On Nov. 3, ABC's Good Morning America will become the first morning program and first broadcast-network news program to be aired in high-definition. The move gives viewers with HD sets on the East and West Coasts a chance to see a large portion of the program—including interviews and concerts from its Times Square home—with a whole new clarity.
Preston Davis, ABC president, broadcast operations and engineering, says the move has been in the works for years. “We were one of the first networks to go HD back in 1998, and everything we've done since then, including the move to Times Square [in 1999], is done with an eye toward an HD future,” he says. “It's a remarkable location, and this will only serve to enhance it.”
COST-PROHIBITIVE FOR MANY
Along with HDNet's HDNet World Report, GMA's going high-def gives momentum to a segment that is lagging in the transition to HD behind scripted programs, sports and movies. That's because broadcast-quality HD field-acquisition gear is still cost-prohibitive for many, and technical challenges, such as how to transmit live HD signals from reporters in the field, are just beginning to be addressed. Expect both issues to be faced head-on prior to next April's National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas.
The decision to offer GMA in high-def plays into parent company Disney's larger strategy of further embracing technology. Davis, who was recently putting the finishing touches on delivering content to 2.5-inch iPod screens, has turned his attention to 60-inch plasma screens.
“HD technology is finally mature enough for this,” he says. “Given the amount of HD sets in homes, there is an audience that wants high-quality HD programming in the morning.”
The HD shift began in earnest in August, when the production crew moved out of the control room and into production trucks so engineers could replace the standard-definition analog gear with HDTV equipment. It was the end of September before the crews moved back, and found themselves in a control room tricked out with HD gear.
A Sony MVS-8000 production switcher replaced the old Sony analog switcher, and SD video monitors were replaced with Miranda's virtual monitor wall, which can be reconfigured to suit personal preferences, such as adding or subtracting the number of video signals monitored on the wall.
It is especially well suited to working in both SD's 4:3 aspect ratio and HD's 16:9. “It's important that we have a great deal of flexibility so we can mix the 4:3 and 16:9 elements,” says Davis.
Once the control room and cameras were in place, GMA's production team got down to rehearsing, shooting the program once while outputting both standard- and high-def versions. Making sure HD viewers don't periodically see a crew member's body part popping into the side of the screen is just one of the new challenges.
“We're learning as we're going,” says Roger Goodman, ABC Television Network VP, special projects.
Goodman, who at one point in his career helped steer ABC from black-and-white to color, says HD opens up a world of possibilities. “One thing we're discovering is that, when video comes in from around the world, the HD material has detail that makes you want to sit back and study it,” he says. “We discovered that last January when, during the inauguration coverage, Charlie Gibson and Peter Jennings would tell us to just stay with a shot. It's a new world for all of us.”
NOT EVERYONE GETS IT
Not everyone, however, gets to visit the new world. Viewers in the Mountain and Central time zones won't be able to watch GMA in HD until next spring, because there aren't enough HD satellite paths and control rooms in place to serve the entire country. Even viewers on the coasts are limited; all studio elements shot in Times Square and live concerts held there or in nearby Bryant Park will be in HD, but footage that comes in from remote locations will primarily be in standard-definition.
Davis says ABC is gearing up to do some remotes in high-def, whether a single-camera shoot or, like its HD coverage of President Bush's inauguration last January, a complex multi-camera shoot. GMA staff will rely on upconversion gear to make the mix of HD and non-HD material seamless for viewers.
With more-affordable HD news gear in the works, Davis expects that GMA will soon have some high-def company: CBS has laid the foundation for an Early Show move with its new digital infrastructure, and NBC says it will convert Today to HD while the production team and talent are in Turin, Italy, for the Winter Olympics in February.