CNN HD Primed for Launch

HD simulcast backed by new master control, production gear and cameras
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Global news giant CNN is ready to launch a full-time high-definition service, CNN HD, that will initially be carried by satellite service DirecTV and likely find additional carriage with major cable operators.

CNN HD was slated to begin operations Saturday, Sept. 1, though consumers may not see it for a few weeks. DirecTV won’t be ready to carry new HD networks such as CNN HD until its DirecTV 10 satellite becomes fully functional in mid-September. At press time, no other cable or satellite operators have yet committed to carry CNN HD, though CNN says additional carriage deals will be announced over the next few months.

While CNN is the first cable news network to launch an all-HD channel, it follows more than a dozen other networks, including the broadcast networks, HBO, Discovery and others. The new service will be a high-definition simulcast of the main CNN network. CNN will be producing its video in widescreen (16:9 aspect ratio) high-definition wherever possible, and deriving a 4:3 version from that feed to serve standard-def viewers. That single-production, dual-output technique has become standard among major networks for cost-effectively producing live sports and news programming.

TRUE VS. LEGACY

All of CNN HD’s programming won’t be produced in true high-definition at the start. For now, the high-definition portion will consist of shows from CNN’s New York studios at Time Warner Center, such as “American Morning,” “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” and “Anderson Cooper 360.” CNN documentaries and special events will also be offered in HD, along with replays of the New York studio shows, for a total of more than 60 hours a week in HD.

“All of our programs that originate out of New York will be produced in HD,” says Bob Hesskamp, vice president of CNN broadcasting engineering and systems technology. “The graphics and the studio shots will all be 16:9. But we still have a legacy of 4:3 library material, and the newsgathering will obviously be 4:3.”

Broadcasts originating from CNN’s Atlanta studios, as well as the bulk of field coverage, will continue to be produced in 4:3 standard-definition and upconverted to the 1080-line interlace HDTV format. “The Situation Room” with anchor Wolf Blitzer, which originates from Washington, D.C., will also remain in standard-def. But CNN’s Washington bureau will be able to take in HD feeds from locations such as the White House, and will have some HD editing capacity.

When showing 4:3 video, CNN HD will fill the 16:9 screen by adding graphic sidebars, says Hesskamp: “We’re not going to stretch our video.”

While CNN won’t disclose the total investment required to launch CNN HD, it is certainly well over $10 million. Much of the Time Warner Center studios, which were completed in 2004, were designed with HDTV in mind, and as such, studio cameras, production switchers and many cable runs were already HD-capable. But other parts of the infrastructure had to be upgraded, including a new router, editing and graphics tools, an HD server for long-form programming, and the rest of what Hesskamp calls the “digital glue”: digital-to-analog converters, upconverters, downconverters and the like.

“We’ve invested a lot up there, but we were as ready as we could have been in 2004,” says Hesskamp.

CNN has created a brand new HD master control in Atlanta, along with a new quality control area that is used to monitor outgoing and incoming HD feeds. It has also added high-definition post-production capacity in Atlanta to support long-form programming.

CNN HD hasn’t yet created an HD set in Atlanta, but that is planned, along with other additions to the network’s high-definition production capability as part of its ongoing renewal and replacement budget.

“Obviously, we’ll buy HD gear when equipment is to be replaced, and we’ll look strategically at what we have to add to the replacement budget to create HD production capacity,” says Hesskamp. “We’re still in the decision-making mode on the next phases. It was a lot of work just getting to this point.”

AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE

In the field, CNN is investing in Sony’s XDCAM HD optical-disc-based camera format, which will replace aging Sony Betacam SX gear and will be phased in over the next few years.

CNN’s global transition to XDCAM HD, first announced at the NAB show last spring, is “going great,” says Hesskamp. The network has purchased a number of XDCAM camcorders, distributing them domestically, and to a limited extent, internationally.

“The video we have shot so far looks fantastic, but we’ve been focusing on workflows and training,” says Hesskamp.

CNN HD has also deployed some HDV-format camcorders as another high-definition video source, and viewers should expect to see some HD footage from the field this fall.

“We’re going to study those things individually on a shoot-by-shoot basis,” says Hesskamp. “Our goal, obviously, is to get as much HD content on as we can. But we’re not going to have HD crews everywhere; we can’t do it overnight.”

CNN HD is already shooting and editing documentaries in high-definition that will premiere this fall, including “CNN Presents: Planet in Peril” with hosts Anderson Cooper, Jeff Corwin and Dr. Sanjay Gupta, which airs Oct. 23 and 24. CNN HD will also produce upcoming debates in the 2008 presidential race in high-definition, including the Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Nov. 15 and the Republican candidates’ debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Nov. 28. CNN already produced the July 23 “CNN/YouTube” debate between Democratic candidates in Charleston, S.C., in HD as a test run.

Says Hesskamp, “I think the biggest change for us is that nothing is really plug-and-play anymore. Every single piece of equipment has to really be tweaked and tested.”

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