WUSA streams State of the Union Address live in HD

WUSA, the Gannett-owned CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., streamed President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address Jan. 23 live in HD from its Web site.

It is believed to be the first time a live news event was streamed in HD. HD Technology Update talked to the WUSA computer systems analyst Brian Franco to learn more about how the station pulled off the live HD streaming and what it might lead to in the future.

HD Technology Update: When did planning for the HD streaming of the president's State of the Union Address begin?

Brian Franco: We knew this was coming down in HD and that we would be able to stream it over the Web about a week beforehand, but we had been planning to do live HD for quite some time.

HDTU: What did those plans entail?

BF: It started out as a project last year to broaden our Web capabilities. We bought two Web SD streaming servers and one HD streaming server to replace our very old system. Quite honestly, we really didn't know exactly how we would be using the HD live streamer, and we realized that we wouldn't be able to do that many live events because getting the HD signal is difficult enough, let alone being able to stream it on the Web.

So, we mostly saw it as video on demand for the HD side, but it kind of fell in our laps that the State of the Union Address was an HD pool feed, and with the station being a CBS affiliate and CBS doing it themselves, we put it on the Web.

HDTU: How many people streamed the HD version of the live speech?

BF: We had 415 hits. Now, a hit is categorized as every time someone connects or rebuffers. We had about 40 to 50 concurrent users that we know of. We don't have an actual count of how many unique hits there were.

HDTU: Do you have a way of projecting what you envision to be the number of HD streams that will be required in the future?

BF: I feel the live aspect of it again is still a little hinckey — just the fact that we would love to do our newscasts on the Web in HD because we are an HD station, but we have to worry about rights for sports footage, CNN and CBS footage. So, I would say as far as the HD experience, I see that on-demand will be more of a big deal with specials that we've done in HD.

Also, what we are looking for is other Gannett stations — because we are part of the Gannett group — to help provide content. They will benefit from this as well.

HDTU: Do you think the HD streaming capability gives the station presence in a new market, for instance, where people can view HD from work?

BF: Definitely. One of my major pushes behind this was to sell it as a try-before-you-buy program. People who haven't ever seen an HD picture can download a file onto their computer to watch on a computer screen that's HD resolution anyway. They can play it back and see the crisp, clear picture and see some sort of Best Buy or Circuit City logo or something along those lines.

Because we are first in the pool, I believe we can attract people from all around the world — especially in the U.S. — instead of relying solely on our market. One thing we've actually considered when we did the streaming in the WUSA market is that we have a about a 95 percent penetration of people who could watch the stream perfectly at 3.2Mb/s because the cable modems allow users to get about 6Mb/s down on average.

But, we found across the U.S., it is generally about a 50-50 shot (at having that sort of bandwidth available), and in talking to those markets, we found that their users generally only have about 3Mb/s available.

So, probably what we'll do if we ever have a live streaming event, we are going to offer this content up as about a 2Mb stream as well so that other people across the U.S. can benefit from this. I kind of see it as a way to offer just as much content as we can to everybody.

HDTU: So, this gives you a way to promote your HD on-air presence and HD in general because it is giving folks who have high-res computer monitors a way to see what they wouldn't otherwise be able to see in their homes without an HDTV.

BF: Exactly. Most Web streaming you see today — especially live streaming — you can barely make out people's faces, let alone details in the background and exactly what is happening.

What we do with a live streaming event, we have the HD feed, which is 3Mb. Unfortunately, we cannot make that variable bit rate because the server is already doing so much. On the SD side, we have a 1Mb, a 500k and a 56k that is all variable bit rate. The 1Mb itself is clear enough that it essentially is like watching an analog TV.

This is great because this is a way we can show people and really get people to realize you can watch stuff that looks even better than your TV at home, even on the Web, and reach people who might not necessarily be able to receive our channel and promote ourselves.

HDTU: What servers are you using?

BF: We are using Dell 2900 servers. Obviously, the HD server is a little bit beefier than our SDs. The HD server has about a terabyte of disk space. It's using Dual Core Xeon 3GHz processors. The SD servers have 250Gigs of space and dual 2.3 Dual Core Xeons. We use the Digital Rapids streaming cards for both the HD and SD.

HDTU: How are you using those cards?

BF: They provide some of the best video quality I am able to pull. The cards themselves actually de-interlace everything instead of doing it in software. That way, they chew up a lot less CPU power. To me, it looks like a much cleaner picture. So far, we have been very happy with them.

Before, we used a low-end Osprey with a regular desktop streaming server with Windows Media 9 encoder. So that was a little archaic.

HDTU: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

BF: As far as the State of Union, that was our first real test of the system. I had been tweaking it for about two months before that day, just playing with it, trying to encode football games in real time. I think the State of the Union HD streaming project went off extremely well and turned out better than I thought it would.

I'm just so glad that we were able to get as high a penetration as we could, at least in the D.C. market, and hopefully there will be more to come — more and more pool feeds if not in HD at least in 16:9. I think this kind of forces everybody and us at WUSA to create more HD content and put it up on the Web.

I think it's been a great thing. It's the next step, especially with the release of Windows Vista and how Microsoft is pushing very high-end multimedia experiences. I believe that HD streaming is the next step for a very high experience over the Web.

Editor's note: To experience WUSA's HD streaming, visit www.wusa9.com/hd.

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