes and templates for everything because the workflow changed when we did the switchover. That was partially because of Vizrt and partially because of HD.

By the way, WRGB in Albany is a duopoly that also runs the CW affiliate, and we also do news on the CW affiliate. So at 7 a.m. the morning after we went on-air with WRGB’s newscast in HD, the news on WCWN was also in HD. The master control for WCWN was also put into HD in 2006 when we bought it from Tribune. We bought it without master control, so we had to build our own. We built it for HD from the beginning. So, we are the first and second stations in upstate New York to do HD news.

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