HD Camcorders Give Stations a Head Start

They can take the big plunge now or “future-proof” with less-costly gear

For most broadcasters, considering a new digital camcorder format for news production now means considering a new high-definition camcorder format.

In the few years since tapeless camera formats were introduced by Sony and Panasonic, adoption of both HDTV sets by consumers and HDTV programming by broadcasters has taken off. Big-market stations are rapidly launching HD newscasts, and a surprising number of broadcasters in small to midsize markets are following suit. While most stations are starting with high-definition video from the studio and upconverted standard-definition pictures from the field, the whole newscast, including remotes, will eventually be in hi-def.

“HD content has increased exponentially on the networks,” says Bob Ott, Sony VP of optical networks and professional products marketing, “and you have to match it with high-quality video out of the local stations.”

Both Sony and Panasonic are shipping high-definition versions of their competing formats. Sony's optical XDCAM HD and Panasonic's solid-state P2 HD each sell at $25,000-$30,000 for well-equipped camcorders.

JVC, Canon and Sony are finding success selling camcorders that use HDV tape, a low-cost, compressed high-definition format that was originally developed for high-end consumers but has proved a cost-effective entry into HD news production; those cameras range from $5,000 to $15,000. Both Ikegami and Grass Valley have developed high-definition disk-based cameras aimed at the news market. And almost all of these cameras are cheaper than the seven- or eight-year-old standard-definition camcorders they are replacing.

Vendors are quick to note that their HD cameras can also be used for standard-definition production. A high percentage of JVC customers use the ProHD HDV-format camera in standard-definition mode, according to company Assistant VP of Marketing Dave Walton. These stations generally are simply looking to replace aging news cameras and future-proof themselves for HD.

Other stations are currently doing HD field production. Landmark Communications CBS affiliate KLAS Las Vegas launched an HD newscast last September and purchased 18 Sony XDCAM HD camcorders and 20 XDCAM HD decks to support it.

Says KLAS Chief Engineer Doug Kramer, “It all worked out of the box, and it's given us no problems.”

The station is using the Sony optical camcorders to shoot in HD but is downconverting the video to widescreen standard-def to enable it to be edited on an older Grass Valley Vibrint system. KLAS is upgrading to high-definition–capable Edius editing software from Grass Valley's Canopus and installing a BitCentral Precis system to play back edited HD packages to air.

In June, KLAS will upgrade its news trucks to support live HD remotes. Right now, the station sends back 16:9 widescreen live feeds and upconverts them, which Kramer says looks good. Other stations, including NBC O&O WNBC New York, use the same technique.

Electronic newsgathering (ENG) has been “one of the logjams” in HD field production, says JVC's Walton, because the price of a dedicated HD encoder can run more than $80,000. That makes equipping ENG vans and helicopters for HD a big investment. JVC aims to address that problem with its ProHD GY-HD250U HDV-format camera, which acquires video in native 720-line progressive and has proved popular with ABC and Fox stations looking to match the network's 720p format. A built-in encoder can pump out a 19.7-megabit-per-second (Mbps), 720p/60 MPEG-2 transport stream through the camera's Firewire connection.

Some ABC affiliates and O&Os, such as WLS Chicago, have taken advantage of that built-in encoder to transmit live HD feeds on the cheap, running the Firewire stream into a Miranda converter box that lets the video be fed into the ASI port of their existing digital microwave gear. “You've got a total solution for less than $15,000 for the camera, the [Fujinon] lens and the encoder,” says Walton.

Other big-market customers for the GY-HD250U include ABC O&Os KABC Los Angeles and KGO San Francisco; Scripps ABC affiliate WXYZ Detroit; and Fox O&O WJW Cleveland. ProHD cameras have also proved popular with small-market broadcasters, such as Waterman Broadcasting, which owns ABC affiliate WZVN and NBC affiliate WBBH Fort Meyers, Fla.; NBC affiliate WVIR Charlottesville, Va.; and CBS affiliate KOSA Odessa, Texas.

Panasonic is steadily gaining traction for its P2 solid-state format, which initially trailed XDCAM in getting to market. In the past five months, Panasonic has won significant P2 contracts from Cox Television and Fox's station group. To use the P2 memory cards efficiently, those station groups will have to undergo significant changes in news-production workflow.

Besides appreciating the reliability of solid-state storage, broadcasters choosing P2 consider the workflow alteration a major attraction because it means embracing a totally file-based workflow.

“There's no longer any other moving part, which means better reliability and availability and thus lower cost of ownership,” says Fox President of Engineering Andrew G. Setos. “The second innovation is a workflow thing. There is no longer a question of what [format] this is going to be compatible with. It's compatible with everything because it's files.”

Ikegami, which already has an HD version of its Editcam disk-based camcorder that uses Avid's 145-Mbps DnxHD compression format and is aimed at high-end production, says that, at NAB, it will unveil an HD disk-based camcorder that uses the much lower bit rate suitable for local-news production.

Grass Valley is still working on its Infinity tapeless camcorder, designed to record in various compression formats on Iomega disk drives and other removable media. The supplier says Infinity will ship in July.

Grass Valley also has partnered with Fast Forward Video to develop a “dockable” digital device that attaches to existing analog cameras and uses Iomega's REV PRO disk drive to record video as digital files. The sub-$10,000 docking device is aimed at the roughly 350,000-400,000 legacy analog cameras still in the field, says Scott Keating, Fast Forward Video VP of sales and marketing.

For broadcasters that want to embrace file-based storage but still haven't amortized expensive standard-definition cameras, he says, “it's a great stop-gap.”