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Local News in HD Gains Momentum

With the government-mandated deadline for the digital-TV conversion less than two years away, broadcast stations are stepping up their efforts to upgrade their local newscasts to high-definition.

Although the networks have been broadcasting primetime in HD for years, most TV stations are just now undertaking the expensive process of rebuilding news sets, swapping standard-def cameras for hi-def models and outfitting already expensive helicopters with HD equipment. But about three dozen stations embraced HD earlier, some more as a strategic imperative than a panicked response to the Feb. 17, 2009, changeover.

Capitol Broadcasting's WRAL Raleigh, N.C., was one of the country's earliest adopters and biggest champions of HDTV. “We knew that the future was going to be in HD, and we wanted to be out in front with it,” says News Director Rick Gall. “We wanted to be able to show and tell our viewers about this truly great enhancement in picture and audio quality.”

WFAA Dallas, Belo Corp.'s flagship station, was one of the country's first to offer high-definition programming, in 1998. But the station didn't convert its local news to HD until last month, with the launch of their all-HD news studio on Feb. 2.

“To some degree, being an innovator is the cost of doing business,” says WFAA VP Dave Muscari, who acknowledges that it has been extra expensive to gather HD equipment fresh off the assembly lines. “When we first switched over to HDTV, we found that some of the equipment we needed hadn't even been invented yet.”

The new studio is “fully digital,” he says. “It's linked via fiber back to the mothership, and the signal is almost flawless. From where we were back in 1998 to where we are today, it's a quantum leap.”

Among the challenges of producing content in hi-def, say Muscari and others, is learning to shoot footage for the larger, 16:9 aspect ratio.

“Shooting in a 16:9 world really mimics the way the eye sees,” says Patti Dennis, news director at Gannett's KUSA Denver, which has been offering local news in high-definition since April 2004 and is still the only station in the market to offer HD local news. “But a huge percentage of viewers are still watching on standard-definition sets [with 4:3 aspect ratio], so you have to protect that center cut.”

The dimensional switch also requires TV stations to upgrade graphics and rebuild sets.

“The graphics that are hanging over the anchors' shoulders look like they are hanging nowhere” in the larger HD frame, says Dennis. And with the wider frame, the on-air talent can spread out on an expanded set, she adds. “But,” she says, “you also don't want people so far apart that it looks like they are in different worlds.”

As for talent's fears that crisp high-definition pictures would accentuate even the slightest flaws in appearance, news directors say such concerns are overblown.

“Certainly, our anchors are cognizant of the enhanced quality of HD and what that means for them,” says WRAL's Gall. “But viewers are pretty savvy. They recognize that, with the sharper picture quality, you are going to see things good and bad in a sharper way.”

Says WFAA's Muscari, “Our focus is journalism. The newscasters here are the first to tell you that what they look like is a secondary issue to what they deliver to the community.”