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HD’s True Believers

Why TV stations are spending big now to go high-def 5/29/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

There’s no denying that high-definition programming has come a long way in eight years. HDTV-set owners can settle down in their living room and find hundreds of hours of HD programming each week: prime time programming from the major networks, sporting events from ESPN and regional sports networks, nature documentaries from Discovery, and motion pictures from HBO, InHD, HDNet and others.

But local news, the backbone of revenue for many TV stations, continues to lag behind. Only six stations in the U.S. provide local newscasts in HD. And only one network news program, ABC’s Good Morning America, intends to go HD by this fall.

Gannett’s WUSA Washington is the latest of the six stations, having begun HD newscasts earlier this month. “This is part of our strategic plan to provide viewers with better product,” says General Manager Darryl Green. “First, the HD experience is an improvement over analog, and, second, we believed it was time for our station to move in this direction.”

ON-AIR IN 59 DAYS

WUSA’s transition was a Herculean effort. Director of Technology Terry Smith says the station placed its purchase orders on March 3 of this year and, 59 days later, on May 2, was on the air. And the station installed the gear—which included Sony cameras and production switcher, Grass Valley routing switchers, Miranda conversion gear, and Omneon servers—itself.

So why do stations balk at HD news? The obvious factor is cost. “For some stations, it’s a more expensive proposition than for others,” says Roger Ogden, general manager of Gannett’s KUSA Denver, which made the move to HD news last spring. “This can add up to a lot of money for some stations.”

The resistance, however, involves more than dollars and cents. Right now, Nielsen doesn’t distinguish HDTV household viewing from other types. Changing that “can’t happen soon enough for us,” says WUSA’s Green. Nielsen has already begun measuring local digital-video-recorder viewership; more-complicated national measurement won’t start until January 2006.

Without Nielsen viewing data, stations like KUSA and WUSA, Fox’s WJW Cleveland, and Capitol Broadcasting’s WRAL Raleigh, N.C., have to rely on anecdotal evidence of viewership. “Clearly, our newscast will be the one that people who have HD sets will be inclined to watch,” says Ogden, “but there’s no way to measure it numerically.”

Nielsen will be able to distinctly measure HDTV on its advanced people meters starting in July, although it may not report it unless there’s demand. For stations, knowing that data would help attach a dollar figure to high-def. If HD causes viewers to switch stations, competitors would take the plunge sooner.

After all, local news is a classic keeping-up-with-the-Joneses business. If one station in town gets a helicopter, for example, all the stations in town quickly follow.

Since most stations are the lone provider of HD news in a market (only Seattle has more than one HD newscast, with KOMO and KING going head to head since 1999), visions of pulling in 100% of the local HD ratings are tempting. “When our sales people think about [HD Nielsen ratings], they salivate,” says Tom Creter, director of engineering for Cleveland’s WJW.

There are hidden costs in HD conversion and field production, as well as technical hurdles that make it difficult for stations to use HD gear to shoot stories in the field. While it’s true that both Sony and JVC have introduced low-cost camcorders based on the HDV format (which isn’t quite full HDTV resolution but is still much sharper than SD), those $5,000-$6,000 camcorders have to be complemented with a new editing, switching and production environment that can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost. “Those cameras are only one piece of the system,” says Don Perez, director of engineering for KUSA. “But the cost of those other pieces needs to be considered before making a final judgment.”

INFRASTRUCTURE IN PLACE

At KUSA, those costs will delay HD field acquisition for a couple of years, according to Ogden. Creter, however, says WJW will make the move sooner rather than later. One reason? WJW has much of the HD infrastructure already in place. Later this fall, the station will be able to play HD clips from the control room. That may not sound remarkable to a layman. To an engineer, it’s like landing on the moon.

Smith says WUSA is happy with shooting SD DVCPRO25 video in widescreen and upconverting it to HD. “The jury is still out on when we’ll go to HD for acquisition,” he says. “We’re hard-pressed to tell the difference.”

Even if a station is willing to pay for HD field acquisition, there are still technical shortcomings. It wasn’t until this year’s National Association of Broadcasters show that JVC and Nucomm demonstrated a $25,000 transmission system capable of sending live HD images back from the field. One of the major issues that system overcame was signal delay. To date, only KUSA has done any sort of live field transmission, sending shots back from a chopper where delays aren’t apparent to viewers. But when a reporter is filing a live report from the street, it’s important that there aren’t any large delays like those experienced when a reporter is filing from around the globe. The new system on display at NAB solves those concerns, getting the delay down to a few, barely perceptible frames of video.

EXTERNAL SOURCES

The other major problem is that any video that comes in from external sources, such as CNN Newsource or other video services, will be in SD (as will most sports clips). The result is a newscast in which the anchors and weather graphics would be in HD but the rest of the newscast isn’t. That can be jarring to viewers, and solving the gap won’t be easy: While the cheaper HDV gear (and soon, Panasonic DVCPRO P2 HD gear) will make it more affordable to get HD gear into bureaus around the world, many of those services rely on freelance videographers, who work on much tighter budgets. It’s not until those freelance videographers buy HDV gear that news feeds will really offer comprehensive HD product.

So why have stations gone HD now? One reason is that nearly all of them get better deals then usual on equipment because the stations can serve as showcases for the latest technology. Another reason is timing: WJW made the move because its analog infrastructure was woefully out of date and replacing it with a standard-definition digital infrastructure that would soon be replaced by HD was impractical. And for others, like WRAL, it’s simply a matter of wanting to be first and a leader.

While all of them may have had slightly different reasons for producing HD newscasts, they’ve all experienced a common viewer reaction: HD viewers love it, and even non-HD viewers have contacted them about how the standard-definition telecast looks better.

All of the new digital gear and HD cameras provide sharper images than traditional SD gear, and even though the viewers don’t have the extra pixels, they do notice a better picture.

In Cleveland, some cable operators, realizing that the picture quality from the HD telecast was better the analog signal they also received from WJW, began to down convert the HD signal and broadcast that on the WJW analog channel assignment. While WJW was flattered with the attention to the digital signal, it asked the cable operators to cease the practice because the digital transmission system doesn’t have a backup for the analog signal in the event of a transmission problem. The station is considering doing its own version of what the cable operators wanted to do: deriving the analog signal from the HD signal before it hits the analog transmitter. “It vastly improves the analog signal,” says Creter.

BETTER ALL THE TIME

Despite all the drawbacks and headaches that still exist, things are getting much better. When KUSA made the move to HD, Perez says, some product areas had only one or two options. Today, he notes, there might be four options, all of them more cost-effective than the options initially available to KUSA. The price premium for an HD studio camera, for example, is down to 10%-15%. “Without sounding too much like a cheerleader,” says Creter, “it’s been nothing short of great.”

March