Fox Gets Down to Hi-def Business

Fox will be offering a wider and potentially fresher take on the financial world come Oct. 15.

That's when Fox Business Network (FBN) launches to some 30 million homes served by DirecTV, Charter, Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T, giving new competition to established financial network CNBC—and when a high-definition simulcast of FBN debuts on DirecTV.

FBN's hi-def service, which will be produced and transmitted in the 720-line-progressive scan (720p) format, will differentiate itself from CNBC's hi-def service, which also launches this month on DirecTV, by offering a true widescreen 16:9 picture. CNBC HD+, on the other hand, is taking a different tack by placing its existing 4:3 picture on the left-hand side of the HD screen and filling the right side with graphics. Since both HD networks are fighting to get carriage on capacity-starved cable systems, it will be interesting to see how initial viewers on DirecTV respond.

For FBN, the decision to go HD from the start was an easy choice, as Fox had to build a brand-new technical facility to support the network to begin with. Fox's entertainment and sports entities have also proved the production model of creating a single, widescreen high-definition program and then deriving a standard-definition, 4:3 feed to serve analog viewers.

While HD equipment might represent a 25%-35% cost premium over standard-def gear, it didn't make sense to invest in new SD equipment with an all-HD world looming on the horizon, says Warren Vandeveer, senior VP of operations and engineering for Fox News.

“It's kind of irrelevant, because I don't think anybody's building an SD facility anymore,” says Vandeveer. “So whatever it costs, you have to do it. Even if you said, 'I'm going to invest in a new facility, and I'm going to make it SD, because not everything's HD yet'—well, then the life of your facility is just going to be a few years, because eventually you're going to have to do it. So you might as well figure out how to do it cost-effectively now, and at least get yourself into HD, as opposed to having to redo it all later.”

New Infrastructure

The new high-definition production control rooms (two), master control room and technical infrastructure for FBN are located in space that used to be a garage and lower-level retail stores underneath News Corp. headquarters at 1211 Avenue of the Americas in New York.

Construction of the hi-def plant began in April. A team averaging some 50 people has been working to make the channel's Oct. 15 launch, including on-site personnel from system integrators Ascent Media and National TeleConsultants. Last week, technical personnel were still busy filling equipment racks, hooking up cables and putting the finishing touches on the set.

Key equipment includes Evertz monitoring technology, upconverters, digital-to-analog converters and other infrastructure gear; a Thomson Grass Valley Trinix router, configured to handle up to 150 incoming feeds; a Sony production switcher; a Calrec audio console; Omneon playout servers for master-control functions; Tamuz LCD monitors; Miranda master control software; VizRT graphics systems; Harris Nexio servers for graphics playout; and DNF news automation software.

The centerpiece of FBN's production strategy is a tapeless newsroom system that keeps content in the file-based domain and allows journalists to make low-res edits on the desktop that are then replicated in high resolution on the server. It consists of Omneon servers that both ingest material and play back finished packages and an IBM central storage system with some 4,000 hours of storage, which interface with Avid's iNews newsroom computer system and Apple Final Cut editing software. The tapeless system, which is controlled by Ardendo asset management software and Pebble Beach playout software, links to a scalable IBM robotic data-tape archive. A first for Fox, the tapeless system will eventually be expanded to support Fox News Channel as well.

In its spacious street-level studio, FBN is using five Ikegami studio cameras to capture the on-air talent. They are complemented by a host of visual aids including two Christie HD projectors, two 103” Panasonic plasma displays, a circular LED display that wraps around a structural column, and a bevy of flat-panel displays. The myriad displays are controlled by a small Sony production switcher and driven by a Vista Spyder video processing system that can show any possible configuration of video and graphics.

Integrated Delivery Systems

“The VizRT technology and all the graphics systems within the technology are allowing the sets to become more information delivery systems, instead of just places to deliver the news,” says Greg Ahlquist, senior network director and project manager, Digital Newsroom Integration, for Fox News. “So the graphics that are created for onscreen can be integrated into the set displays, and it's all very seamless at this point.”

FBN won't be doing a lot of field production, but when it does, it will rely on Panasonic P2 solid-state camcorders, which Fox is gradually deploying across all of its news properties. At FBN, a handful of P2 HD camcorders will be used to shoot both HD packages and widescreen SD video that will be upconverted for broadcast. While FBN cameramen are still in rehearsals, says Vandeveer, they have warmed to P2's file-based workflow, which stores video on removable memory cards that allow content to be easily transferred to the tapeless storage system.

In addition to the tapeless storage system, Fox will also repurpose the HD router and digital infrastructure gear it has installed for FBN to support Fox News Channel's future move to HDTV, which should happen next year. In a space adjacent to the FBN facilities, Fox has already begun building new high-definition control rooms for its established corporate cousin—all part of its master plan for hi-def news.

“We've picked the design, and unless we find during rehearsals we totally missed on something, the control rooms are going to be identical, and the technology is going to be identical,” says Vandeveer. “The idea is we want people walking into a control room to be as comfortable and as flexible as possible. So we can put any production, be it an election or a pre-tape for a show, into a control room, and they're all going to have the same capabilities.”