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WJW News Goes Hi-Def

WJW Cleveland is the latest station to offer viewers local newscasts in high-def. A Fox O&O, WJW made the leap late last year when upgrading its facility. “We have to make every dollar count. We couldn’t build a new standard-def plant and then replace it with HD equipment in a few years,” says Tom Creter, WJW VP, engineering.

WJW is only the fifth TV station to broadcast an HD newscast, joining WRAL Raleigh, N.C., KUSA Denver and two Seattle stations, KING and KOMO. But WJW’s experience may be a blueprint for other stations moving to HD news. TV stations in mid-sized and small markets are pressured to upgrade older analog plants and install new digital standard-definition gear. But with an estimated 50 million households adding HDTV sets by 2007, WJW planned ahead.

(Creter won’t comment on costs, but upgrading KUSA was a multimillion-dollar investment for the station and Gannett, its owner. Because WJW did much of the work in-house, its costs were appreciably less.)

“[The HD decision] began several years ago, when our analog cameras were just about dead,” says Creter. So he bought HD/SD switchable cameras from Ikegami (Model 79D, with native 720p resolution). When the station put in an HD Thomson Grass Valley Kalypso production switcher and an HD version of Chyron’s HyperX system for graphics, the cameras were then switched to HD and used alongside four Panasonic 720p models.

A unique aspect of WJW’s updated facility is that both SD and HD newscasts are switched from the Kalypso unit. “This approach saves us money down the road and significantly improves the quality of our SD feed,” says Creter. “When the content is downconverted, it passes through some noise-reduction gear, and the feed is cleaner than before.”

Creter says the Kalypso model is the sole “HD-only” version in the U.S. By being HD-only, the station derives its standard-definition broadcast from its HD feed. All the content, both SD and HD, is brought into the HD switcher, then sent out via two outputs: one for HD transmission, the other for SD transmission. Now, the station can do both broadcasts with only one operator, saving money and streamlining operations.

Another piece of equipment that enhances the process is the Chyron HyperX. Creter says it is a generator on steroids because it can also play back video clips. Even with its upside, Creter calls the HD move “a quantum leap.” It has taken his staff weeks to get acclimated to the new equipment. To help, seminars for applying makeup were held, since the lighting (a mix of Videssence and Mole Richardson systems) has changed.

“We needed new lighting because HD gives better depth of field, and the images are mesmerizing,” says Creter. “Some of the shots look like the anchor will jump up and join you in your living room.”

Making those shots dazzle wasn’t without challenges. The biggest problem is synching the audio of the HD and SD telecasts. Because the HD signal has more information, it moves through the system at a slightly slower speed than SD material. As a result, WJW is putting a 55-millisecond delay on SD inputs. “That can cause a bit of difficulty on live shots if we get the setting wrong,” says Creter. A new 5.1-channel Wheatstone audio console is also being broken in. “We’re stretching our legs right now, and will eventually introduce more pizzazz that the equipment provides,” adds Creter. Another plus for WJW: Because the project utilized station staff, they can fix any problems on-site.

WJW’s next challenge is whether to upgrade master control to HD or the news production side. The station acquires field footage on Sony BetacamSX and is eager to install nonlinear editing. Currently, the move to HD master control simplifies the inevitable switch-off from analog broadcasts.

“As more people purchase HDTV, we’ll be better positioned to keep them as viewers,” says Creter. “We don’t expect to take the market by storm and increase our share by 50%, but we give audiences a reason to stick around.”