Hi-Def Takes the Field

Roughly a third of U.S. broadcasters have installed new digital microwave gear and switched their electronic newsgathering (ENG) operations to a new frequency plan as part of a spectrum relocation process managed by Sprint Nextel. And that should help pave the way for more local stations to begin offering high-definition pictures from the field as well as the studio.

Sprint Nextel has been working with traditional broadcasters to convert their ENG operations from analog to digital microwave technology as part of a $4.8 billion spectrum deal it brokered with the FCC in February 2005. The wireless operator agreed to spend more than $500 million to replace existing microwave technology with new digital gear that operates in a smaller swath of the 2 gigahertz (GHz) spectrum.

The 2 GHz Relocation Project was initially supposed to be completed in September 2007, but Sprint Nextel ran into delays due to operational and technical complexities. It asked for, and received, an extension until March 5, 2009, and subsequently asked (in conjunction with broadcasters) for an additional extension to February 2010. Last week, the FCC said it would give Sprint Nextel a 45-day extension while it considered the latest request.

Sprint Nextel isn't charged with providing stations with new high-definition links, just replacing existing analog gear with comparable standard-def digital equipment. Stations have to pay for “upsell” equipment like HD encoders and decoders. In general, stations have been waiting to receive the digital gear from Sprint Nextel before installing the additional equipment needed for true HD newsgathering. Now that large markets like Detroit, Cleveland and Atlanta have made the transition, viewers can expect to see more true HD pictures from the field instead of upconverted 4:3 or 16:9 standard-def video.

Early Adopter

One of the early adopters is WXYZ, the ABC affiliate and Scripps-owned station in Detroit. WXYZ began experimenting with high-def feeds from the field two years ago, using satellite links to deliver live coverage from special events. Last summer the station, along with others in Detroit, began receiving new digital microwave radios as part of the 2 GHz conversion. That allowed it to start backhauling HD pictures from the field on a regular basis via microwave links.

“Once we got the [Sprint] Nextel microwave gear, we've had HD live shots in every show,” says WXYZ Director of Engineering Ray Thurber.

Like other Scripps stations, WXYZ uses JVC ProHD camcorders for its field coverage that have built-in MPEG-2 encoders. The ProHD cameras can pump out a compressed HD signal that can be fed directly into a microwave or satellite radio using a Miranda FireWire-to-ASI converter.

“The camera is the encoder, and you just wrap it with ASI,” Thurber explains. He initially outfitted a live truck with several JVC cameras, Miranda FireWire-to-ASI bridges and a FOR-A HD switcher to produce live special-event shows in HD.

The built-in encoding capability of the JVC ProHD camera eliminates the need to invest up to $20,000 in a high-definition encoder to backhaul HD signals. It represents a significant savings for stations like WXYZ, which has 12 live trucks (three are equipped for both digital ENG and SNG operation).

All of WXYZ's microwave trucks are now converted to digital operation using new 2 GHz digital gear from NuComm. The 19.7 megabit-per-second MPEG-2 compressed signal that the JVC cameras output works well with the 12 MHz microwave slots that WXYZ is using as part of the 2 GHz relocation.

The only part of WXYZ's ENG infrastructure that hasn't yet been converted to high-definition digital operation is its helicopter, which is being rebuilt as part of the Sprint Nextel process. Helicopters are incredibly complicated to retrofit with the new gear, as they require special wiring and engineering to comply with Federal Aviation Administration requirements. The station is currently using a rental helicopter that can only produce 4:3 standard-def pictures while its chopper is being reconfigured for HD links.

Thurber was initially concerned that HD microwave feeds wouldn't travel as far as SD feeds, but that hasn't been a problem. Latency with the compressed signal also hasn't been an issue, with the delay being less than a second. The station continues to experiment with its new digital microwave gear to achieve the best reception.

“There is still a learning curve on this,” says Scripps VP of Engineering Mike Doback. “Some stations are using diversity receivers, and we've been experimenting with different modulation ratios.”

WXYZ originally used standard-definition Sony DVCAM cameras to provide widescreen coverage from the field. Since then, it has transitioned to the JVC ProHD camcorders, which let it produce edited packages in HD. Part of the reason WXYZ was able to go widescreen earlier than other stations in its market was that the Apple Final Cut Pro laptops it uses in its trucks can easily deal with either widescreen SD or HD pictures, according to Thurber.

Since launching HD live shots last summer, WXYZ hasn't been inundated with viewer feedback, possibly because the station had already offered SD widescreen live shots. But as Thurber puts it, “We've gotten letters saying how good the talent looks in the field.”

WRAL, the CBS affiliate and Capitol Broadcasting station in Raleigh, N.C., launched HD news from the studio back in 2001 and began experimenting with HD live shots from the field in 2004. The station's news helicopter has also been providing HD pictures since 2005.

A Good Balance

WRAL had fed HD pictures from its Panasonic DVCPRO HD cameras through its old NuComm Analog Coder digital-to-analog modems. The station uses a mix of encoders from JVC and Harmonic to compress the signals from the camera's uncompressed HD-SDI (1.5 gigabit-per-second) output. Staffers found a bitrate of 21 Mbps to be a good balance between signal robustness and picture quality.

WRAL has now received new NuComm digital COFDM microwave radios as part of the 2 GHz relocation. It is also converting its field acquisition from DVCPRO HD to XDCAM HD, Sony's optical-disc format. The station has bought a new encoding device from Sony, the HDCA-702 MPEG TS (transport stream) adaptor, to work with the new cameras.

The Sony unit, which lists for $4,100, attaches to the back of an XDCAM HD camera and pumps out MPEG-2 compressed video over an ASI link, which can then be easily fed into the station's new microwave radios. The HDCA-702 will also work on a standalone basis, as it can take an HD-SDI input and deliver an MPEG-2 compressed picture over ASI.

The Sony encoder units and NuComm digital radios have already been deployed in all nine of WRAL's news trucks, and the station has used that HD microwave setup for live shots—mainly parades and special events. It plans to ramp up its HD field coverage as it deploys the XDCAM HD camcorders later this year.

HD From the Start

WMBF, the NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., owned by Raycom Media, has never done anything but high-def ENG. The station was launched as an NBC digital affiliate last August just in time for NBC's Beijing Olympics coverage and produces all 28 hours of its news each week in HD, including HD microwave feeds.

WMBF uses Panasonic P2 HD solid-state camcorders to capture live shots in the field from its two live trucks (one ENG, one combo ENG/SNG), and produces edited HD packages using Grass Valley Edius nonlinear editors and Bitcentral servers. The only content it shows on-air that isn't natively produced in HD is news footage it retrieves from other Raycom stations through Bitcentral's Oasis content-sharing system. When WMBF gets content through Oasis that is 4:3 standard-def, the station upconverts it to 16:9 HD.

WMBF News Director Matt Miller previously worked as assistant news director at Scripps' WCPO Cincinnati, where he experienced the transition from SD to HD news in 2007. “I'd gone through a lot of the headaches,” says Miller, who notes that WCPO initially had issues mixing SD and HD footage with its editing systems and also didn't have 16:9 monitors.

At WMBF, Miller made sure that his engineering and production staff were well-versed in making 16:9 pictures from the start. He says the only challenge WMBF has had is running out of recording space on the 32 gigabyte (GB) P2 memory cards, which each store only 32 minutes of HD video.

Viewer feedback about the HD coverage from the new station in town has been positive, he adds. “I was at a charity event [recently], and the usual comments are that people started watching us because they love how our pictures looked. They just got a big-screen TV, and now they continue to watch because of our content.”