WCBS Gives Wider View of New York

Station upgrades field coverage with new cameras, editing tools
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WCBS New York is upgrading the look of its high-definition newscasts by investing in Sony XDCAM HD camcorders and a server-based production system from BitCentral. The new gear will allow the newscasts to immediately provide widescreen images from the field, and eventually support full high-definition newsgathering.

The CBS owned-and-operated station is making the move to keep pace with HD newscasts from competitors WNBC and WABC, which both capture their field footage in widescreen standard definition and upconvert it for broadcast. Since launching HD newscasts last April, WCBS has been offering HD pictures from its studios, but 4:3 pictures from the field.

WCBS wants to produce its newscast in HD, end to end. But that will have to wait for two things to fall into place.

First, the station needs to overhaul its routing infrastructure to allow it to pass high-definition video around the plant. Second, it needs to receive new digital microwave gear from Sprint Nextel as part of a federally mandated reorganization of broadcasters' ENG (electronic newsgathering) spectrum, a process that has been taking longer than both broadcasters and Sprint Nextel expected.

So in the interim, WCBS is rolling out XDCAM HD camcorders, which CBS has selected as the next-generation ENG format for all its owned stations, and using them in standard-definition mode.

It is also installing a new, standard-definition Precis production system and Oasis disk-based archive from BitCentral that will ingest, store and play out video and link to Thomson Grass Valley's Edius nonlinear editors for cutting stories. The BitCentral Precis server system, which will be upgraded to a hi-def Precis system with more storage when WCBS is ready, was scheduled to go live with the noon newscast on Jan. 18.

The new Sony camcorders, which record video on Blu-ray optical discs, will replace aging Panasonic DVCPRO tape-based camcorders. WCBS will initially put 10 XDCAM units on the street, with another 16 scheduled to arrive soon.

Precis allows WCBS to get off a Panasonic NewsByte nonlinear editing and server system that is almost 10 years old. The NewsByte system, which includes 11 editing seats, requires increasing maintenance and parts are hard to find, says Kris Binder, WCBS director of broadcast operations and engineering. The outdated system also doesn't allow any shared viewing of content from the server, something WCBS considered critical to improving its production workflow.

“It should allow us to work faster and streamline our processes by getting off legacy tape,” says Binder of the new gear. The video-browsing feature of Precis should be one of the biggest improvements. Editors now have to manually log out a tape and take it to a viewing station to browse video. “Editors will spend less time retrieving and viewing,” he adds.

WCBS has created centralized and decentralized ingest paths to feed content to the Precis system, which will have online storage for seven full days of news material. Old material is automatically purged from Precis after being moved to the Oasis archive, which will have 9 terabytes (TB) of initial storage and scale to up to 27 TB of storage for the hi-def system.

WCBS is the latest high-profile customer win for Irvine, Calif.-based BitCentral, which has installed its server-based systems in more than 70 stations and counts the NBC station group and Raycom Media as major customers.

Precis, which launched in 2005, has gained popularity for its flexibility. It is based on non-proprietary HP hardware and can work with a number of video formats and nonlinear editing systems from Thomson Grass Valley, Sony, Apple and Avid. It also has a low price point compared to similar news production systems. Precis systems sell for around $100,000 for a small-market installation with a couple of years of archive storage.

Precis is starting to grab share from server-based content storage systems marketed by Avid and Grass Valley, even if the system is being used in conjunction with their editing software. “One of the beauties of Precis is the customer isn't locked into an editor,” says BitCentral president and CEO Fred Fourcher. The system at WCBS will be integrated with 10 seats of Edius editing software, which BitCentral resells, as well as two existing Avid NewsCutter and two Avid Adrenaline editing systems. It will also eventually interface with Apple's Final Cut Pro for high-end HD editing in the future.

FULL HD IN VEGAS

While WCBS is the first CBS O&O to adopt Precis, 14 CBS affiliates already use the system including Landmark Communications' KLAS Las Vegas, which installed a high-definition system with Edius editors last April. Precis is working well, says KLAS Chief Engineer Doug Kramer, and the station currently does about 90% of its editing in hi-def, using video captured with XDCAM HD camcorders.

KLAS is one of the few stations in the country to transition to full HD field production, and has invested in hi-def microwave links from Microwave Radio Communications to support live remotes.

Binder had already evaluated news production systems from Avid, Apple and Grass Valley, and was leaning toward Grass Valley's Aurora product before BitCentral pitched Precis. While Binder was initially skeptical, he spoke to other BitCentral customers and visited CBS affiliate WRAL Raleigh, N.C., one of BitCentral's earliest adopters, to see the system in action (WRAL chief engineer Pete Sockett is a former colleague of Binder).

“We had a lot of discussions, and we got more proof that they were capable of such a fast-tracked installation,” says Binder. It's been hard work. WCBS and BitCentral staffers have been working seven days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, since Dec. 29, when on-site installation began.

Binder won't disclose how much WCBS is spending on the BitCentral installation, but concedes that the station's move to full HD production, including cameras and microwave gear, will cost millions. He says that BitCentral's part of that bigger pie will be very cost-effective.

The real cost efficiency of the Precis system, says Binder, is the scalable storage. Storage can be added in 9 TB modules that cost $10,800, making the cost of storage about $1,200 per TB.

As Binder puts it: “When all is said and done with process for Phase 2, we'll have done it for half of what we budgeted for a system from their competitors.”

E-mail comments to glen.dickson@reedbusiness.com.

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