WAAY Huntsville, Ala. is proving that newscasts can be done in HD on a budget. Using a TriCaster 850 from NewTek the Calkins Media station is producing five and a half hours of news daily across two stations in DMA 79.
Like a lot of other small-market stations, Calkins Media’s WAAY Huntsville, Ala., wanted to commence HD newscasts, but it didn’t want to spend the big bucks for a conventional news production upgrade.
So, the ABC affiliate last year turned to NewTek, a maker of low-cost integrated multi-camera production units mostly for religious, educational, live event and other non-broadcast applications.
For just around $43,000, according to Chief Engineer Jonathan Crowe, who oversaw the project, WAAY acquired NewTek’s TriCaster 850 with the LiveText graphics software and the stripped down TriCaster 300 for feeding HD clips to on-set screens during newscast and backup.
The system made its debut on Dec. 11, 2011, and, so far, it has performed well, says Crowe, helping the station grind out 5.5 hours of live HD news each weekday starting at 4:30 a.m.
“I think the reputation that the TriCaster has with broadcasters is that it may be okay for use for a sporting event, it may be okay for use in a sat truck or it may be okay for a church, but the box is simply not ready for prime time.
“I can say in our experience that’s simply not the case. If there are folks out there that have a limited budget, but still want to be able to do HD with network quality graphics, there’s a way — using the TriCaster.”
Crowe says that he never calculated how much a conventional upgrade would have cost, but he knows it would have been much more. “I remember thinking that just the HD Chyron system…was going to be more than the cost of the TriCaster.”
NewTek touts the TriCaster in all its iterations as a “live studio in a box.” It provides multi-camera, 24-channel switching with graphics, audio, video roll-in and a virtual set generator. The output can be sent to a transmitter, digital signage or the Web.
At WAAY, the TriCaster links to three JVC GY-HD250 studio cameras. The station had bought and installed the cameras earlier, but had been using them in the SD mode, so, when the TriCaster went in, it was simply a matter of flipping a switch to go from SD to HD, Crowe says.
A key feature of the TriCaster 850 is its dual digital disk recorders, essentially HD media players, Crowe says. Working with two downstream keyers, they generate the video clips and animated graphics that enrich the newscast. A separate computer with an input to the TriCaster runs the LiveText software that produces live static graphics like lower-third IDs.
To achieve the same capability in a conventional set-up, he says, “you would either need a high-end character generator that has two channels of clip playback or you would need a dedicated HD clip store playback.”
The LiveText computer also connects with WAAY’s ENPS newsroom system, Crowe says, allowing reporters and producers to create the simple lower thirds. “This really takes the load off the LiveText operators.”
TriCaster does have its limitation, Crowe says. “If we’re using the media players to play back graphics and there are other video elements that you want to play out – say, the opening or close or a bumper – you need to jump back and forth between pre-sets. NewTek gives you the capability for doing that, but the directors have to keep it in mind.”
Another small problem is that the unit only has eight inputs, says Crowe. But the work-around is to connect two inputs with the router. “So at that point any source that’s on the router can be routed in as a source since the TriCaster will take asynchronous sources. We don’t have to worry about routing any of those sources through a frame sync first.”
The TriCaster also has an integrated virtual set generator that WAAY puts to good use.
WAAY doesn’t air all the news it produces. By contract, it produces the half-hour newscast for another station in the market, Fox affiliate WDZX. For that, it uses a the virtual set straight out of TriCaster to give the show a completely different look. The newscast also has its own solo anchor and weathercaster.
The TriCaster 300, a less capable and less feature-rich version of the TriCaster 850, has two functions at WAAY, according to Crowe. First, it feeds HD graphics and video to on-set monitors and, second, it provides redundancy.
“So if the unthinkable were to happen with the 850, with a flip of a switch, we can flip everything over to the 300. You still have switching capabilities or whatnot and you can get through the newscast.”
It can also generate the virtual set for WDZX if needed, he adds.
Crowe says he knows that broadcasters are wary of virtual sets, fearing that they will crash in the middle of a newscast and leave the talent high and dry in front of a green screen.
But reliability has not been a problem, he says. And, he points outs, broadcasters now rely on computers for many critical components in the broadcast chain.
“It’s really hard to find anything that’s not powered in some shape, form or fashion by a computer,” he says. “Nobody seemed to have any hang-ups when we recommended going with a Wheatstone audio mixer. The console with all the faders and everything is basically just buttons that are driving a computer underneath.”
Philip Nelson, SVP, artist and media relations, for NewTek, says that the company has a number of other station-clients, including Post-Newsweek’s KSAT San Antonio, Tex., which uses TriCaster for its virtual sets. But he says he is unaware of any other station using it to the extent WAAY is.
Since WAAY began its upgrade a year ago, Nelson says, NewTek has introduced two new versions of TriCaster, the 855 and the 8000. They do the same basic job as the 300 and 850, but are loaded with more features.
The 855, for instance, can iso-record eight different cameras feeds, Nelson says.
And the 8000 incorporates social media. “While your show is live, you can be publishing clips to YouTube and photos to Flickr,” says Nelson. “That’s a big addition to the TriCaster line.”