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A New Dawn for 'Today’

Meredith Vieira won’t be the only new thing at NBC’s Today this fall.

The perennial morning-news leader, sans Katie Couric, is launching in high-definition on Sept. 13 from a revamped studio in New York’s Rockefeller Center.

Today follows ABC’s Good Morning America, which launched in 720-line progressive HD last November. It wasn’t competitive pressure, just a matter of facing the inevitable, says Today executive producer Jim Bell.

“There’s never really a perfect time, but this was the time to get it out there,” he says. “As it turns out, we’re going to be fine.”

To speed up the switch, NBC took advantage of summer weather and the unique layout of the studio at 10 Rockefeller Plaza, located across the street from the NBC operations center at 30 Rock, with outdoor space in between. Since June 1, Today has been airing from outside and sharing a control room with NBC Nightly News upstairs at 30 Rock.

Meanwhile, a crew of 10 from systems integrator Ascent Media Services has been converting the studio and its control room to the 1080-line interlace (1080i) HD format.

“Overall, it’s been a tremendous overhaul in terms of the set, the studio and the control room,” says John Wallace, NBC executive VP, television operations and production services.

For starters, NBC doubled the size of Today control room 1-A, located beneath 10 Rock Plaza, to 6,700 square feet. The network also followed the approach it used for other high-def transfers, such as Saturday Night Live, by installing equipment that can be used to produce multiple programs.

Key gear includes a Sony MVS-8000a production switcher, Barco virtual-monitor wall, Calrec Alpha digital audio console, an Avid NewsCutter nonlinear editor and an Avid ISIS content server. There is also a separate audio-mixing room to help produce the program’s concerts in Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround sound. Fiber-optic cable now connects the studio to 30 Rock’s HD routing infrastructure. Today will also use NBC’s new centralized graphics facility.

The studio now has two floors, totaling 4,500 square feet. When it was built 11 years ago, a hole was cut in the ceiling to allow an overhead shot on to the set. That angle wasn’t used, so the floor was restored to create more second-floor space, including a kitchen.

The new area gives staff latitude in setting up back-to-back segments within the studio. Previously, that was tough because commercial breaks didn’t afford enough time to strike one set and prepare another.

The main set is now closer to the windows to give a wider shot suitable for HD’s 16:9 aspect ratio, with more space between set elements, says David Lazecko, director, studio system engineering, for NBC Universal.

Video will be captured by Sony HDC-1500 handheld cameras, which often will be used for the outdoor concerts. They can be easily converted to “hard-camera” operation for the studio by using a Sony cradle. “It’s dramatically easier, and it’s very versatile,” says Lazecko.

Bell says the big HD challenge will be handling different aspect ratios from the reams of footage contributed by bureaus and affiliates, most of which are 4:3 standard-definition. NBC is working to outfit bureaus and key stations with new cameras capable of 16:9 standard-definition pictures, which can be upconverted for HD broadcast.

NBC’s owned stations use Panasonic DVCPRO standard-def cameras, but NBC is looking at a high-def format for news gathering. WNBC New York will be testing Sony’s XDCAM HD format this fall.

“There will be 4:3 materials that we will still receive,” says Wallace. “The reality is that, for the next three to five years, I can’t imagine all affiliates that contribute material will be 16:9. It’s a challenge all broadcasters will be facing for the foreseeable future.”

Initially, Today will likely leave 4:3 material as a center-cut, with color tinting in the side panels. Later on, running a 14:9 picture across the top of the screen and a wide graphics bar along the bottom may be viable.

And maybe it won’t be so noticeable. Says Bell, “Viewers are already used to a lot of text at the bottom of a show, such as their local traffic report or breaking-news wires.”