Now that the economy shows signs of improving, TV stations are dusting off their plans to convert local newscasts to high def. But many are not looking to fill their studios and vans with the high-end gear they might have opted for a few years ago. Now, they want products that cost less and will help them reduce their operating costs as well.
In 2006 and 2007, TV stations seemed to be introducing local news in HD at the same rapid pace that consumers were snapping up big flat-screen TVs. But as the economy started slowing last year, capital budgets tightened and stations began putting HD news upgrades on hold.
The hope now is that the pace of the HD rollout will accelerate next year when stations expect revenue to grow once again.
The best guess of vendors and other trackers of the TV equipment market is that no more than 20 percent of some 800 local TV newsrooms are broadcasting in HD from the studio, and a considerably smaller subset also has the capability to deliver HD reports from the field.
TelevisionBroadcast.com said that 155 stations in 73 markets had made the switch to HD before it stopped keeping score last February. Of those, fewer than a dozen are in markets below DMA 100.
“The recession has definitely slowed down things,” says Ardell Hill, president, broadcast services, Media General. “I don’t know anyone who hasn’t slowed down quite a bit.”
Paul Eisner, VP of servers and editing, Harris Broadcast Communications, agrees. “I don’t think anybody is not going to go to HD news, but they’ve had to delay or slow down their projects.”
Dave Waddell, marketing manager at Fujinon, says a few stations are still buying. “But, for the most part, stations have been decimated by the economy.”
HD is a costly enterprise. It involves not just a dozen camera packages, but also the routing, switcher, monitors and editing systems.
“If you’re a 25 market and higher, to upgrade everything from SD to HD, you’re looking at $3 million to $5 million,” says Mark Siegel, president of Advanced Broadcast Solutions, a systems integrator and product reseller.
Vendors are responding by helping stations upgrade at least the infrastructure on smaller budgets.
“Every dollar counts,” says Harris’ Eisner. “We’re working with customers on how to reduce power and rack space, for example. Vendors like Harris need to be attuned to the pressure to have a solution that is affordable from a capital budget standpoint and also do things that can lower operating costs as well.”
Migrating to HD news has been particularly challenging for “station groups in the mid- to small-market range, not governed by the policy of a network,” says Ken Yas, Grass Valley market development manager for camera products.
Some broadcasters are phasing in HD, slowing upgrading their facilities as the need arise.
Grigory Mindlin, VP of creative services at graphics vendor Vizrt, says that “almost all our new customers are going HD. The trend is that people are using their HD money to improve their workflow,” he says. “Almost every HD upgrade we’ve done, we’ve integrated with their Avid iNews or AP ENPS newsroom systems, which allows them to insert graphics into the stories all in one spot.”
Even in large markets, stations are looking for less expensive approaches.
“Typically, Tribune would never put a Sony EX3 in the field as an ENG acquisition product in a No. 10 market,” says ABS’s Siegel. “They’re used to spending $80,000 on a camera package and now they’re spending $10,000. Everybody is making compromises”
Yas notes that Raycom Media Group has made a similar compromise, opting for JVC cameras with one-third-inch sensors.
“That [camera] is definitely on our radar screen as competition,” says Yas. “A one-third inch sensor is as small as you can get and consider yourself semi-professional, but they found it adequate.”
Waddell says Fujinon is supplying lenses for many of the one-third-inch sensor HD cameras. “For the most part, [broadcasters] know they have to go HD, not necessarily for their news gathering, but in their studios, because of the competition,” he says. “But there are very few stations buying two-thirds-inch sensor cameras.”
Among them is Sunbelt’s NBC affiliate in Las Vegas, KVBC. After two years of trying to do HD with inexpensive prosumer camcorders, the station is upgrading to Grass Valley’s high-end Infinity units. “They went through an exhaustive evaluation process and decided that, from the standpoint of price and performance, the Infinity is a good choice for them,” says Yas.
Scripps is another proponent of the less expensive cameras with smaller sensors. “In a side-by-side blind shoot out, the output of the one-third-inch sensor cameras [from JVC] were indistinguishable from the two-third-inch sensor cameras,” says Michael Doback, VP of engineering, where all but one of its 19 stations is on the air with HD news. “The day of the $20,000 ENG camera is long past.”
All expect (or are least hopeful) that the number of stations offering local news in HD will grow significantly next year.
Five of Media General’s 18 stations made the switch before budgets were clipped, Hill says. And if business conditions improve, he adds, the group will upgrade four or five more stations next year and the rest in 2011.
Decisions on which stations get the HD gear are based on two factors: the age of the existing equipment and its need for replacement and the competitive situation, says Hill. “If one or two station offers HD in a market, the pressure mounts for the others to follow.”
More optimistic is Dave Folsom, head of technology for Raycom Media, who oversees 31 news-producing stations. “We will very shortly put our 13th station on in HD and pick up the pace of conversion again.”