Seeing the light in HD

In the race to deliver high-definition broadcasts, news directors say, fancy new sets mean nothing if you skimp on the lighting. The art of building and lighting an HD set for maximum visual impact is a rapidly growing niche market. Clients ranging from ESPN to small-market stations are turning to specialists who understand what it takes to deliver the right light for hi-def.

“In a way, HD is the worst thing that's happened to news broadcasting because the news is still a story about people told by people,” says Dennis Size, VP of design for New York City-based The Lighting Design Group. “This technology is so good that every flaw, every line, every pimple is seen. That's a real challenge for everyone broadcasting in HD.”

For Size and other lighting professionals, creating the perfect light for this enhanced technology requires attention to every detail captured by the HD camera's iris. Illuminating little elements in the background scenery or highlighting a piece of molding on the set can make a big difference.

“It's a matter of cheating the cameras,” Size says. “With film, you're reducing the contrast. In HD, you're increasing it. To do it right, you have to invest in the right lights, position them correctly, and understand how to use the camera's F-stop and a variety of filters.”

A station's investment in lighting can range from $10,000 to $50,000. It's pricey, but a drop in the bucket compared with the overall cost of a full-scale HD conversion. ESPN, for one, shelled out a reported $2 million on its new SportsCenter set. Large-market stations are investing $300,000-$400,000 on their HD upgrades.

At WCBS New York, the HD transition in April required moving the anchor desk to accommodate the wider field of vision created by the new cameras. Because 80%-90% of the shots are close-ups at the desk, the lighting and makeup had to be adjusted to ensure a quality image. “We're definitely more attuned to the lighting aspect of this now,” says WCBS coordinating director Mike Haynes. “It's a much more polished and refined look, and that means playing around with the lights, the scenery and the graphics.”

One of the biggest lessons learned during WCBS' transition is that less is often more. “It's a balancing act,” Haynes adds. “Using lower light and creating the depth of field behind the desk really helps. Bringing in the state-of-the-art graphics and using the right amount of back lights is crucial.”

Devising what's essentially a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem means incorporating lights within the set that reflect off strategically placed Plexiglas partitions and creating a three-dimensional background that softens the overall picture while providing flattering light for the anchors. “It's about making layers upon layers of scenery that light up,” says Jim Fenhagen, head of design at New York City-based Jack Morton Worldwide, “using Plexiglas and Lucite cut in different ways with beveled edges to reflect more light.”

The key to this approach is to create a transparent architecture so that the set shows light, yet the camera can still see through it. Having the anchors wear vivid colors helps with the contrast, and mineral-based makeup delivers the smooth finish that ensures a flattering yet realistic appearance.

The result is not always picture-perfect, experts say, but it's close. “You do see blemishes or makeup problems more in HD, but most of these people are pretty good-looking to start with,” says Fenhagen. “The picture is so much better, and viewers see what they'd see in [real life].”

'Chef' dishes interactive

NBC Universal and EchoStar Communications have cooked up interactive broadcasts of Bravo's reality show Top Chef for EchoStar's Dish Network subscribers using software from Portland, Ore.-based Ensequence. The broadcasts, which began last week, incorporate content that is “pushed” in advance to set-top boxes and accessed via remote control; synchronized voting and polling applications “pull” viewer responses through the set-top's phone line or broadband connection and allow results to be tallied and broadcast to viewers in real-time. Subscribers can also vote on which chef should “pack their knives” each week; answer trivia questions about the judges and specific episodic content; and get real-time notification of correct answers and national voting results during the broadcast.

Wegener set for Big Ten

Fox Cable Networks will use satellite receive equipment from Wegener Corp. to distribute its new Big Ten Network to cable and satellite affiliates. The new network, which will cover sports in the Big Ten Conference and is scheduled to launch late next month, will use a complete distribution solution from Wegener, including Unity 4600 satellite receivers, Compel network-control system and Compel encryption. The Unity receiver is a professional-grade device that provides digital reception of SD and HD television signals and will allow Big Ten to offer programs in high-definition. The Compel system will enable the network to support multiple live sporting events, regionalize commercial insertions and remotely retune the Wegener receivers.

New DirecTV bird in orbit

DirecTV has successfully launched and made contact with a satellite designed to transmit new high-definition channels, keeping the DBS operator on track to broadcast 100 HD channels by year's end. The DirecTV 10 satellite, a Boeing-built 702 model, was launched July 6 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome facility in Kazakhstan. Set to begin operations in early September, the satellite has spot- beam capacity that will enable DirecTV to expand carriage of local HD broadcast channels to up to 75 markets this year and will also help roll out national HD channels from such programmers as HBO, Disney, Discovery Communications, A&E Television Networks, Fox, Turner, NBC Universal, Showtime Networks, Starz and Scripps Networks.