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Live From New York, It’s HD

In April, NBC will begin moving its entire late-night lineup to HD. Late Night With Conan O’Brien steps up that month, and Saturday Night Live and Last Call With Carson Daly join in the fall.

“We hit the ground running with The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in high-def a few years back, and we’ve been watching the technology and consumer interest develop,” says Richard Westcott, NBC vice president of digital media productions.

The slow conversion of late-night programming to HD isn’t unique to NBC. The Tonight Show made the move thanks, in part, to a great deal from Sony on HD cameras and gear.

The Tonight Show had a production team that worked to understand the differences in producing a high-def show and made sacrifices, including broadcasting nearly two months from a truck,” says Jim Powell, NBC vice president of entertainment production operations.

CBS has faced similar hurdles in moving Late Show With David Letterman to HD; there is no simple way to make the upgrade in the Ed Sullivan Theater. It will require either a long hiatus or producing the program from trucks on the street. The former isn’t going to happen, and the latter would be tricky.

NBC’s measured approach is a matter of timing. All its late-night programs are currently shot on standard-definition tape. Although they could have moved to HD tape years ago (The Tonight Show is shot on Sony HDCam tape), the network believed it would be a waste of capital and energy. Eventually, NBC would switch to tapeless production in HD.

Easy Access

Now that technology is finally ready for deployment, says Westcott. “We just didn’t want to turn around and rebuild the environment to go tapeless,” he says of the multimillion-dollar project.

All shows will be shot using Sony HD cameras and mixed with a Sony HD production switcher. Isolated camera feeds and the main program feed will be recorded directly to an Avid Unity HD video server. The Avid Unity used for Conan has 11 TB (terabytes) for about 80 hours storage, employing the Avid DNxHD 145 compression at 145 Mbps.

The advantage, according to Westcott, is that the promo department and the show’s respective production teams will be able to access footage simultaneously by pulling it off the server, something that wasn’t possible in the past. Tapes that needed to be dubbed or transported then were done by hand.

Late-night shows will also move to HD nonlinear editing, thanks to six Avid Nitris HD editors. Three will be used for Late Night and three for SNL and Last Call. (Both Last Call and SNL are shot in Studio 8H.)

“What attracted us to Nitris is that we already have 10 such systems in place for SD work in our graphics department,” says Westcott. Those systems, secured since August, gave staffers a chance to get up to speed in operating them. This is a plus for NBC because finding operators versed in the Nitris system is a challenge.

Nitris uses a tree-type menu, something that can initially appear to be complex but actually makes it easier to create the different layers needed for compositing work.

A Few Drawbacks

Working in high-def does have its drawbacks. Although today’s HD video requires much more data than SD, it takes twice as long for the editing and graphics systems to render any cuts or graphics—even longer if the project is unduly complex.

But those slight headaches don’t bother Westcott, who sees only the positives.

“Overall, [going tapeless] gives us more efficiency and the capacity to do more,” he says. “Producers have more time to apply their art. They can get started later and take the time to improve things.” In practical terms, it allows them to quickly recut a segment, add new graphics or fix any other problems.

The most interesting aspect of NBC’s move to HD resolution, however, is how the widescreen feature will impact SNL.

“This will cause a huge change in the way they design sets and do wardrobe,” says Frank Accarrino, VP for news, entertainment and facilities. “SNL’s studio is crammed with sets, and many of them are very narrow. That isn’t conducive to widescreen production. There will be some challenges, but the set designers will be able to do it.”

In fact, tests are already under way. And whatever technical or design changes have to be made, Westcott is confident viewer reaction will be strong.

“When people get an HD set, they’ll watch goats feeding over their favorite show if it’s in HD,” Westcott says. “HD is the ultimate killer app, and no one could have predicted that going to HD would be so attractive.”

Industry professionals predicted that moving from analog to digital was the big leap and that regular viewers would not notice the difference between SD digital and HD digital. But Westcott says they were wrong. “People see it, and they’re attracted to it.”