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CNN Finalizes HD Plans

As it prepares to launch a high-definition service this fall, cable news giant CNN has already made its most important technical decision, selecting Sony's XDCAM HD optical format for high-definition field production.

CNN has already received XDCAM HD units and will be able to feature some high-definition reports from the field as well as from its studios when the HD network launches on satellite operator DirecTV. It will gradually phase in XDCAM HD, which will replace aging Sony Betacam SX

units worldwide, over the next couple years.

"For CNN, the newsgathering work in HD is hugely important," says Bob Hesskamp, VP of CNN broadcasting engineering and systems technology. "We have a global news operation, and we want to use HD to bring the viewer closer to the story."

Study of tapeless camcorders

CNN's decision, announced by Sony at the NAB convention in Las Vegas last week, came after years of rigorous examination of next-generation, tapeless HD camcorders, including Panasonic's solid-state P2 HD and Thomson Grass Valley's disc-based Infinity. It is a major coup for Sony, which has been vying with Panasonic's solid-state P2 HD format to be the high-definition format of choice for electronic newsgathering (ENG).

P2 HD has won major deals from several station groups, including the Fox O&Os, while XDCAM HD has been tapped by CBS, for both the network and its O&Os, and NBC, for network news production. NBC has also been experimenting with the format at a few O&Os, including WNBC New York.

Both Hesskamp and Michael Koetter, VP of news technology, planning and analysis for Turner Broadcasting System, say the decision on an HD camcorder was a tough one, as there were several viable options. Ultimately, it came down to which format provided the most flexibility for CNN's diverse field production applications and which would be the least disruptive to its current standard-definition news operation.

"We didn't want to make the workflow harder or for it to impact our SD workflow," says Koetter, who compares CNN's transition to HD to "changing engines on a 747 while you're flying."

Reliability of the competing storage media was not a big factor, according to the CNN executives, as both P2's solid-state memory cards and XDCAM HD's optical discs worked well in extensive field tests. Koetter adds that CNN also "seriously considered" Grass Valley's Infinity, whose commercial launch has been postponed several times and is now due to ship this July.

A flash-memory future

"We did need a camera this year to support the high-definition network," says Koetter. "So you could say the timing was a factor in our decision."

Several network sources have cited compatibility problems between XDCAM HD and nonlinear editing systems from Avid as a stumbling block. But CNN, which uses a mix of Pinnacle Liquid Blue and Apple Final Cut Pro editors, doesn't expect any workflow problems in its implementation of the format, says Koetter.

For high-end editing considerations, Sony's introduction of new XDCAM HD camcorders that can record at a data rate of 50 megabits per second (Mbps) with 4:2:2 (studio profile) MPEG-2 encoding was also attractive to CNN.

Sony revealed plans to introduce flash-memory storage into the XDCAM family with the NAB announcement of XDCAM EX, a future version of the camcorder that will use the MPEG-based XDCAM HD codec to store video on PC Express flash-memory cards from SanDisk Corp.

"We see a lot of potential with XDCAM EX," says Hesskamp. "We've had an early glimpse, and we're very intrigued and excited."