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Falling Costs, Rising Interest

Producing an event in HDTV used to add so many headaches and dollars to a production that it was considered for only the most exciting and popular live events: a Super Bowl, a college basketball championship, the occasional boxing match.

But the additional difficulties and dollars of producing in HD instead of SD continue to lessen, HDTV viewership continues to increase, and now it appears the production end of the business is really responding. There's no better sign of that than the broadcast last week of President Bush's State of the Union address in HDTV. It's not an event that shouts out to be in high-definition, of course, but ABC News, handling the pool production, decided the time was right. The speech was sent out to the other major broadcast networks for airing in their respective HD formats (NBC and CBS at 1080i, Fox at 480p, ABC 720p). In addition, the Democratic response was also broadcast in HD.

The cost of the HD telecast was about 20% more than a conventional one, but, spread among the pool members, the extra cost was no big financial pain and apparently a good investment, given the excitement it caused in technical circles.

For Peter Doherty, pool producer and ABC News senior operations producer, one of the highlights of the evening was the reaction of the camera operators, many whom are 25-plus-year veterans of news production in Washington. "I've never seen a more excited crew. They were just thrilled."

The idea for the production began in November when ABC News Vice President, News, Glenwood Branch began exploring news events to cover in HD. The State of the Union speech quickly jumped out at him. When ABC's turn for the pool feed coincided with the address, the HD project was given the go-ahead.

There was a snag. ABC needed a mobile truck and got one from New Century Productions only five days before the Jan. 20 speech. "The door opened, and we started running down this new trail," says Doug White, ABC News manager of ENG services.

Thomson Grass Valley LDK6000 cameras were used for both the address and the response.

When it comes to technical improvements, Doherty would like to see someone figure out how to transmit HD video via microwave, an important capability for live news production. ABC had to use a standard-definition camera to get that image of the president coming down the aisle as he entered the chamber. Because that camera required wireless transmission, it was limited to standard-definition output.

"Now that news people are starting to become players in HD," he observes, "all the little steps of development need to accelerate."

Although the HD broadcast of the State of the Union address was a first, later this week, an old-timer in HDTV will make its return: the Super Bowl. The Feb. 1 game marks the second Super Bowl CBS has produced in HD, the fourth overall.

This year's game will be in Houston's Reliant Stadium, a venue that Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports senior vice president, operations and engineering, says is close to being "Super Bowl-ready" before the trucks even roll in. It already has fiber and triax cable runs, making it easier for CBS to get its Sony and Ikegami cameras hooked up and ready to go.

CBS will use the Sony 8000 series switcher to output two signals to feed to SD and HD viewers. Graphics, promos, feature stories and slow-motion replays won't be in HD, but 26 HD cameras will capture as much HD action as possible (36 SD cameras will also be used, 30 of them working on the Eyevision replay feature). HD cameras will also be used for halftime and for the pregame, both Super Bowl firsts for CBS.

Says Aagaard, "Sixty percent of the pregame show will be in HD as anything recorded on site will be in HD." Why not feature stories? That is more a matter of not having enough affordable ENG and editing equipment, he says. It will happen in the future. "I would be surprised if, the next time we have the Super Bowl, all of the feature material wasn't acquired in 16:9 HD."

Events like the State of the Union address point to what could be a new HD market for mobile-truck companies. The sports market already is gaining momentum, and National Mobile Television (NMT) President Jerry Gepner believes that 2004 will be a watershed year for HD sports production.

As the regional sports networks take a greater interest in HD, truck vendors like NMT can be more confident about rolling out new trucks that are HD capable or at least easily modified for HD work.

NMT rolled out its sixth HD truck in November. The HD6 can handle 16 HD cameras and is being used by the New England Sports Network for HD productions.

One of the enjoyable aspects of working in HD, Gepner says, is that customers approach the vendors looking for consultation. Projects typically begin with the question "What do you think works?" For experts driven to push technical limits, that's just the kind of question they like. "It's a fun discussion and very exciting times," Gepner says.

But transmission of HD signals from a remote venue to a broadcast facility has been one of the trickier aspects of HD productions because it often requires costly HD encoders and decoders and compression rates that aren't optimal (satellite compresses up to 38 Mbps).

A new system designed by Vyvx is looking to make the process easier and cheaper. Called HD VenueNet, the one-rack-unit system enables broadcasters to send "mezzanine-compressed" HD signals at 270 Mbps back to their facilities, offering improved signal quality over the previous method, which sent it at 45 Mbps.

The system will be installed in 17 sporting venues by April, and broadcasters at those venues will be able to plug their truck in and transmit a 270-Mbps signal to the broadcast plant.