Local Broadcasters Make the HD Leap

With HD equipment costs coming down to standard-definition prices and the HD audience growing, local stations are going high-def.

Using the NBC high-definition coverage of the Olympics as a logical launching pad, Gannett NBC affiliates WXIA Atlanta and KDSK St. Louis started HDTV newscasts last month. WXIA had made the decision in early fourth quarter 2005, so it had to act quickly. A year ago last spring, Gannett launched an HD newscast at KUSA Denver in spring 2004 and at WUSA Washington last May. Nationwide, nine stations are airing HD newscasts.

WXIA offers four hours of HD news daily, and WXIA President/General Manager Bob Walker says viewer feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive.” He feels that having local news in HD gives WXIA a competitive edge, particularly since the station’s late newscast follows high-def NBC prime time dramas and leads into The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, the first regularly scheduled NBC program to be presented in HD.

“A Significant Investment”

Walker won’t divulge how much it cost to launch HD news at WXIA but says the station made a “significant investment” in purchasing new cabling, studio cameras, SD-to-HD upconverters, a new master-control room switcher and a new production switcher in the newsroom. The station also upgraded its news studio to look sharp in the HD format.

“We had to upgrade the guts of the plant,” says Ken Highberger, WXIA director of technology and operations. That included putting in a new digital router from Utah Scientific, upconverters from Miranda and Ensemble, and Sony 930 cameras for the studio.

Highberger, who started his television career 29 years ago when news was still shot on film, prefers the lighting required for HD video.

“It’s a lot less harsh lighting, much like the way you do with film,” he explains. “It has some texture, some modeling and some subtleties, and I like that. I think the viewer does, too.”

Like the handful of other stations producing high-def news, WXIA doesn’t acquire HD pictures from its news trucks and helicopter in the field. Those are shot in widescreen SD, using Sony DVCAM cameras; WXIA upconverts the pictures. That’s because of the lack of digital micro­wave gear that can transmit high-def pictures back to the station.

Only a few stations are using HD microwave systems on their news choppers; KGO San Francisco launched HD helicopter feeds just last month.

Most broadcasters say they are waiting to convert their existing electronic news­gathering (ENG) infrastructure until a complicated spectrum-relocation process being coordinated by Sprint Nextel is completed. The telco is relinquishing some of its spectrum on the 800 megahertz (MHz) frequency band and taking some from the 2 gigahertz (GHz) band, which broadcasters use to send both live and taped feed from trucks to the station.

To placate stations, the telco agreed to spend $500 million getting stations new ENG gear that will allow broadcasters to operate in a smaller swath of spectrum.

One of the challenges of the ENG relocation process is that, while stations will be getting new digital compression gear, they will actually wind up with less bandwidth per ENG channel—12 MHz compared with the current 17 MHz. That won’t make sending back live feeds of HD video any easier. HD has four to five times the information of SD video. Like other stations, WXIA doesn’t want to fool with HD ENG until that spectrum deal takes shape.

Other station groups are plowing straight ahead. CBS is buying new optical-disk–based XDCAM HD gear from Sony; the network will be ready to start HD newsgathering in some markets once the microwave conversion is completed. But many broadcasters say getting HD pictures from the field is years away.

Gannett’s KUSA was able to launch HD feeds from its helicopter because the topography of the Denver market allows one digital-microwave receiver site on a hillside to cover most of the metropolitan area. In Atlanta, WXIA relies on five or six ENG receiving sites. So the station is sticking with its standard-def 4:3 helicopter camera for now, occasionally stretching the picture where appropriate.

“It’s worth our while to wait for the big 2 GHz relocation before we do something radical with our helicopter,” says Highberger.

As part of the HD news conversion, WXIA also purchased an Omneon HD server to play back high-def commercials and promos.

The station has produced some high-def promos but is still waiting to air high-def spots. “We’re following the lead of our advertisers on that,” says Walker.

Hearst-Argyle’s WESH Orlando, Fla., an NBC affiliate, isn’t yet offering HDTV newscasts. But it decided to capitalize on NBC’s high-def coverage of the Olympics by producing several news promos in HDTV for airing during the Games.

“We didn’t realize what a challenge it would be to produce the promos in high-def,” says WESH Creative Services Director Suzanne Grethen. WESH had to quickly upgrade some equipment, says Chief Engineer Richard Monn, including adding an HD card to its Avid Media Composer Adrenaline system, which allowed it to edit high-def material and record it on high-def tape. The station played the HD promos off a DVCPRO HD 100 tape deck, which has a bit rate of 100 megabits per second (Mbps), but the original material was generated in other formats, including 35mm film transferred to tape, Sony HDCAM footage, and HDV.

“Most of the promos were shot on 35mm film,” says Monn. “We had a film transfer done to Sony HDCAM. We’ve used Sony HDCAM footage in the Adrenaline, and some of the promo material integrated HDV as well.”

WESH spent around $10,000 to produce the promos, which included transferring film to HD tape and renting an HDCAM deck to play back some archive footage. Avid helped out by loaning the station an HD card for the Adrenaline.

It may be money well spent. Monn says the station has received some interest in airing HD commercials and is “gearing up for that” with an HD- capable playout server.

“We would also like to do news in high-def,” he says, “and we’re working with corporate to make plans toward that.”

ABC Stations Get Ready to Go

ABC’s high-def broadcast of Super Bowl XL was a major impetus to launch HD news at KABC, the ABC O&O in Los Angeles. The station began producing its news in 720-line progressive-scan HD over Super Bowl weekend. It’s generating true-HD pictures from its ENG helicopter and studio and relying on upconverted widescreen pictures from the field.

Dave Converse, VP/director of engineering for the ABC-owned television stations, says that most of ABC’s nine other stations could convert to HD news relatively quickly, given the state of their existing infrastructures.

“Most of the plants’ infrastructures would be able to do some level of HD in a short period of time,” says Converse. “Quite honestly, one of the problems in making this sort of change is dealing with all the other issues on our plates, like the Nextel project. That takes a lot of time and energy, and it makes it difficult for people to take the time and effort to devote to retooling the station for high-def.

“It was not a painless and quick transition for KABC,” he continues. “They just had the fortitude to do it.”