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Rocky Mountain High-Def

HDTV news is taking off in the Denver market—literally. KUSA Denver, which recently soft-launched an HD newscast, is the first station to transmit live HD video from a helicopter to a station. The credit goes to microwave-transmission-system manufacturer MRC and KUSA, which solved the problem of sending large amounts of HD data.

"We can read the detail of a car dealer on the back of a car or the reflections in a pool [from 2,000 feet]," says KUSA Chief Engineer Don Perez.

The station began investigating the HD newscast about a year ago. Roger Ogden, KUSA general manager and president and Gannett senior vice president, says the station considered three factors: more HD shows were available from NBC, the local Comcast MSO offered an HD tier, and the price of HD sets was falling.

When Comcast and Soundtrack, a local retailer, signed on as HD advertisers, the decision was greenlighted. Although the rates are much lower than spots on the SD telecast (there are about 75,000 HD households in the market), Ogden expects to recoup the incremental cost of HD gear within two years. "It's actually a fairly short return," he says, "when you look at the normal way of doing business."

The technical buildout began in February with the addition of seven Sony HDC930 cameras and Canon 17.7x7 HD lenses. Other gear included a Sony HDSX-5800 router, more than 40 Sony PVM9L3 color monitors, and Sony widescreen monitors. The station was already using a Sony 8000 production switcher for its standard-definition newscasts so HD functionality was added to it.

"It was a little like changing the engine of a car while it's still moving," says Perez. "We brought in another switcher frame to make the transition easier."

Even though the HD newscasts have been on the air only a few weeks, the station has learned some valuable lessons. First: Don't worry about anchors looking too old. "It's an urban legend that HD cameras make talent look older," says Perez.

In fact, not only are the HD viewers not complaining, but, he says, the standard-definition audience, which sees a lower-resolution version of the HD broadcast, says the picture is better. Perez credits the station's seven Sony HDC930 cameras and Canon 17.7x7 HD lenses: "The improvements in the video quality of those cameras have improved our SD telecast."

As for the set, Perez says the existing set didn't look as shabby as some had predicted. Ogden is putting the finishing touches on a new one, which will have more-vivid colors and let the talent sit far enough apart so they aren't on-screen while the other anchor is on-air. It's a two-story set, and a jib camera will help the set look bigger for the viewers with the bigger sets. "It also has much more of a Colorado feel," Ogden adds.

The entire newscast won't be in HD because the electronic newsgathering (ENG) gear is still too expensive to allow shooting in HD. Crews will, however, shoot in widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. Perez says a combination of HD and SD material during a telecast is still a good experience for the viewer. "Standard-definition 16:9 provides good-quality images, so not everything has to be shot in HD," he says, adding that the key to good upconversion of SD material is making sure the original elements were acquired digitally.

The next step of the transition will be completed by April 29, when the station officially launches the HD newscast with a new set and graphics gear and the HD chopper sends live shots to the station. The graphics gear includes Pinnacle's HD Deko 500 and Thunder HD clip server.

And then there is the chopper.

To date, no microwave system has been capable of live HD transmission from the field. Perez worked with manufacturers MRC, Tiernan, NEL, and Tandberg to create a system that could do that. KUSA is using it from a helicopter, but he says it can also be used with vans and trucks.

"We've had some interesting times," says Ogden. "It's been pioneering work."