WTAE Preps for HD Newscast

The Hearst-Argyle-owned ABC affiliate WTAE in Pittsburgh has selected Beck Associates, Sony, Utah Scientific, Harris Corp., Avid, CompuSet and other vendors for a major upgrade of its facilities to all digital to ready it for the production of a local HD newscast.

“We are in the process of converting the entire TV station to digital and local HD production,” said WTAE director of engineering Dave Kasperek. “All the walls and floors will still be there but pretty much everything inside will be different. It is a huge project and the biggest of my career.”

Citing the highly competitive local Pittsburgh market, Kasperek declined to discuss a timetable for the launch of a local HD newscast. WTAE already offers a HD feed of its network programming and was the first Pittsburgh station to do so.

Also in the market, Cox-owned NBC affiliate WPXI opened an HD-ready studio and launched a local HD newscast last October. CBS affiliate KDKA is also preparing to launch a High-def newscast.

WTAE currently produces about 31 hours of local news each week and broadcasts three services: WTAE-TV in analog; HD simulcast feed WTAE-DT; and a new standard-definition traffic and weather channel, Weather and Traffic Watch 4.

WTAE began planning the upgrade of its facilities and HD newscast nearly two years ago, with the first equipment began arriving in 2007.

The station is working with system integrator Beck Associates and is installing Utah Scientific’s UTAH-400 routing switcher and MC2020 master control system.

The station has already installed a Sony 9000 digital production switcher and will use all Sony HD cameras in the studio.

Other vendors include Harris, CompuSat and Avid.

The project has also presented a number of challenges, including the rapidly changing technology, cost of HD equipment, need to retrain staff and the need to maintain analog broadcasts while switching to digital and HD, Kasperek said.

“This is tremendously expensive equipment,” he said. “The sheer financial commitment can take your breath away. You have to be building for many years into the future and keep on top of the rapidly changing technology.”

He likened the task of maintaining the existing signal during the facility upgrade to overhauling a jet engine while in flight. “The margin of error is very small,” he said.

The project also gives the station an opportunity to “rethink the entire signal flow,” rationalize its operation, and dramatically improve the viewing experience.

“We take pride in delivering the most spectacular pictures possible and when we are done, we hope that this will give viewers and even better reason to turn on the TV set,” he said.

For Utah Scientific, the demand for digital and HD equipment is growing. President and CEO Tom Harmon said the call for gear has been very strong in the run-up to the National Association of Broadcasters’ conference in April.

Broadcasters in major markets have already made the investment in transition facilities and are now buying gear to upgrade their infrastructure, he noted. “But what is surprising to me is the number of smaller market stations that are starting to do digital upgrades,” he said. “Last year’s NAB was a fabulous year and we don’t expect anything less this year.”