TAKING THE HIGH (DEF) ROAD WITH SINCLAIR
Last week, in Part I of this two-part interview with TVNewsCheck, Del Parks, VP of engineering for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, discussed the 8-VSB transmission system upon which digital broadcasting and, to a great extent, the future of the broadcasting business rely. According to Parks, the system works and will only get better as receivers improve and compatible variations of the basic 8-VSB signal are developed.
This week, Parks shifts his thoughts from the broadcast tower to the broadcast studio, laying out Sinclair’s plan for upgrading stations so that they can not only pass through programming and commercials in HD, but also produce them. If all goes well, he says, the stations should all have the full HD capability about the same time they have to make the switch to digital-only broadcasting—Feb. 17, 2009.
An edited transcript follows:
Since you have completed the build-out of your digital RF broadcast system, you can focus on the stations themselves. What’s the plan for digital and HD?
Our plan for transitioning to digital HD is basically to do the master controls first so that we have the ability—the infrastructure—to play back HD commercials. In the next year or so, you’ll see distribution of HD syndicated content. And when we can get HD syndicated shows in access and late fringe, you’ll see the local advertising community moving to HD commercials.
So, syndication and then HD commercials.
King World is already distributing Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune in HD and I believe there are more in the wings. They’re really waiting for an effective distribution system to be designed and put in place.
When will you start with the HD master controls?
Well, we built one already in Buffalo for WUTV and WNYO. It’s part of a technical consolidation of two control rooms. In any event, it’s HD capable, it’s file based and it’s pretty much our prototype of what we want to build in the future.
Tell me about it.
We use a Grass Valley K2 server that will do an up-conversion and play out HD. In this case, we’re using 720p. The older syndicated shows currently in SD come in through Pathfire as an MPEG2 file. We then pull the files out of Pathfire, deposit them directly into the play-to-air server and play them out as an HD stream. We don’t go to baseband video so everything’s pretty much automated. Everything that comes out of this is HD. Some of it is up-converted; some of it is native.
For the next two years, until Feb. 17, 2009, we downconvert the HD and make it an SD signal and that’s what we air.
And as product makes the transition to HD, the percentage of HD material that we up-convert will get smaller and the percentage of HD content we air will get larger and that’s pretty much a hands-free operation.
Do you plan to do any local HD production between now and 2009? What’s the schedule for that?
Sure. There are two modes of production. There’s production for local commercials and there’s news production. It’s very easy to get into the HD production of local commercials because most of the Avid systems you buy today are HD capable. As everybody knows, you can buy a Panasonic or Sony HD prosumer camera that puts out really good HD pictures for about $8,000 or $9,000.
HD production for the news will be pretty much driven by our normal capital replacement schedules. We have a lot of older facilities out there in which we would replace equipment anyway in the next couple of years.
How many news facilities do you have right now?
Off the top of my head, I think 13 where we produce the news.
Is it fair to say that all 13 will be upgraded for HD news productions in the next two or three years?
Yes. An obvious goal is 2009. A lot of people are just up-converting their analog right now, but over the course of the next three or four years we’ll convert our stations over to HD since we have to replace the equipment anyway.
What’s involved in the move to HD production?
The switcher, the cameras and the infrastructure behind it—the routing switchers, the distribution amplifiers and the cabling in the plant—how you move the signal around. That all has to be HD.
This is all work to be done.
Right. It’s all work to be done and they’re all big-budget items. But in markets where you have 15- or 20-year-old studio cameras, we would replace them anyway so the incremental cost of HD should really be 15%.
If you do it in the normal course of your replacement cycle.
Right. Now there may be market circumstances where we may accelerate that. If a couple of stations we are competing with go HD, we may decide that we need to accelerate that. But, generally, everybody is in the same boat as we are. I mean it’s a heck of a lot of money and we just spent a heck of a lot of money to do the RF piece so we really have to keep our powder dry, spend our money wisely and see where we get the most return on investment.
In the mean time, you can implement this idea of digital work flow in SD.
Absolutely and that’s what we’re doing. In fact, the big project we’re working on for 2006 is equipping all of our big newsrooms with Avid ISIS systems and Unity. And those systems are all HD capable so when we buy the HD cameras and HD switchers and the rest, that equipment will serve us well.
What about news acquisition? I assume that you will stick with tape and then move to one of the tapeless formats with the move to full HD news.
Yes with HD. All of our cameras are now DVCPRO cameras so we can switch them to 16 x 9 and do an upconversion that looks pretty darn good. That’s what a lot of the guys are doing today, the Gannetts of the world. They are out shooting quote, unquote HD news. Their studios are HD, but their newsgathering is still SD. You also have the problem of ENG and how do you get HD back on ENG.
So, as you move forward into HD, you could do 16 x 9 from the field, mix that with studio HD and put out a pretty good HD newscast?
Correct. In some markets our DVCPRO cameras are 10 years old. By the time we’re ready, they’ll be 12 years old and it will make sense to change them out.
As you know, Sprint Nextel is upgrading broadcasters’ ENG microwave gear from analog to digital to free up a portion of the spectrum for wireless. Have you cut a deal with them yet?
We’re very close. We just have a few little details and then I don’t see a big problem. I think we can roll this thing out in a matter of seven or eight months. It is a big deal, but I don’t think it’s going to be a moon shot.
Does it help solve the riddle of bringing in HD from the field? Will you be upgrading to HD as you upgrade to digital?
Well, it doesn’t really solve the riddle. It facilitates it to the extent that you can trade in an old analog receiver for a digital receiver. It certainly does that and that is fortuitous, but remember the whole reason for this is the downsizing of the ENG spectrum so, while it does allow digital, it squeezes the channels together. So, you’re cramming more information into it with HD. There’s some progress on the horizon and I think all that will be worked out in the very near future. I know CBS has done some work in this area. They seem to have a solution.
Is Sinclair a believer in centralcasting, operating several stations from a common hub?
Well, for the last four years, we’ve been testing. We’ve been running two of our stations, in St. Louis and Lexington, [Ky.], out of another in Columbus, Ohio.
And what lessons have you learned? Is it a good idea?
It’s a good idea as long as you can get good fiber rates, as long as the price for fiber is reasonable.
And the reason that’s economical is because those markets are fairly close together, right?
Well, the reason it’s economical is the cost of the fiber is economical.
Well, isn’t that a function of distance?
So then should we expect Sinclair to do more centralcasting?
It depends. We’ll look at every case as it comes along. I mean it just depends on the dynamics of the market. Now centralcasting has its ups and downs, its good points and its bad points. The good points are that it’s inexpensive. The downside is that if the fiber gets cut or if a piece of equipment fails, you’re off the air.
And the problem is multiplied by three if you have a problem three-station centralcast.
That’s right and the other side of that is that it’s hard to undo. I mean, once you’ve done that and changed your operation to a centralcasting hub or a spoke on that hub, it’s hard to go back. Look at the NBC stations that are run out of Miami. They sold a couple of stations and I don’t know if they’ve been able to pull that off yet. My point is that that’s a tricky switch.
But are you looking at doing centralcasting elsewhere?
We look at everything. We will do whatever makes sense for whatever market we operate in and there is no cookie cutter approach to solving all these problems.