Hearst Rethinks Production

The past year's economic meltdown has put high-definition news upgrades on hold across the country, as a number of local stations postpone capital investments in new cameras, editing systems and other production gear until 2010. In the case of station group Hearst Television, the belt-tightening didn't just cause a delay; it spurred a strategic shift in the technologies it will be investing in next year and beyond.

“Like a lot of other companies, we had to curtail spending,” says Hearst Television VP of Engineering Marty Faubell. “But that gave us time to step back from where we thought we were going, to where we likely need to be.”

Like several other large groups, Hearst has a variety of camcorders and editing systems across its 25 news-producing stations (it has 29 overall), including aging tape-based gear that is more than 10 years old and in desperate need of replacement. Nine of its stations have Sony XDCAM optical-disc camcorders purchased in 2006, but the rest have a mix of Sony DVCAM and Panasonic DVCPRO tape-based camcorders. About 40% of Hearst stations have Avid NewsCutter nonlinear editing systems, but the rest rely on tape-to-tape editing. Hearst has launched HD newscasts at six stations, but is still handling field acquisition in standard-def widescreen in those markets.

Hearst had initially been considering a broad adoption of Sony XDCAM HD camcorders and Avid NewsCutters across its stations, but held off as it waited for better interoperability between the Sony cameras and Avid editors. Specifically, Faubell wanted the NewsCutters to natively support the 50 megabit-per-second bitrate of Sony's high-end PDW-700 units equipped with 2/3-inch imaging sensors, instead of needing to transcode material to a higher-bitrate mezzanine format.

Avid finally delivered native support for XDCAM HD last spring with the HD News system it unveiled at NAB, but Faubell says that solution “is three years too late.” In the interim, Hearst started to consider alternatives for editing and also think hard about how much it could afford to spend on new HD camcorders for the field.

While the camera question is still up in the air, Hearst believes it has found its editing system of the future in Adobe's Premiere Pro product. In a deal announced at the IBC show in Amsterdam earlier this month, Hearst will roll out Premiere Pro across its news-producing stations. As part of the deal, the Adobe software will be integrated with AP's ENPS, Hearst's newsroom control system, to allow editors to seamlessly edit and deliver finished news packages back to ENPS for eventual play to air.

“We've moving everything to nonlinear with Adobe Premiere,” says Faubell, who hopes to complete the conversion in 2010.

Hearst stations are not new to Adobe software, Faubell notes. Besides using Adobe's near-ubiquitous Flash streaming technology for Web video, Hearst stations rely heavily on Adobe's After Effects and Photoshop graphics products in their creative-services and promotion departments. Those tools are bundled with Premiere as part of Adobe's Creative Suite Production Premium software package, and large Hearst stations might have eight or nine seats of the package (either CS3 or the new CS4 version).

While the creative-services departments were outfitted with NewsCutters for editing, some staffers began experimenting with Adobe Premiere. They liked the user interface and the quality of work they could produce with it.

“In every one of our stations, you'll see Photoshop and After Effects,” Faubell says. “In a couple of stations, the guys by default were starting to use Premiere editing as part of that, and they were happy with the functionality between Premiere, After Effects and Photoshop. That kind of opened our eyes, and we said, 'Why aren't we doing more of this?'”

Faubell and other Hearst executives visited Adobe at its San Jose, Calif., headquarters to discuss how the use of Premiere could be expanded past creative services into the newsroom. Adobe has worked out an agreement with AP to create what Faubell describes as “good connectivity” between ENPS and Premiere Pro, which is essential to making it a viable system for day-to-day news production.

A big selling point for Premiere was its open architecture and ability to support a variety of file-based acquisition formats without requiring transcoding or rewrapping files. The Adobe product is also significantly cheaper than NewsCutter. While Faubell won't discuss financial details, the standalone version of Premiere Pro CS4 lists for $799; Avid's software version of NewsCutter lists for $4,995.

Faubell is looking for similar interoperability and cost-effectiveness in HD content servers and camcorders, the other big pieces of the file-based news production workflow. Several Hearst stations that already have Avid AirSpeed playout servers will be able to use them with the new Adobe editors, he says. But he is still looking for HD content servers from vendors like Bitcentral and Omneon, as well as considering whether the Harris Nexio servers that large Hearst stations have been installing for HD commercial and syndicated playout can also support news applications.

Hearst has been evaluating HD camcorders that record video on solid-state memory cards, including Sony's XDCAM EX, Ikegami's GFCAM and JVC's ProHD, with the key requirement that they work well with the Adobe software. Faubell says he's been particularly impressed by early trials of the JVC GY-HM700 ProHD camcorder. It lists for $7,995 and can record video on generic SDHC memory cards as “.mov” (QuickTime) files, which Premiere Pro supports.

“They've got to be file-compatible with Adobe,” he says, “and I think they're all going to give a good run for the money.”