Dan Ackerman, Citadel Communications’ director of engineering, explains what his company did to move its four stations (now five) from analog in 2009 to digital with full HD news operations by last September. He also talks about IP backpacks, his low-power solution to VHF reception problems and complying with the new loudness rules.
For Citadel Communications, the final June 2009 transition from analog to digital broadcasting was more of a beginning than an end. From that point, the group of four small Midwestern stations began a methodical, but fairly speedy upgrade to HD production that culminated last year with the switch to full HD news.
The effort grew considerably last spring when Citadel added a fifth station to the fold, WLNE Providence, R.I., after winning it at auction with a $4 million bid. It, too, was soon on the air with HD news.
Directing the post-transition transition to HD has been Dan Ackerman, Citadel’s director of engineering for the past 11 years. In this interview with TVNewsCheck, Ackerman talks about the HD upgrades, IP backpacks, his low-power solution to VHF reception problems and complying with the new loudness rules.
An edited transcript:
When was the decision made to go HD and how big a project was that or where are we in that process?
After we put our HD transmitters on the air [in 2009], we wanted to take fairly little steps, but still get to where we were full HD news and master control. The first thing we did was buy a 360 [Systems] HD server at our four stations and we put our syndicated programming on in HD. Our next step was we bought the Video Technics’ Apella servers and put commercials on in HD and then we upgraded our production control to HD. At the heart of master control is VT’s Scheduler Pro, which runs on a separte computer, but drives the 360 servers, the Appellas and Harris IconMaster switcher.
We were doing all network and syndicated programming and commercials for probably six months or more before we went HD with our news.
When did you rollout HD news?
Last year. We started in Des Moines and every month we put on one of the four stations in HD.
All in one year? That’s impressive.
Yeah. We did one after another for four months.
So what was the order?
We did WOI [Des Moines], then we did KLKN in Lincoln [Neb.], then KCAU in Sioux City [Iowa] and then WHBF in Rock Island [Ill.]
What about Providence?
We got Providence [WLNE] in June and we went with HD news Sept. 1. At the point that we got to Providence, we had a master plan. We had our format and system on how we did the other four stations all pretty well laid out.
Tell me about the upgrade to HD news production. What was involved there?
We went to NAB and we looked at different switchers and we looked at really what we could get the most bang for our buck [from] and we came up with the Broadcast Pix production switcher because it had everything all built into one box. We thought that since we had to do everything in production control, that would be a good way to do it. It’s worked out pretty good.
Did you automate the news production?
No we did not. But there is some automation. Our studio cameras are robotic, we do file formats, but it is not Ignite or anything like that. We actually use our Broadcast Pix and they also do the CG clip play and the still store.
What about the studio cameras?
We got a really good deal on Grass Valley robotic cameras and we put those in before we had our HD production switchers. We downconverted [the video from the cameras] into our analog production switcher so we could use them.
Did you installed new sets for HD?
We’re still actually working on them. We did minor upgrades in the studio to make them look a little bit HD. We put 16×9 HD monitors in where we had 4x3s. That’s really the last step and we’re just starting to do that. We will do that in 2012, probably at all four stations.
Who will you use for your set design?
We have gotten drawings from, I would guess, four or five [firms] and we have cut it down to a couple. We have given them some feedback and we will see what they come back with.
Which newsroom system do you use?
We have used Comprompter’s NewsKing for probably 10 years at four stations. At WLNE, they had ENPS already there and we put in a second Apella server there, which automates the newsroom better for commercial or for clip playback.
What are you using for news acquisition?
We use JVC [ProHD] 100 and 700 cameras and I think we have some of those new 750s, too. The 100s are pretty small little cameras. They shoot pretty good video.
Do you have a lot of video journalists — one-man bands?
Almost all of them are one-man bands.
So, when you went HD you went full HD in the field and studio?
Full HD. We converted everything, master control, production control, news gathering, everything except for the microwave trucks which are SD.
So how do you get live video back to the station in HD?
We have [IP] backpacks that we can send out. If we use microwave trucks, we send them back SD and upconvert it. For the backpacks, we use TVU Networks. We have one at each station.
And what’s your experience with those?
If you get good cell phone areas, they work excellently, live. It is hit and miss, of course, if you have bad cell phone reception, if you send them back as-live. If we’re doing a football game in Lincoln where the cell phones are so busy and want tailgaters, we can shoot a two-minute clip, send it back in five minutes and put it in the show [as if it were live].
Let’s talk a little bit about the multicasting. Citadel just announced it is going to pick up ABC’s Live Well in five markets.
We’re going to replace RTV at three of our stations. One had AccuWeather.
Will you still have room for mobile?
We have investigated mobile, but we haven’t really moved on mobile. [Citadel CEO] Phil [Lombardo] sends me clippings and stuff all the time on any new innovations. It hasn’t moved as much as we maybe had hoped.
Are you going to be able to fulfill your obligation under the FCC’s new loudness rules?
We actually had loudness equipment in last year’s capital budget and we held off on it to see what exactly the FCC wanted us to do. And now that they came out with the rules, we will again look. It’s in this year’s capital budget. We will get it on line well in advance of when we need to have it.
Is that a big deal?
It’s a big deal as far as I see it in how we monitor it and how we record our data so that we can prove that we are in compliance. The way the rule looks to me is you not only have to be in compliance, you have to prove you’re in compliance if somebody complains.
So if somebody complains, you can go back to the Tuesday in July at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and say, “Here’s our meter readings.” The equipment has to be able to be calibrated so that you know that it’s accurate.
The other part is what we have already done. You put in a limiter and an AGC to make sure everything stays pretty consistent. I think the biggest problem is in people’s perception of the difference in loudness between 5.1 and stereo because it switches back and forth all the time.
Your Midwest stations are all on VHF channels. How are they performing in the digital world?
We kind of hedged our bet. We kept our UHF channels and we broadcast the stations on low-power UHF channels in our metro areas.
So over-the-air viewers in those markets have choice of what channel they want to watch you on?
Yes, they do have a choice. If they scan their TVs and they don’t get good reception on 8 on VHF, they can try the UHF channel. It’s PSIP, so the UHF channel would still come up as ch. 8. They don’t really know if they are getting our UHF channel or our VHF channel.
But they could get both, I guess.
There are a lot of them that do. We have people that call us up, tell us they get two ch. 8s and ask which one are they supposed to watch.