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Las Vegas Democrat showdown marks first HD debate coverage for CNN HD

Last week's telecast of the Democrat debate in Las Vegas was a first for CNN. It marked the network’s inaugural broadcast of a presidential primary debate in HD.

The network, which launched CNN HD domestically in September, rolled into Las Vegas with its CNN Express Bus and a mobile production unit to cover the debate like it has three others this year in HD. The difference was that the Nov. 15 event from the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, (UNLV) was the first time CNN HD viewers could actually view the HD coverage.

“We are now finally past the big throwing of the switch that came a couple of months ago,” said David Borhman, CNN senior VP and Washington, D.C., Bureau Chief, who produced the debate for the network.

The first three debates offered the network the opportunity to accomplish two goals: get the kinks out and begin building an archive of HD footage of candidates from both parties that can be used throughout its coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign.

“It’s [the Las Vegas debate is] presenting all of the challenges high-def brings along with it,” Borhman said. “We tried to stay away from the most dangerous part of high-def, which is when people try to get too ambitious with sound and go to 5.1 [surround sound] right away.” Burned a few years ago with a 5.1 surround mix of the State of the Union address when he “discovered the misery of sound and where channels go” in the homes of viewers, Borhman took a conservative approach to last night’s audio by presenting a stereo mix, he said.

Shooting the debate in HD with nearly a dozen cameras required being mindful of the same considerations common to other HD productions: attention to framing, positioning and maintaining 4:3 safe shots for the SD audience. Prior to the debate, candidate podiums were positioned so CNN could capture shots of individual candidates without the appearance of other candidates creeping into the edges of the shots. According to Borhman, there was “plenty of room” to accomplish that goal. To maintain 4:3 safe video, dual 4:3 and 16:9 monitors in the production vehicle let Borhman and others involved in the production keep their eyes on both feeds simultaneously.

The debate also served as a testing ground for an IP backup of HD backhaul. While four conventional satellite links from the CNN Express Bus provided primary backhaul support from Las Vegas, the network used a Streambox portable HD IP transport running at 8Mb/s for backup delivery of the signal to master control, Borhman said.

Initially tested for SD backup backhaul during the July Democrat debate from The Citadel campus in South Carolina, the IP transport proved itself. “At the Citadel, it was up for three full days and it was rock solid, and basically there was no delay,” he said. At last week’s debate, it again proved itself “as a really interesting way to transmit” backup of the HD feed from the bus, he said.