In this first in a series about how TV stations are making the move to HD, ABC’s WPVI Philadelphia tells the story of its pioneering efforts in the fourth largest TV town.
Local TV newsrooms are starting to realize that the vanguard can be a tricky position when converting their newscasts to HD. The potential for missteps is considerable, but as Philadelphia’s WPVI can now attest, being at the forefront also means an opportunity to write a chapter in the successful HD conversion rulebook.
Long the ratings leader in the Philadelphia market, WPVI, an ABC-owned station, was also one of the nation’s first newsrooms to make the HD switch. That process began in early May of 2006, according to Rebecca Campbell, the station’s general manager, and it culminated in the station’s first HD broadcast on July 23.
Different stations have different operational definitions of what an HD broadcast actually means, but Campbell throws down the gauntlet unambiguously: “We believe high definition is product that is acquired in native HD and broadcast in HD.”
To that end, she says that the majority of elements in WPVI’s newscasts are in native HD, including the station’s studio cameras; all of its graphics; its two weather systems, including live radar; its traffic graphics system; its helicopter; its outside weather camera for talent; one of its remote weather/traffic cameras and all of its news opens. More weather/traffic remote cameras will be added to the arsenal later this year.
Unsurprisingly, WPVI isn’t forthcoming about the price tag for this overhaul (the station allows only that it was in the millions of dollars). But consider the inventory of acquisitions, the calculations are intimidating. Among other items, WPVI purchased a Grass Valley Kalypso switcher and Ikegami studio cameras. It expanded its router to include an HD layer, purchased a remote HD outside weather camera for the talent and converted one remote camera to HD.
Add to that a number of HD monitors, a complete HD graphics package and special HD graphic playout servers for both graphics and video.
And that’s not even mentioning the new set.
Given HD’s expanded 16:9 picture ratio, the old 4:3 set wasn’t up to the job. Last February, Campbell says, the set underwent a dramatic makeover in anticipation of the conversion featuring an enlarged weather area and a standup location. The set’s new centerpiece is a detailed “crystal city” of the Philadelphia skyline, and it also includes a series of HD plasma screens integrated into the background of the weather set.
An overhaul of this scope took on a momentum of its own, and Campbell says that managing costs was a high priority.
“One of the most challenging parts of HD is that the more you get, the more you want,” she says. “Everyone in the production process wants to upgrade and enhance his or her functionality.”
One area in which the station wasn’t tempted to overspend, however, was in HD-ready camcorders.
“There are no commercial grade field cameras that we feel are good enough,” says Carla Carpenter, WPVI’s vice president and news director. “They’re not as tough as we need them to be.”
Campbell concedes that one of the trickier aspects of HD conversion is implementing native field acquisition. In addition to buying sufficiently durable HD field cameras, there’s also the necessity of finding an HD editing solution both in the field and at the station. There’s also the question of modifying both microwave and satellite transmission to accommodate the ingest and playout of all of the HD material.
WPVI’s news vans and satellite trucks must still be modified with HD transmission equipment, and for now the station is taking a transitional step familiar to other newsrooms on the HD conversion forefront: It is getting 16:9 standard definition field acquisition while it waits on suitable HD ENGs to complete the conversion.
As great a challenge as budgeting for the transition is the HD learning curve itself, but Campbell says on that front the missteps and hiccups have been few.
“The biggest challenge was our conversion to widescreen acquisition and the integration of both 16 x 9 and 4 x 3 material in the same piece,” Campbell says. “This involved some creative engineering solutions.”
There were few problems with integration and inter-operations during the conversion process, she adds, which she credits to the station’s engineering team and to the efforts of consultant Stuart Loberg. Much of the critical conversion work was done on weekends, and the station allowed for ample, proactive training.
News Director Carpenter says that adjustments in camera blocking were necessary (“We had to reframe our shots,” she says), but that major changes in makeup were not. “All of our anchors look terrific,” she notes.
Workflow adjustments were made with the graphics department and news editors had to adjust to widescreen editing protocols, but Campbell says the process was done seamlessly so as to be imperceptible to viewers.
Most importantly, Carpenter says, no substantive adjustments in news coverage itself were necessary to become an HD newscast. “It doesn’t change the way you do news at all,” she says.
Which is not to say that it doesn’t change the way that news looks, of course. And therein lies the real drama.
“I am amazed at the difference in clarity and color,” Carpenter says.
Campbell adds that technically it is about five times the resolution and detail of a standard definition viewing experience. “The detail and colors are vibrant and glowing,” she says. “When you look at our HD newscast side by side with our standard-definition 4 x 3 HD newscast, you can see how dramatic and significant the difference is.”
And yet, the essential “if a tree falls in the forest” question must be asked: Given the relative scarcity of HD TV sets in the marketplace, how many of WPVI’s viewers are actually able to experience this difference?
The station is unable to provide hard numbers on this front beyond the anecdotal—and approbatory—feedback it has gotten from viewers so far. “It is a very fluid area of analysis,” Campbell says. “Everyone is waiting to see what the impact of the holiday season will have on the share of HD sets in the marketplace.”
Not that WPVI is taking a wait-and-see approach on the promotion front. On-air promotion has been accompanied by explainer pieces, along with a trove of background information and FAQs on the station’s Web site. Special features like the station’s first HD broadcast of the Thanksgiving Day parade last year have also nudged awareness along.
WPVI has not been lonely in its HD foray: Philadelphia’s WTXF (Fox) has already begun its own HD news broadcasts with KYW (CBS) soon to follow.
But having charted HD’s waters in that city, Campbell says it was both an inevitable and imperative course to take. “It is one of the most significant technological breakthroughs in television broadcasting,” she says. “We felt [the conversion] was our responsibility to our viewers.”