As television markets go, Cordillera Communications' owned- and-operated KVOA Tucson, Ariz., and WLEX Lexington, Ky., are not considered in the big leagues. After all, Tucson is the 72nd and Lexington the 66th Nielsen market. And for that matter, Cordillera—a division of a division of Charleston, S.C.-based Evening Post Publishing Inc.—is not one of the biggest media companies.
So why have both operations launched hi-def newscasts for an expenditure level that Cordillera VP of Engineering and Operations Andy Suk calculates as roughly $2 million per station?
“We see the transition to high-definition for local news being an inevitable step,” says Tim Gilbert, president/general manager at WLEX. “We don't think 'anytime soon' will be the perfect time to do that. If we are going to wait for the perfect time to do this, it is not going to get there. So let's begin to service that portion of the audience who has adopted high-definition as their viewing of choice.”
Gilbert suggests switching to hi-def early grabs the technologically curious viewer who may be better-heeled, and that may appeal to advertisers.
Since hi-def deployments at WLEX and KVOA are very new––KVOA launched on April 22, WLEX on April 26–– it's hard to assess their impact on the stations' bottom lines.
From a public-relations standpoint, the response to WLEX's hi-def launch “has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Gilbert.
“Lots of loyal viewers” have been offering suggestions on how to tweak the station's new HDTV set, he says, such as adjusting camera angles. The stations spent the past few months configuring and installing new equipment to make HD newscasts a reality.
One key investment was Ross Video's Synergy 4 Multi-Definition (MD-X) production switchers, which have capabilities ranging from hard cuts and transitions to keying operations and color-signal generation that, collectively, were necessary upgrades for Cordillera to produce local-news programming in HD.
“In order to do local hi-def at the station level, what we are talking about is the origination of the local-news product,” Suk explains. “The key component of this is the production switcher. There are several players out there, but we have been tied in with Ross Video's switchers on the analog side for more than 10 years.”
The Synergy 4 MD-X production switcher combines a four-effect-bank control panel with the MD-X live production engine, which provides four full M/Es with up to four downstream keyers. Each M/E is equipped with four channels of Squeeze & Tease 3D DVEs, two UltraChrome Chroma Keyers, and four channels of MLE-Stor with MediaCache moving-image playback. The Synergy 4 MD-X supports HD, SD or any combination of the two formats.
At KVOA, the migration was helped by the fact that the station has had a Ross Synergy switcher on the SD side for three years, Suk notes. The hi-def and standard-def switchers literally have the same control panel.
At WLEX, the most pressing priority was to create a completely new set to maximize the virtues of HD, as well as the 16x9 format. “Migration is tricky, and [an HD studio] requires a whole new lighting arrangement,” Gilbert says.
Neither of the stations will be doing HD field acquisition in the near to mid term. Suk doesn't believe Panasonic's P2 format is ready for HD field acquisition, so the stations are using standard-def P2 units to shoot in widescreen at 50 megabits per second and upconverting it, which Gilbert says looks “absolutely spectacular.”
Because Cordillera's HD news product will be in a non–field-acquisition phase for a while, much of what Suk, WLEX's Gilbert and KVOA Operations Manager Dave Kerrigan were investigating at the recent NAB show were what Suk calls “finished-product field-acquisition and transmission equipment and [software with] compression algorithms that make sense.”
But not just for the sake of technology.
“We are looking at the way we are going to do quality HD return signals from the field,” Suk says. “How do we do that all the way back to the consumer?”
Additional reporting by Glen Dickson