ABC is breathing new life into its flagship soap opera General Hospital for the May sweeps, as the longest-running dramatic serial in the network's history will begin broadcasting in the 720-line-progressive high-definition format on April 23.
General Hospital, which has aired more than 11,500 episodes in its 46 years, is the second ABC Daytime show to go HD after talker The View, which made the move in September 2006. ABC has spent $3 million upgrading GH's Los Angeles studio and control room to HD, which included renting a temporary control room setup from January to March to keep the show in production while its permanent home was retrofitted.
Besides going to higher resolution, the GH set also has a new look, part of a storyline that has the hospital reopening after an explosion. ABC was able to repurpose set components from the primetime spinoff General Hospital: Night Shift, which ran for two seasons on Disney-ABC cable network SOAPnet. The new set, which has 14 different pieces, “will allow the realism of General Hospital to grow bigger than it's ever been,” says Brian Frons, president of daytime for the Disney-ABC Television Group.
Doing an HD upgrade on a show that's in production 48 to 50 weeks a year takes some logistical juggling, according to Dom Nuzzi, senior VP of production for ABC Daytime. Fortunately, there was an empty control room next to GH's Stage 4 in ABC's Prospect Studios facility. During the show's two-week hiatus at the year-end holidays, Nuzzi and his technical team installed a temporary control room from rental firm Sweetwater Digital while they broke down the old one. The fill-in control room was then used from Jan. 4 through March 13.
ABC had already purchased high-definition Ikegami HDK-725 cameras (six and a backup) for GH. Key new gear added since January includes Fujinon HD lenses, a 48-input Grass Valley Kayak production switcher, and an upgraded Avid Unity ISIS server system with Nitris editors that uses Avid's DNxHD 145-megabit-per-second compression rate. The system is capable of storing 20-30 episodes for post-production and on-air promo applications.
The new control room takes a scaled-down approach to monitoring; instead of a giant virtual monitor wall, it uses five 65-inch Panasonic professional plasma monitors fed by an Evertz MVP multi-image display processor system.
When production on GH went dark the week of March 16, the crew was able to install the new set pieces and switch out the lighting for the 20,000-square-foot-studio, which operates at much lower light levels for HD. Camera operators and technical directors received training for working in the 16:9 aspect ratio, and makeup artists and actors got to experiment with the more subtle makeup best suited for HD.
“We wanted to make sure that the actors were comfortable,” Nuzzi says. “But we're settling into a good routine.”
Counting post-production time, it takes three to four days to produce each episode of GH, and the show is usually shooting three to four weeks ahead of air. So, full high-definition production using the new set actually began March 30 to produce the HD shows that will be seen starting April 23.
Frons was impressed by the first HD test shoots. “Because the cameras operate in less light, you get much more of a filmic, primetime look,” he says.
ABC doesn't have any concrete plans to convert its other two soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live, to HD. But Frons is hopeful that all of ABC's daytime shows will be in HD in the next year or two.
“In this economic environment, it's about two things,” he says. “One: how much life the equipment in the studio has left. Two, can you get the capital expense [for new equipment] approved? The second one is a little different now than it's historically been, but we hope to coax it along.”