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The Wider World of Nightly News

NBC will become the first broadcast network to provide a national evening newscast in high-definition when NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams launches in widescreen HD March 26.

Three dozen stations offer local newscasts in HD today, and network morning news programs Good Morning America on ABC and Today on NBC broadcast in HDTV. But so far, high-definition technology hasn’t made its way to the evening-news desk, mainly because of the technical and logistical challenges involved in creating high-definition control rooms and studios amidst network news operations busy on a 24/7 basis.

That will change come Monday, when Nightly News, as well as NBC News special reports and political coverage, starts broadcasting in 1080-line interlace (1080i) HD from its New York studio.

While the potential audience for a nightly HD newscast is still small—perhaps 20 million or so HD households—that doesn’t mean it’s not important, says Nightly News director Brett Holey.

“An HD viewer is probably someone who cares about TV,” says Holey, who began planning for Nightly News’ HD launch in 2003. He admits to another crucial factor: “I always like to be first.”

Ahead of the Competition

ABC’s top news and engineering brass are evaluating whether World News With Charles Gibson needs to go HD later this year or in early 2008. But ABC still hasn’t picked a next-generation camcorder format to capture HD news in the field; it considers available equipment not quite ready for primetime.

CBS is rebuilding the program playout at its New York facilities to handle more HD feeds, primarily for NFL coverage; sources say the control room for Evening News With Katie Couric needs to be rebuilt to support HD.

Like Today, Nightly News will still carry a lot of standard-definition, 4:3 video from the field, both in edited packages and live remotes. That content will be upconverted and complemented with graphic “wings” in the side panels to fill HD screens. NBC is still in the process of moving to a new high-definition newsgathering format, although some owned stations have experimented with XDCAM HD, Sony’s optical-disc format. In the interim, it may use Sony HDCAM tape-based camcorders for acquiring widescreen HD footage in the field.

From the White House Lawn

NBC’s Washington bureau has HD cameras, so David Gregory’s stand-ups from the North Lawn of the White House will be widescreen HD from the start. NBC News also owns two HD satellite trucks, one of which it will deploy to Orangeburg, S.C., to broadcast the first Democratic presidential debate, on April 26.

In New York, Nightly News is taking advantage of a high-definition infrastructure installed to launch Today in HD last September. The network has fiber paths running across the street from 10 Rockefeller Plaza, home of the Today studio and 1-A control room, to graphics, editing and playback facilities located at headquarters at 30 Rock. Those fiber paths initially allowed Today to produce from Nightly News’ 30 Rock control room, 3-A, while its new HD studio was being built last summer. Now the same fiber paths will allow Holey and his team to use the 1-A control room to remotely produce Nightly News.

The remote–control-room scheme for Nightly News fits with NBC’s grand plan to standardize production technology, letting a single control room produce several shows and using fiber links to share expensive HD gear among multiple properties. In that vein, Holey was initially consulted during the design of the hi-def control room for Saturday Night Live, which went HD in October 2005, as well as on 1-A. The space where 3-A is now will be rebuilt to accommodate cable network MSNBC and centralize other NBC News functions.

Essential Gear

The Nightly News set itself stays intact. Last week, it was being equipped with new Sony HDC-1500 handheld cameras, fitted into special pedestal-mounted sleds to achieve the same functionality as traditional hard cameras. SNL and Today already use the Sony HDC-1500 models, which allow the flexibility of expanding their arsenal of handheld cameras when necessary.

Today has plowed a lot of paths for us,” says Holey, adding that Williams is excited about the HD launch.

Equipment in 1-A includes a Sony MVS-8000a production switcher, Calrec audio console and Barco virtual-monitor wall driven by Evertz software. The monitor wall, which uses DLP projection technology, lets Today and Nightly News staff switch between their customized monitor interfaces at the push of a button.

Today’s monitor setup includes more live cameras, while Nightly News has more prerecorded sources to pull from, such as edited segments stored on Avid and EVS servers. (Holey wishes the news industry would find a new word for “tape,” because most prerecorded segments today are files playing from servers).

Since NBC News provides video to the Web and mobile TV, Holey must consider details like graphics font sizes, assuring that the same text crawl can be seen clearly on a cellphone screen or a 40-inch HD set (a process he calls “pushing up and pushing down”).

But he predicts that, despite the proliferation of HD sets and production equipment, news will never be all hi-def: “There will always be the kid who catches a bank robber on their cellphone camera or a tornado ripping through Kansas. And while the picture might be grainy, you’re still going to put that on-air.”