Raycom is rolling out high-def newscasts in all its small and mid-size market stations, and expects to have all but five on air in HD by the end of the year. A good example of just how Raycom goes from SD to HD is WAFF, the NBC affiliate in Huntsville-Decatur-Florence, Ala. Its overhaul featured a new studio, control room, edit bays and a raft of gear including 23 Sony camcorders, a Snell Kahuna production switcher and three Hitachi studio cameras.
The smaller the market, the less likely TV stations are to be airing their local news in HD.
This fact was reconfirmed by the latest (fourth quarter, 2010) station survey by RTDNA and Hofstra University. While nearly 70% of the stations in the top 25 and 62% of the stations in markets 26-51 offer local HD news, the survey found, fewer than half the stations in markets 51-100 and just a quarter of the stations in markets 101-150 do. In markets below 150, it found, HD news is a rarity with only 9% in the game. (Overall, according to the survey, 40% of stations are in HD news mode.)
The big-small disparity is not particularly surprising. Gearing up to produce news in HD in any market is a costly undertaking without a clear return on investment. In smaller markets, where revenue is much lower and margins much tighter, HD can be a luxury.
But Montgomery, Ala.-based Raycom Media is one group that seems determined to close the local HD news gap between big and small markets by introducing the service at all of its 31 news-producing stations, even those in markets like Lake Charles, La. (DMA 175) and Jonesboro, Ark. (DMA 180).
By combining careful planning, rigorous equipment evaluation and group purchasing power, Raycom expects to have all but five of its stations on the air with HD news by the end of the year.
Among the latest Raycom station to step up to HD news is WAFF Huntsville-Decatur-Florence, Ala. (DMA 79), and its experiece illustrates the group’s approach.The upgrade of the NBC affiliate included a new news studio and set, control room and edit bays.
“We charted our own destiny,” said Chief Engineer JT Harriman. “We designed our own control room. And we had the luxury to build a class act here without having a lot of dollars to do it with.
“Having everyone buy into the project and having weekly meetings and updates also helped,” he said. “That’s why our news director went through this with flying colors. Everyone was on the same page.”
That news director, Adam Henning, called the planning critical to the successful transition. “One of the great things about Raycom having [so many] stations is there is often someone who has done everything before you,” he said. “There were people who had gone through the experience before us and we were able to learn from their successes and some of the issues that cropped up.”
Several months prior to the switch to HD, WAFF purchased 23 Sony HXR-NX5U high-definition camcorders with a five-year maintenance contract. Initially, the small camcorders were used by crews only for shooting SD in the field. But when it came time to transition to HD , the cameras — with simple adjustments such as converting the aspect ratio to 16:9 from 4:3 — were ready to shoot HD. Those cameras are fed into laptops with Grass Valley Edius software, which also were instantly upgradable to HD.
The major gear at WAFF that needed replacement was a 12-year-old Ampex SD production switcher, older SD studio cameras, audio gear and associated imaging processing and infrastructure equipment.
Raycom set up a committee to do “shoot-outs” among vendors and identify equipment that it could use for multiple HD upgrades. It then uses its group purchasing power to procure the gear at the best possible price.
For the production switcher, the centerpiece of the transition, the Raycom committee selected Snell Group’s Kahuna 2 M/E compact production switcher. Committee member Brian Lester, production manager at Raycom’s WMBF Myrtle Beach, S.C., said the he liked the unit for its operational simplicity, quick macro settings and graphical interface.
Also purchased for WAFF were three Hitachi Z-HD5000 HD cameras, a Chyron LEX3 four-channel graphics system, a Logitek Artisan digital audio console, an Evertz 32×12 multi-viewer, several Evertz “glue” infrastructure products, a Clear-Com Eclipse PiCo intercom/IFB system and a suite of fluorescent and incandescent lights for the studio by De Sisti Lighting.
Once started, the construction process took four months, and during that time not a minute of programming was lost, Harriman said.
“In order not to disrupt our newscast each day, we relocated our news studio into our newsroom,” he said. “We broadcast SD right up until the point where we switched over to HD. By building a new control room, the old control room stayed in place until the changeover.”
When the construction of the new studio and controls rooms were finished, the FX Group of Ocoee, Fla., constructed a new set and the De Sisti lighting was configured, while the Kahuna switcher and its associated infrastructure gear were installed in the new control room.
“Once the new control room was built, we were able to do training and practice,” Harriman said. “Snell provided training on the Kahuna for the staff.”
Another major convenience was the networked digital audio installation, which encompassed the house audio, intercom and IFB feeds.
“The new IFB intercom system from Clear-Com and the Logitek digital audio console were incredibly easy to move,” Harriman said. “The work engines reside in the technical facility, so moving the console control surface from the old to the new facility was as simple as re-routing a single Ethernet cable and plugging it in.”
After going on the air in HD, Henning said the benefits became immediately clear to the viewers.
“People were used to seeing their primetime programming in HD,” said Henning. “When you’re the news leader in a market and go from HD to news that’s not in high definition, it’s not good. So, it’s nice to surround the [NBC] Nightly News with HD news of our own.”
Henning also had high praise for the Kahuna switcher. “It allows us to do so much more than we could before. First of all, everything is now housed in one device. We used to have a lot of outboard devices and processing gear. It’s also very director-intuitive and has really helped us in news production.”
Two of Henning’s favorite features are the ability to show instant maps while on the air of where reporters are located throughout the viewing area. He also likes the ability to have three or four live shots on the air simultaneously.
The new studio, shaped like a half moon, allows greater flexibility with shots of anchors and reporters, Henning said. “We came from a set that was cumbersome at best as far as shot locations were concerned. We could get only three quality shots out of that set. Now, with the new set, we get around 10 great shots, which is a huge improvement.”
The newsroom proper, he said, needed very little upgrading. The Associated Press ENPS system was HD ready as were the Edius editing systems graphics. “It was just a matter of getting that new switcher in place and the infrastructure gear around it,” Henning said.
“Now it’s a new day at WAFF.”