Panelists at an RTNDA panel offer practical advice on how to switch a station’s news productions from SD to HD, including tips on equipment, lighting, makeup and staff training.
The RTNDA billed one of at its panel session at its News & Technology Summit track of NAB New York today as “Preparing for the HD Conversion: Deadline 2009.” Who knew that there was a deadline?
Well, of course, there isn’t. Broadcasters must cease their analog broadcasts and go digital-only on Feb. 18, 2009, but they may continue broadcasting news in its current standard-definition, low-res format until the end of time if they choose.
That aside, as HD news pioneers, the three panelists provided practical help for the hundreds of local TV newsrooms that are at least contemplating a move from SD and its 4:3 picture ratio to HD with its widescreen 16:9 format in the next few years.
Having just made the switch to HD last June, Cox Broadcasting’s ABC affiliate in Orlando, Fla., WFTV, may be the best example of just how to do it.
Dave Sirak, news operations manager at the station, said that the June 29 early-morning changeover was the end of a nine-month migration, during which HD facility and production gear was gradually introduced, staff was trained and new workflow was established.
The migration began with crews shooting in the 16:9 SD format that could be easily integrated into the eventual 16:9 HD newscasts. The station then introduced an HD switcher, HD studio cameras and HD weather graphics. That was enough to get HD off the ground, he said.
Still to come: HD tower cameras, an HD-equipped helicopter and more and more stories shot in HD, Sirak said.
For acquisition, Sirak said, the station likes what it has been getting from low-cost ($3,500 to $5,000) camcorders using the HDV tape format. “It’s a good way to get into HD and dabble a little bit without making a huge investment.”
WRAL, Jim Goodmon’s cutting-edge CBS affiliate in Raleigh, N.C., was the first (or at least among the first) stations to offer HD news, having introduced the service six years ago when an HD set was still hard to find at the local consumer electronics retailer.
But that early start has given WRAL more HD experience that any other broadcaster in the country.
And after six years, said Leesa Moore Craigie, director of news operations and special projects, WRAL continues to push the technology. Last July, it covered the visit of 13 tall ships to Beaufort, N.C., in HD, using seven cameras (two on boats and one on a helicopter) linked with broadband microwave. “It was absolutely beautiful,” she said.
Voom HDNews provides a cycling newscast for the Voom HD Network, a collection of HD programming available as part of EchoStar’s Dish satellite TV service.
Will Workman, general manager of HDNews, said he has been able to maintain the service by relying heavily on automation to keep the payroll small. Right now, he says, the newscasts are assembled by just six people.
Early on, Voom called on AccuWeather and it developed an automated HD weather report that it produces at its headquarter in State College, Pa., and that is integrated into the HDNews newscast.
HDNews’s promise is to produce as much of its newscasts in HD as possible. According to Workman, shooting stories in HD in not that difficult. The challenge is backhauling the HD video, he said. On live shoots, he said, producers must take HD encoders with them to insure that they can feed the video back over digital satellite trucks.
Workman and Sirak downplayed the concerns anchors and reporters may have about the blemish-reproducing power of HDTV. After much experimentation, the Voom talent has found that their makeup habits have not changed much, Workman said.
What’s important, however, Workman said, is to have plenty of lighting and an “absolutely awesome” lighting director. Bad lighting can “make their noses longer and ears pointy,” he said.
To calm some of the talent anxieties at WFTV, Sirak said, the three companies that were vying to supply the HD studio cameras set up their cameras in the newsroom so that everybody could do a side-by-side-by-side comparison.
In the end, Sirak said, WFTV chose Sony cameras, which, to the relief of the anchors, feature the ability to “defocus” certain colors like skin tones or certain areas on faces (beneath the eyes, for instance).
Training is also critical to a smooth SD-to-HD transition, two of the panelists said. “Make sure you budget for training,” said Sirak, “and don’t let the vendors leave your premises until you have been completely satisfied.”
Craigie seconded Sirak, saying that contracts with vendors should include training “until you are satisfied,” not just for the typical two weeks.
Also keep in mind that newly hired writers and producers will require extra training to get you to the HD routine, said Sirak. “You have invented a new workflow that only a few stations know,” he said.
Broadcasters should also take comfort in knowing that the switch to HD doesn’t affect the fundamentals of TV news. “The storytelling doesn’t change,” Craigie said.
Preparing for the panel, Craggie said she questioned WRAL’s news photographers. “ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“It’s all the same to us,’ they said, ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“It’s just a bigger canvas.'”
Web site Lost Remote.com has a transcript of the session here.