Since the launch of digital television in the late 1990s, almost every genre has been offered in high-definition, with the exception of first-run syndicated programming. But that’s about to change, when venerable Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, produced by Sony Pictures Television, launch in HD next month.
Who cares about game shows in HD?
Sony Picture Television President Steve Mosko asked the same question.
“I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t anticipate how much better the shows would look in high-def,” he says. “I was blown away by the look of the game. High-def has a huge impact. It just jumps off the screen.”
Sony and King World are developing two game shows for 2007 that may be offered in HD, too.
Until now, production and distribution costs have stymied syndication. But Sony, which produces both shows and has a pivotal role in the evolution of HD, remodeled the Los Angeles studio where both shows are produced to support shooting in 1080-line-interlace (1080i) HDTV. King World, which distributes the shows, will begin delivering the programs in HD Sept. 11.
Bob Seidel, CBS VP of advanced technology, says that more than 40 stations have expressed interest in receiving the HD feeds.
When Sony decided last fall to provide the shows in high-def, the studio already had HD-capable cameras, says Harry Friedman, longtime producer of both shows, “but that was the only thing we didn’t have to change or acquire. Everything else is new.”
Sony created new set pieces for both shows and reconfigured the studio for wider camera shots, a particular concern for Wheel. Another key set element is a Barco HD projection system. Starting last March, Sony also built an entirely new HD control room and post-production facility.
The project cost around $4 million and included upgrading its existing Sony switcher to HD operation, with 12 channels of digital video effects (DVE), and installing a Chyron high-def Lyric Pro graphics system. It added a Yamaha digital audio console; Avid Symphony Nitris editing systems and Unity storage system; some Apple Final Cut Pro editors to cut interstitial material; and Evertz and Leitch upconverters to handle occasional standard-definition (SD) material.
To record high-def video, the game shows use a mix of Sony HDCAM tape decks, for recording show footage, and XDCAM HD optical-disk recorders, which handle playback of interstitial material, such as show opens, closes and graphics.
DIFFERENT APPROACH FOR A SERVER
“We had a problem finding what we thought was the ideal high-def server, as so many are designed for on-air playout and not for production,” says Phil Squyres, senior VP, technical operations, Sony Pictures Television. “So we actually decided to do something a little different in that vein and installed eight XDCAM HD decks. We use them like an eight-channel playout server, and it’s working pretty well.”
When Squyres was shopping for a production server, he had a hard time finding one that was both operator-friendly and supported Avid’s 145-Mbps (megabit-per-second) HD compression scheme, DNxHD, as well as Sony’s HDCAM format. But he expects to install a server that supports the Avid encoding scheme in the future.
Sony delivers a high-def HDCAM master to King World with a 4:3 center cut that is “safe protected,” allowing an SD version to be easily derived. The SD shows will continue to be delivered via satellite by CBS to stations as before, using an IP-based store-and-forward system from Pathfire that automatically captures the shows as files. The HD versions, however, will require a short-term workaround because Pathfire is still tweaking its system to support HD operation.
At launch, CBS will send out a conventional, scheduled linear feed of both shows at a bit rate of 45 Mbps, and stations will record it with high-def tape decks or servers, which they will need anyway in order to play out the programs locally. Some stations, including ABC affiliates, may need to convert the 1080i feed to 720p, which some satellite receivers will do automatically.
Long term, CBS would like to use the Pathfire system to send Wheel and Jeopardy! as HD files. Technicians thought about using MPEG-4 advanced compression, but neither CBS nor Pathfire thinks MPEG-4 is quite ready for deployment, while vendors are focused on encoders for distribution to the home, not on professional-quality broadcast encoders.
So the current plan is to compress the shows as 45-Mbps MPEG-2 files, which are significantly larger than SD files typically compressed at a rate of 10-14 Mbps. As a result, some Pathfire “catch” servers will need to be upgraded with additional storage.
SOME CHALLENGES AHEAD
Joe Fabiano, chief technology officer for Pathfire, notes that HD syndicated content continues to have some unsettled standards issues regarding the provisioning of audio metadata, closed-captioning information and the like. Nonetheless, Pathfire will be moving forward by testing HD store-and-forward delivery with a handful of stations this fall. It plans to roll out file-based HD delivery systems more broadly in the near term.
“We’re working on it with CBS now, and our intention is to do it within the television season [which runs September to May],” Fabiano says.
Friedman, meanwhile, is looking forward to the HD debut.
“What’s really surprising is that a show that is basically fairly static like Jeopardy! can be so much livelier in HD,” he says. “You can really see the dimension of the set. Everything gets taken up a few notches in terms of production values.”