HD Newsgathering Inches Closer to Reality

More than 90 stations across the U.S. are now producing their newscasts in high-definition. For most, that means HD pictures from the studio, not the field. A number of stations have invested in HD camera systems for their helicopters, and a few are using new HD camcorders to produce edited packages in true HD. But most are still offering upconverted standard-definition video, either in 4:3 or 16:9 widescreen, for both live standups and edited packages.

Engineers blame the lack of high-definition electronic newsgathering (ENG) on the slow pace of the 2 Gigahertz Relocation process, a federally mandated conversion of broadcasters' analog microwave links to new digital equipment that will let stations operate in a smaller slice of spectrum. The conversion, which is being managed and paid for by wireless giant Sprint Nextel as part of a $4.8 billion spectrum deal it made with the FCC back in February 2005, was supposed to be completed last September but Sprint Nextel has received an extension from the FCC until March 5, 2009. Company officials told the FCC a more realistic deadline would be August 2009.

Sprint isn't charged with providing new high-definition links, just replacing existing analog gear with comparable standard-def digital equipment, with stations then paying for “upsell” equipment like HD encoders and decoders. But stations are waiting to receive the new digital microwave gear before installing equipment needed for true HD newsgathering.

CBS launched HD newscasts in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, but the delay of the 2 GHz process has discouraged it from going faster, says Bob Seidel, CBS VP of engineering and advanced technology.

“Unless you get the ENG piece done, you just have the HD studio, and that's only 40% of your coverage,” Seidel says. “That's been a major frustration.”

Fortunately, the conversion seems to be picking up speed. Sprint didn't convert its first market until October 2006, when Yuma, Ariz., made the switch to digital, but now has converted 21 markets representing 82 stations and covering some 28 million people. That equates to about 10% completion of the total project.

Sprint VP Michael Degitz is confident the 2 Gigahertz Relocation can be completed by August 2009, despite the fact that some of the same tower crews that are needed to install new microwave antennas will be busy next fall and winter helping stations get ready for the analog turnoff on Feb. 17, 2009. He says Sprint Nextel has completed relocation contracts with almost 80% of the licensees, and is now switching a new market to digital about every week. “It's just a matter of grinding through this,” Degitz says.

Recent markets to convert include Charlotte, Houston, Phoenix, Orlando and Norfolk, Va. Microwave vendors like NuComm, Microwave Radio Corp. (MRC), Broadcast Microwave Services (BMS) and RF Central say they are steadily shipping new 2 GHz gear in volume. And stations that have made the 2 GHz switch say the digital gear works better than analog microwave links, though set up is a little more complicated.

“We have shipped a lot of product, there is no backlog of equipment,” says John Payne IV, director of engineering for NuComm. “From our standpoint, equipment shipment isn't an issue.”

Sprint used to suggest getting equipment to stations 30 to 60 days before a market's conversion date, but is now encouraging manufacturers to ship gear to stations 90 or 120 days in advance. Since the new digital gear can be used within existing ENG channel assignments before an entire market switches to the new 2 GHz frequency plan, getting it early gives individual stations time to get acclimated to the new gear before they start coordinating frequencies with other stations. But it also places a bigger burden on vendors to increase production.

Orlando's conversion date was April 5, but Hearst-Argyle' WESH started the process last summer. The NBC affiliate received new digital gear from Microwave Radio Corp. last June, and after testing, began using it in August.

“There was a long process of troubleshooting, and some equipment didn't work out of the box,” says Chief Engineer Richard Monn. “We had some issues, and it took a while to settle down and start using it full-time.”

WESH worked through the hiccups, and the new COFDM-based digital system has proved to be robust, even delivering live shots from locations that weren't workable in analog. The digital gear has made it easier to share frequencies, Monn says, though a few times a lack of coordination among stations has unintentionally knocked out a truck's signal due to digital transmission's “cliff effect.”

WESH is offering HD pictures from the studio but is still using standard-def Sony DVCAM camcorders for field acquisition. So it hasn't invested in HD microwave encoders but is instead relying on standard-def widescreen pictures and upconverting them, which Monn says holds up well. “I've had e-mails from viewers who say our field pictures are very good,” he says. “I don't think some viewers recognize the difference between good SD pictures and hi-def pictures as long as it fills the screen of their TV.”

Manufacturers are trying to provide an easy upgrade path to HD. The standard-definition microwave radios that NuComm sells for 2 GHz Relocation are converted to hi-def operation through the activation of a software key, Payne says. The upgrade costs around $6,000, though backhaul equipment may need to be switched out to support HD signals. RF Central offers a similar software-based option, while MRC says it also plans to offer a software key upgrade.

Some camera manufacturers have taken steps to make HD ENG cheaper by developing their own encoders. JVC's ProHD cameras can pump out a compressed HD signal that can be fed directly into a microwave radio using a Miranda FireWire-to-ASI converter. Sony has developed similar capability for its XDCAM HD camcorder, with a $3,500 unit, the HDCA-702, which attaches to the back of the camera and pumps out MPEG-2 compressed video over an ASI link.

Fifteen stations already use HD systems from MRC in their helicopters, including CBS affiliate and Landmark-owned KLAS Las Vegas. When KLAS entered the 2 GHz conversion process last year, chief engineer Doug Kramer figured it made sense to invest in similar equipment for its news truck. It now uses MRC gear to transmit HD pictures from its Sony XDCAM HD camcorders at 18 Mbps, using MPEG-2 compression.

KLAS had already been using digital microwave gear to feed widescreen SD pictures into its HD newscasts. Kramer was initially apprehensive about going to HD, because he thought the higher level of compression might actually result in an inferior picture compared to less-compressed SD. He has been pleasantly surprised.

“I was totally wrong,” Kramer says. “It looks far better. I'm amazed myself sometimes.”

E-mail comments to glen.dickson@reedbusiness.com