CNN Embraces Hi-Def Day

New Atlanta studio completes HD conversion
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Cable news giant CNN has taken the final big step in its conversion to high-definition production. The network has completed work on a new 5,000-square-foot studio within its Atlanta headquarters that will allow it to originate all of its daytime and weekend studio programming in the 1080-lineinterlace HD format.

CNN begins rehearsals in the new studio on March 15, and will start broadcasting live from there this spring. The new studio, which required a significant upgrade of CNN’s infrastructure and control room facilities in Atlanta, will allow the network to broadcast HD studio programming throughout the day, including weekday shows CNN Newsroom and Rick’s List, and weekend programs CNN Saturday Morning, CNN Sunday Morning and Sanjay Gupta, MD.

The move comes after CNN began broadcasting in HD its New York studio shows, including American Morning and Anderson Cooper 360, back in September 2007. Since then, the network has upgraded to HD its Washington studio, home of The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer. It has also been gradually converting newsgathering to HD, deploying Sony XDCAM HD camcorders and HD satellite uplink equipment in the field. That ENG conversion is now complete domestically, and is starting on an international basis.

The big chunk of programming that has lagged behind in standard-def has been the Atlanta-based studio shows, which account for the bulk of CNN’s broadcast day, including 9-5 on weekdays. CNN had already built an HD master control in Atlanta in 2007 as part of its initial HD launch. In 2008, it started laying the infrastructure for live HD production in Atlanta, including 1.5-gigabit-per-second signal paths and a new HD control room on the fifth floor of the CNN Center. That work continued through 2009, and physical construction of the new studio began in December.

Besides representing a jump in resolution, the new Atlanta studio also marks a bold departure from the iconic CNN look that the network has maintained in Atlanta for decades—a fixed anchor desk with CNN’s sprawling newsroom behind it. The new studio features a rotating anchor desk, a large video “walking wall” consisting of three blended HD projectors that can produce a seamless single image, a bevy of flat-panel HD displays including three Panasonic 103- inch plasma screens, and Perceptive Pixel touch-screen displays similar to the ones CNN uses in New York and which have become a core part of election coverage.

The studio also features almost two miles of LED lighting that will allow CNN to change the overall color tone of the room from show to show; it can also project images and animations into part of the floor and part of the wall.

“The thought was to be more consistent in how we look throughout the day,” explains Matthew Holcombe, VP of network support for CNN Broadcast Engineering & Systems Technology. “We had already upgraded in New York and D.C. to a boxedin studio with all the technology wrapped around it, and this is similar. But it’s a huge change editorially in Atlanta in how to tell a news story.”

The centerpiece of the studio is the main anchor desk, which can rotate 270 degrees to give a great deal of flexibility in camera shots. CNN has created a new weather center in the studio as well, where meteorologists will be able to use both a dedicated projector and a touch-screen display to illustrate weather events. Adjacent to the studio is dedicated space for editorial teams to work in, as the new studio is now remote from the newsroom. The CNN newsroom will also be renovated.

Live shots in the new set will be captured by Sony HDC-1400 cameras with Fujinon ministudio lenses; the cameras are mounted on Vinten Radamec Fusion robotic mounts, which allow them to track freely across the studio floor. They will be complemented by a manually operated jib camera. More than 50 HD monitors in the studio can display video and graphics, including the Panasonic 103-inch plasmas, which are mounted on motorized tracks that allow them to move along the wall.

Key gear in the HD control room includes a Sony switcher, an Evertz MVP multi-image display processor for monitoring and a Euphonix audio console. CNN uses the MADI (Multichannel Audio Digital Interface) communications protocol to transport audio over copper cables from the studio to the control room.

CNN’s Vizrt graphics from Atlanta will be produced in full 16:9 HD, but like the live shots will be “safe-protected” for 4:3 standard-def viewers. Holcombe says that CNN has considered using AFD (Active Format Description) to produce all content in full widescreen and then deliver a letterboxed image to SD viewers, as its competitor Fox News Channel has done. But he thinks that move is still years away.

“We’ve thought about it, but we’re waiting for the tipping point,” Holcombe says. “Right now, the network is either SD or HD, and we still provide both signals to the transmission point. So, what we’ve settled on is a 16:9 HD signal that is 4:3-safe.”

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