Local Stations High on HD

Apr 16, 2007  •  Post A Comment

So far the high-definition programming transition has been led by sporting events, prime-time programming and sweeping nature specials. But soon local news programming will find its way into that hi-def mix with more regularity.

In the past year, a handful of local TV stations have begun converting their news operations to produce HD newscasts. At first blush, news is not a must-have for these hi-def consumers in the way that sports or movies are, but stations that have made the switch contend that viewers notice and appreciate the difference.

“It’s a better viewing experience,” said Frank Comerford, president and general manager of NBC-owned WNBC-TV in New York, which flipped the switch on hi-def last fall. “TV is a visual medium, and people may say news is news, but it’s not. That’s why some people watch one newscast and some another.”

And that’s why NBC will transition more of its owned stations to hi-def news. In addition, the CBS-owned stations and ABC-owned stations have begun the changeover, as have several other station groups.

Most stations have already made the mandatory transition to digital that enables them to carry network programming in HD. That provides the foundation on which to layer the HD infrastructure investment.

Broadcasters are changing to digital because the government has mandated that local TV stations must provide their programming in digital TV and the analog cutoff date of February 2009 looms.

Also, more homes have HD TV sets. By the end of this year, more than 47 million households in the United States will have high-definition TV sets, up from 35 million at the end of 2006, according to Jupiter Research.

Viewers who have bought their HD sets want to see as much programming as possible in hi-def, station executives say. Once consumers have taken the plunge and made the investment in a new hi-def set, they tend to tune to HD channels first to see what’s on. That’s why it’s important to offer them a local news product that approximates what they are becoming accustomed to seeing on the HD networks they frequent.

The cost for a local station to outfit its new operations in HD varies widely, depending on market size and equipment — stations need to invest in new studio cameras, field cameras, switching equipment, production equipment and graphics — but it can range from $1.5 million to $10 million, said Mark Siegel, president of Advanced Broadcast Solutions in Seattle, a systems integrator that helps stations make the transition.

In addition to the cost, stations are finding they must tackle other challenges when making the conversion. One of these is training newsroom employees how to use the new equipment. Stations also report facing a hurdle in their effort to seamlessly integrate the programming they produce in HD with existing archival footage and other material shot in standard definition.

The aspect ratios vary between standard definition and HD. Editors must be trained to properly mix a piece of news shot in a 4×3 standard-definition ratio with a piece shot in 16×9 HD ratio. Usually, broadcasters include “wings” or some sort of black bars or graphic treatment around the standard-definition content that will be viewed on a wider HD screen.

Mix and Match

“Dealing with SD in HD is not the problem,” said Matthew Braatz, regional VP of technology for NBC stations. “The real challenge is dealing with the different aspect ratios and mixing the two materials. If you don’t do it right, it’s either squished or stretched. As you edit it together to create a 16×9 piece, if you just drop 4×3 in, it will stretch that video.”

NBC deals with this by flagging each piece of video and its aspect ratio as soon as it enters the system. That way, when the video is being used, the editor knows right away which format he’s dealing with.

Transitioning to HD for WNBC was part of the broader digital changeover. “The true add-on to hi-def was the studio itself, the control room and converting our field operations to 16×9,” Mr. Braatz said.

The HD portion of the changeover probably added 10 percent to 20 percent in cost compared with buying new equipment for a standard-definition outfit, he said.

“In our case, we chose to rebuild entirely,” Mr. Braatz said. “Our control room was completely analog. As we rebuild some of the other stations, we will reuse certain assets that are digital for hi-def. If you have a partial digital infrastructure, you can add in.”

Mr. Comerford declined to disclose costs, but said WNBC spent millions of dollars. “It was closer to $10 million than $1 million,” he said.

WNBC’s new HD facility includes a control room with a virtual monitor wall consisting of 10 screens that can display up to 130 different video feeds simultaneously. The studio includes five robotic HD cameras. The station upgraded to a HD helicopter setup, too.

But new equipment is just the start. The next step is training. Education is critical for the transition, Mr. Comerford said. That applies to both external education for viewers and internal education for staffers.

Not only does a station need to train its employees, it also needs to let viewers know how to receive hi-def signals. Many viewers buy HD sets but don’t actually receive HD programming because they don’t sign up for it from their cable or satellite operator, nor do they purchase an antenna to receive HD signals over the air.

Catching on

Other station groups are migrating to hi-def. At the ABC-owned station group, KABC-TV in Los Angeles, WABC-TV in New York, WPVI-TV in Philadelphia, WLS-TV in Chicago and KGO-TV in San Francisco now broadcast local news in HD. Another three stations from the 10-station group will come on board this year.

CBS’s Philadelphia station KYW-TV made the switch to HD in early April following the final game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. On April 21 the CBS-owned duopoly of CBS station KCBS-TV and independent station KCAL-TV in Los Angeles will begin carrying local news in hi-def; they already use it for Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers games.

Those two stations are in the process of moving into a new, bigger facility on the CBS Studio Center lot in Studio City, Calif. As part of that move, making the jump to airing news in hi-def seemed a natural next step, said Don Corsini, president and general manager of the duopoly.

Offering local news in hi-def is important in a competitive news environment like Los Angeles, where other stations also have begun to transmit in HD, Mr. Corsini said. The group’s New York station WCBS-TV was slated to begin using HD studio cameras earlier this month.

Now that larger markets have begun the transition in earnest, look for smaller-market stations to tee up next as the cost of entry becomes more reasonable. Stations can invest in JVC or Panasonic camcorders for under $10,000, Mr. Siegel said.

“You are preserving and acquiring footage in a hi-def format for the future,” he said. “Eventually you are going to have to be there, because everyone is going that way.”

What: The annual convention of the Radio-Television News Directors Association
Where: Las Vegas Hilton
When: Through Wednesday, April 18
Details: www.rtnda.org/conv07

Radio-Television News Directors Association’s 2007 Convention