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What it takes to produce an HD newscast

Ben Drawbaugh

We've all spent plenty of money on our HD gear and who wants to watch SD on their brand new HDTV? And if you think your wallet is hurting after buying your gear, that's nothing compared to what it costs to produce HD content -- not to mention the amount of work. We recently had the opportunity to tour a local ABC affiliate who's just spent the money to produce five hours of HDTV news per day in the Tampa Bay area (the other bay-area). The amount of time and money required is unbelievable and every single piece was considerably more than even the most expensive component in our HD setup. So, please follow us along as our new friend Jack Winter, the Director of Broadcast Operations and Engineering from WFTS ABC 28, shows us what it takes to produce HDTV.

WFTS started their HD journey way back in 1999 when they started to broadcast ATSC in preparation for the digital transition, and while some of that infrastructure is still in use today, much of it has already been replaced. Even way back then they spent around 2 million, and still didn't have the ability to do much more than upconvert or pass on the national ABC HD feed. After about 8 years of passing on ABC's national HD, they finally decided they wanted to be the first local HD production in the area, and like many of us, once they made the decision, it couldn't get done fast enough. So, 4 months and about 1 million dollars later, they produced the first local HD broadcast on July 28th, 2007 -- this didn't include the $800,000 in cameras they bought the year before. You'd think the cameras would be the biggest expense, and while they're probably the single biggest, you still have to buy an HD switcher, encoder, sync-master, HD video server, as well as a whole list of other equipment and cables.

There are a few control rooms, but the two main ones are: production control and master control. Production control is where the directors work during a live broadcast; from here they control which cameras are used and when the newscast should switch from the studio, to on location, weather map generators, or pre-recorded segments. In order to go HD, WFTS had to upgrade all their monitors and switches, so that the directors could see what you'd see. Among other things, this consists of two large switching infrastructures; and they still can't show HD segments or HD from the field -- but they are planning on fixing that.

Production control, this is where the Technical Directors work, they ensure that they're using the best angle available. All of these screens were upgraded in the move to HD, as well as the switches to supply them.

This is the Evertz MVP that allows them to display all their sources to the monitors in the production control room.

How'd you like to have to run and terminate all these wires, that's a lot of sources! Yes, they're all new.

The control panel for the Kalypso HD production switch from Grass Valley. It allows the Technical Director to control exactly what video is displayed during the live HD broadcast.

This is the actual broadcast switch -- the Technical Director uses the remote panel.

The production switch doesn't have as many wires as the multi-display control, but still more than we do at our house.

One of the HD cameras.

The Canon lens for the HD camera.

The teleprompter attached to the HD camera.

Since much of the HD equipment needs to stay in sync (60Hz in the case of 720p) this is the sync-master that makes it happen.

For locally produced segments, there are G5s right next to the old tape machines, eventually they'll go all HD and get rid of the older equipment.

Final Cut Pro in action

The video server used to store segments for the live broadcast; these are SD, but the capture devices can be replaced to support HD, and they'd have to add more disc space.

That's all the production equipment, but without the base HD equipment they wouldn't be able to send the HD broadcast outside of their offices, so here is the rest of the equipment that is needed. Most of this was required for them to start passing on the HD programming as well as digital broadcasting.

D-5 HD tape machines, this is how they will record syndicated shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, so they can be played back at the appropriate time. Unfortunately these can't be used to feed the local newscast with things like HD highlights from a football game.

Like many tape devices, they are on the way out, this is the future home of the HD media server, which will also be used to record syndicated programming.

This is master control, this is the guy that's at the switch. That's right, if he doesn't hit it, you won't get HD, but instead an upconverted SD signal.

At the top of the rack is the remote console for the master control switch, it's used to turn on the HD goodness.

This is the real HD switch, it allows them to switch from the upconverted SD feed, the national HD feed, locally produced HD or the D5 tape machines.

These are the MPEG encoders, they compress the signal in preperation to send the signal to your house. There are two HD encoders and one SD for their sub-channel.

The PSIP generation device, it collects information from a service and inserts the data into the stream, so that your TV knows information about the channel and current programming.

The multiplexers that put it altogether, from here it can go to the transmission tower or the other MSOs that carry their feed. Most providers receive the signal via a dedicated fiber connection, but others receive it OTA just like many of us do.

This is actually Jack's office. How many of you have an HDTV in your office? We sure don't!

We'd like to extend a very special thanks to Jack Winter and everyone at WFTS for their time and dedicated to our passion, --yeah we're talking about HDTV -- and for taking the time to show us around and answer our questions.

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