As it prepares to launch the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric in HD later this month, CBS News is putting the final coat of polish on a glossy new control room that will not only support the newscast's move to the 1080-line interlaced HD format but also give CBS producers and directors more space and an improved work flow for events such as Election Night.
The HD control room has been one of several engineering projects underway at the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street in New York, where the network is engaged in a multiyear plan to revamp its production facilities and playout infrastructure.
Construction on the multimillion-dollar Evening News facility, which includes supporting graphics and infrastructure rooms, began in January 2007. It replaces a 20-plus-year-old control room that the network had outgrown, particularly as it now uses fiber-optic links to backhaul its camera feeds from special events and remotely switch those shows in New York instead of relying on expensive mobile production trucks on-site. With that in mind, the new control room has a conventional production row in front, but also has a new area dedicated to special events. That used to be located in another room with the old facility.
“This control room was designed to handle the new paradigm, where your studio floor is 2,000 miles away,” said Frank Governale, vice president of operations for CBS News.
During special-event coverage, the old control room was “really crammed. It was not a very workable situation,” said CBS News president Sean McManus. “I feel that this is as good a work space as there is in network television right now. We feel we are fully capable of doing big events in here, whether it's the conventions or crises.”
MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME
Of course, the biggest tangible improvement to viewers will be the move to HD production, where CBS has lagged behind other news organizations.
The Evening News studio has had HD cameras for years, but it was waiting for the control room and related infrastructure to be renovated. McManus conceded that CBS News hasn't been as aggressive as he would have liked in rolling out HD but added that the network is making up for lost time. He said 60 Minutes will go HD in September and 48 Hours and CBS Sunday Morning will make the move in 2009. The Early Show could go to HD later this year or in 2010, depending on whether it renews its lease of studio space at the General Motors Building.
McManus, also president of CBS Sports, added that taking news to HD has been a priority for him since he was put in charge of the news division in 2005. He gets complaints from viewers who, after watching a National Football League game in HD, keep 60 Minutes on and find the difference in picture quality “jarring.”
“It's worse by omission,” McManus said. “If someone is expecting HD and they don't get it, the contrast is pretty stark.”
Key gear for the Evening News HD launch includes 12 Sony HDC-1400 cameras; Sony production switchers; Calrec digital audio consoles; an RTS Adam intercom system; Sony BVM-L230 LCD monitors (with Sony's proprietary LED backlighting technology) and Panasonic plasma monitors; and an Evertz MVP multi-image display-processor system to drive the monitor wall, which can display up to 160 discrete feeds simultaneously.
“This is our first monitor wall with all flat-screen devices and no CRTs,” said John Ferder, director of studio and postproduction-systems engineering for CBS Broadcasting.
CBS also developed a proprietary control system to help manage incoming live remotes. The touch-screen-based system puts a green border around the preview window of a remote to indicate that it is ready to go live to air.
For HD pictures from the field, CBS News has about five or six camera crews shooting with Sony XDCAM HD camcorders, and it made a significant investment in MPEG-4 codecs from Fujitsu to support HD satellite newsgathering. It will also grab HD feeds from its bureaus in London and Washington, D.C., via fiber-optic links.
CBS will continue to pull standard-definition material from affiliates and international sources. Footage in 4:3 SD will be upconverted and flanked by side panels with graphics.
To ingest HD video, CBS tripled the amount of storage in its Avid ISIS (Infinitely Scalable Intelligent Storage) system. It also upgraded its Avid AirSpeed servers, for playing out edited packages, to HD. CBS will start handling its HD content at a bit rate of 145 megabits per second using Avid's DNxHD compression system, but it plans to eventually migrate to a higher level of compression (50 mbps) when Avid can support it.
There are four new graphics suites, with 18 seats of Vizrt software in total and a common database that allows graphics artists to easily share work. The HD graphics will be played out from a dedicated Vizrt graphics room. A two-channel Vizrt workstation will replace an existing Pinnacle Deko character-generator, and EVS servers will play back graphics clips.
The studio, control room and graphics for Evening News are actually in three separate buildings on West 57th Street that are interconnected. In total, the new facility has 76 miles of video cable, 21 miles of audio cable, eight miles of fiber-optic cable and 13 miles of data cable. There are 69 equipment racks in total, with 43 in a dedicated equipment center.
As CBS overhauls its 57th Street facility, it is moving to a decentralized model for routing, with each new control room getting its own dedicated infrastructure room where routers, frame synchronizers and the like reside. That will make it easier to eventually scrap the facility's central router, which dates back to the 1960s.
Building for the future in an old building brought some hassles. For example, the new graphics room on the first floor required a massive new air-conditioning unit, to be located on the second floor. But CBS engineers and outside contractors couldn't figure out how to do it without demolishing that floor.
“We talked about putting a crane in and hoisting through the window, but we couldn't do it,” Governale said. “Finally, we brought it into the new graphics space, cut a huge hole in the ceiling and hoisted it up through the slab to the second floor. Then they closed in the floor to make it structurally sound, and set the AC unit back down on top of it.”