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WRAL-TV opts for hi-def news

HDTV pioneer WRAL-TV Raleigh, N.C., has taken another big step into the digital future, closing a deal with Panasonic Broadcast to convert its entire news operation to HDTV.

The Capitol Broadcasting station and CBS affiliate was the first station to launch DTV signals, in 1996, and has been a leader in producing local programming in HDTV, even forming a joint venture with production firm HD Vision to build an HDTV mobile truck. Now WRAL-TV aims to be the first station to acquire all of its studio and field news footage in HDTV, using Panasonic's 1080-line interlace DVCPRO HD tape gear. (King-dt and KOMO-DT in Seattle launched HDTV newscasts last year but shoot their field material in SDTV and upconvert it for broadcast.)

Beginning in January, WRAL-TV will produce 6.5 hours of news daily in HDTV. The newscasts will air live in 1080i on digital station WRAL-DT and will be downconverted to 4:3 analog NTSC for broadcast on WRAL-TV. The station's camera operators will "protect" for 4:3 pictures when shooting with the 16:9 HDTV cameras, says General Manager Bill Peterson.

It is improved NTSC pictures that are "clearly the driver" for the HDTV purchase, he says. "The real benefit is that any viewer on any set, including all analog viewers, will see a crisper, brighter picture. We're not doing this for those 500 to 1,000 households that have purchased high-definition sets."

WRAL-TV is buying 59 DVCPRO HD studio VTRs, 29 camcorders, an HD video server, three universal format converters, a 10-input 1080i switcher, HD monitors, 32-inch DT-M3050W HD monitors, and related accessories. Neither WRAL-TV nor Panasonic has disclosed financial terms of the deal, but the list value of the HD equipment is more than $4.8 million.

Although Panasonic's consumer electronics business has done a subsidy deal with CBS to support prime time HD programming, Panasonic Broadcast President Warren Allgyer stresses that the WRAL-TV deal is a legitimate sale, not a giveaway. "This is not a gift. This is a commercial deal, and we made a profit on it."

Allgyer, who previously worked with Peterson at WKYC-TV Cleveland (he as ENG manager, Peterson as news director), thinks Panasonic will be able to sell other stations on buying DVCPRO HD to improve their NTSC now. "When we can demonstrate to the average news director what a picture looks like in standard definition, they may say, 'That might be the half a [ratings] point that gets me the extra $5 million in revenue that allows me to do this.'I've seen stations and news directors spend a lot more money with less justification."

WRAL-TV, in fact, is deflecting some of the cost of the Panasonic HD gear by trading in its DVCPRO 50 50-Mb/s standard-definition equipment, which the station installed only 18 months ago. The station has already received some DVCPRO HD equipment and, at press time, was scheduled to produce a live remote news broadcast from the North Carolina state fair on Friday, Oct. 13, at 5 p.m. and broadcast it in HDTV on wral-dt.

When WRAL-TV does launch full-time HDTV newscasts in January, it will be in conjunction with the launch of its new HDTV studio, HDTV control room and digital newsroom. But that wasn't the original plan, says Peterson. WRAL-TV didn't start considering HDTV news production until June, when Capitol Broadcasting CEO Jim Goodmon learned of DVCPRO HD's progress from Panasonic executives while attending the Montreux symposium in Switzerland.

"We didn't envision that the HDTV field equipment would develop as fast as it has," says Peterson. "There's a certain amount of serendipity in that."