WFTV’s HD Homework

Station goes undercover before launching news in high-def

When the ABC affiliate in Orlando, Fla., decided to launch high-definition news, it did a little recon first.

Cox station WFTV sent News Operations Manager Dave Sirak on what he calls a “secret mission” last February to four markets where high-definition newscasts were up and running. Sirak visited Atlanta, Cleveland, Denver and Seattle in six days, staying at airport hotels and setting up a portable HD recording system that he configured to capture the local high-def product.

With just 15 million U.S. TV homes (around 14%) receiving high-def programming, WFTV became the 10th U.S. station to launch HD newscasts. It’s the first station in Florida with high-def news and the first in the country to use the TrueView high-definition graphics system from WSI Corp. WFTV follows WRAL Raleigh, N.C., in using the VIPIR HD radar system from Baron Services. With hurricane season heating up, launching a high-definition weather center couldn’t be more timely.

Sirak traveled light. He had a Sony DHG-HDD500 $1,000 high-definition digital video recorder (DVR), laptop, and several types of off-air antennas to capture the newscasts. “I did it all carry-on,” he says proudly.

His targets were WXIA, the Gannett station in Atlanta; WJW, the Fox O&O in Cleveland; KUSA, the Gannett outlet in Denver; and Belo’s KING and Fisher Communications’ KOMO, both in Seattle. “Going market by market, we mined what we saw for the best ideas,” he says.

His colleagues in various markets, such as Raleigh, had sent him tapes of HD newscasts before. But those were recorded in different formats, and editing them to a final compilation to present to WFTV’s management team for review was a challenge. His Sony recorder, which has a built-in ATSC off-air tuner and can record up to 60 hours of HD, came in handy. “It’s an off-air tuner and a DVR in one, and it records native 1080i,” says Sirak. “I got it at the Sony Store.”

As a backup, Sirak relied on a FusionHDTV PC tuner connected to a laptop to record HD video to its hard drive. Sometimes he would tap into the hotel’s cable system and use a Samsung DVD recorder to capture standard-definition video of a competing station’s newscast.

Since he didn’t know how challenging over-the-air reception would be in each market, Sirak referred to the DTV antenna guide on the FCC’s Website for suggestions. He took a Turk indoor antenna and a much larger Lacrosse unit suitable for roof mounting; he relied on the Turk most of the time.

A couple things got Sirak’s attention. First of all, no one had a “true HD weather presentation,” he says. Most stations were using upconverted standard-def pictures from the field, and a few were producing in 16:9 aspect ratio; KOMO and WRAL provided the only HD field footage he saw. Gannett’s Denver station was the best of the bunch, perhaps a reflection of the company’s early leap into HD news. “By far, KUSA had the best execution all around,” he says.

Building a Better HD News

WFTV then went to work on Sirak’s findings. To avoid having to stretch 4:3 aspect ratio pictures to fill HDTV’s 16:9, which tends to distort the image, WFTV moved to widescreen production in the field, using its Panasonic P2 solid-state cameras. The station handles archive and remote 4:3 footage by filling the black pillars on each side of the picture with a subtle blue overlay, a process it performs in ingest. This step allows the video to be treated as 16:9 content during the rest of the production process, which makes life easier for editors.

The station invested over $1 million on upgrading its studio, buying Sony high-def cameras with Canon lenses, upgrading its Avid nonlinear editing and graphics systems and Grass Valley Kalypso switcher to HD operation, and installing Evertz distribution and standards-conversion products and Leitch infrastructure gear. It also created a set that makes heavy use of high-def flat-panel displays.

“It was a very straightforward plant build-out,” says John Demshock, WFTV director of engineering. “We were digital already, so we simply took the digital plant and did a high-def overlay.”

With hurricanes a threat in Orlando, WFTV is using the latest in weather-presentation technology. In addition to the WSI and Baron HD graphics systems, WFTV bought a new high-def radar from Baron for a more accurate depiction of fast-moving storms. Chief Meteorologist Tom Terry says the Baron radar, which performs sweeps at a much faster rate than the station’s previous system, is an essential asset for covering tropical weather. “I think it will be pretty interesting to see a hurricane in high-def,” he says.

WFTV began producing HD newscasts in the studio on a trial basis in early June and started widescreen field production soon after, downconverting all video to 4:3 SD for broadcast. After making sure all the new equipment was rock solid, the station launched HD news in the 720p format with its 5 a.m. show on June 29.

Although WFTV did use a BT high-def microwave system provided by Micro­wave Radio Corp. to produce a Fourth of July fireworks special, the station will wait until HD microwave gear becomes more widespread before converting everyday field operations to high-def. The station is also sticking with a standard-definition camera in its chopper because converting the helicopter to high-def is too expensive right now.

Prompting the station to launch its high-def news was the high rate of HD penetration among subscribers of local cable operator Brighthouse Networks. Feedback has been positive, says WFTV VP/General Manager Shawn Bartelt: “We’ve gotten a lot of e-mails, and every single one has been delighted with the product.”