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EXCLUSIVE: World News Kicks Off HD Expansion at ABC

ABC News is using the platform of the 2008 political conventions to launch a campaign of its own: a significant expansion of its HDTV offerings.

On Aug. 25, World News with Charles Gibson and Nightline start broadcasting in 720-line progressive (720p) HD, first from the Democratic National Convention in Denver, then from the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul the following week.

And like the other networks, ABC News will also broadcast both conventions in HD for the first time.

After being on the road for two weeks, World News and Nightline will return to their New York studios Sept. 8 and start being produced in HD from there. Later that week, newsmagazines 20/20 and Primetime, as well as the weekend editions of World News, will also make their HD debuts.

All of the HD production will be driven from a new HD control room, called TV-2, which will serve as a temporary home for the news programs for the next year while the World News control room, TV-3, is upgraded.

Moving to HD is never easy for a large, 24/7 news operation. To allow ABC production and engineering staff to make final preparations and conduct rehearsals in the new TV-2 facility, which is slightly smaller than the TV-3 control room they are used to, World News was produced remotely last week by bringing the camera feeds via fiber to ABC’s Washington, D.C., control room. Anchoring the new HD newscasts from the conventions will allow ABC to make last-minute tweaks to the New York World News set.

“It’s a great week for me, as we can finally paint the floor of the studio,” World News director Eric Siegel said.

ABC was the first major news organization to jump into HD production when in January 2004, it produced the HD pool feed for the State of the Union address. It launched Good Morning America in HD in November 2005 from a new studio in Times Square, which made it the first regular news program to adopt the HD format. Last April, it added Sunday morning show This Week with George Stephanopoulos, which broadcasts from a new HD studio within the new state-of-the-art Newseum in Washington.

But it’s the last broadcast network to present its evening news in HD.

ABC News president David Westin said the network’s strategy was to experiment with HD for special events and documentaries and learn about shooting and editing in the new format.

“We always thought we would start with Good Morning America, as it had the new control room and studio and we could deal with one program without affecting other programs,” Westin said. “And we always thought we probably go to This Week next. The conventions gave us a comfortable time to set a date for the other programs going HD.” Westin said he hasn’t felt much pressure from affiliates to take World News to HD. However, some larger groups and the ABC-owned stations pushed the network to convert its affiliate news service, ABC News One, to wide-screen standard-definition feeds last year.

The new control room cost several million dollars and the overall tab, including new routing gear at ABC’s West 67th Street headquarters capable of handling HD signals, will total more than $10 million when it’s complete.

Like most other HD news efforts, the actual HD pictures will be confined to the studio, which already had HD-capable Ikegami HDK-725 cameras and was reconfigured for wide-screen camera angles six months ago. World News’ field coverage, which is generated by a far-flung worldwide network of affiliates, bureaus and stringers, will remain in 4:3 SD and be upconverted for now, with subtle graphics in the side panels.

ABC News did deploy new 16:9-capable, SD Sony XDCAM optical-disc camcorders this summer to replace aging analog Betacam units, and it plans to switch its field coverage to 16:9 wide-screen sometime this fall.

“I think for the time being, 16:9 digital for newsgathering will be sufficient,” said Westin, adding that World News will always have some SD component of archive footage.

True HD newsgathering will have to wait until at least 2009. ABC is still waiting to see a complete end-to-end work flow in 720p HD between Sony’s new PDW-700 XDCAM HD camcorders, which have 4:2:2 color sampling and record at a high-quality bit rate of 50 megabits per second, and its existing Avid nonlinear editors and ISIS storage system, said Todd Donovan, vice president of news technology for ABC News.

ABC added additional channels of HD ingest and playback to its Avid Airspeed servers, which already had some HD capability. Graphics are also fully HD, with a mix of Vizrt and Chyron Duet HD systems.

While ABC will be pulling multiple HD paths back from the conventions, Donovan noted that satellite feeds in HD are still in their infancy, particularly the bandwidth-saving MPEG-4 compression systems that would make HD satellite newsgathering an everyday occurrence. “HD SNG is a future thought for us,” Donovan said, but he hopes World News will be fully HD sometime next year.

What is fully HD today is the new TV-2 control room, which was initially built as a general-purpose facility to handle HD production for either news or entertainment shows. Design of the facility began in May 2007, with ABC Broadcast Operations & Engineering providing concept design and systems integrator Ascent Media handling the bulk of the detailed engineering and installation.

Key gear includes a Sony MVS-8000G production switcher, a Calrec Sigma Bluefin audio console, an RTS intercom system and a monitor wall comprised of five Barco projection cubes driven by an Evertz MVP multi-image display-processing system.

A news-specific addition was an extra monitor wall to the right side of the room that displays low-resolution Internet-protocol-based feeds from ABC’s London bureau that are compressed using VBrick encoders. “We’ve been ripping some news-specific wheels off TV-3 and bringing them here,” Donovan said.

Design of the new HD-capable TV-3 facility will begin in September. While equipment hasn’t been specified yet, the work flow probably won’t be significantly different from that of the existing TV-3, which is only four years old and which Siegel called “the most powerful news control room I’ve seen in my 25 years in the business.”

If there are subtle changes, they will be to accommodate monitoring of more IP-based feeds, such as the low-res streams from bureaus and BGAN [Inmarsat’s Broadband Global Area Network] terminals in the field that ABC is using more often.

“We’ve learned a lot in the past two years with the advancement of all of these IP services,” Siegel said. “Oddly enough, ‘low-def’ has been the biggest change.”