Friday, May 1, 1998

Countdown to November

Prepping for HD Marked by O&O: Optimism, Obstacles

by Ty Ford

Right now, HDTV is a spinning coin with both sides showing. The first side can be characterized by an observation made by Joe Flaherty, CBS senior VP for technology, at this year's CES show: "At the moment, there are more digital television stations on the air than there are receivers to receive them."

The second side, from Dallas-based HD Vision's Randall Dark, is that "high-resolution, wide-screen is the future of the industry, and the industry is eight months pregnant. We have made consumers aware that HDTV is coming, and they are anxiously expecting it. NTSC TV sales are already dropping as consumers wait for HDTVs."

Unbeknownst to the consumer, however, the remaining sticking points are making the marketplace a bit tense. According to Lynn Claudy, NAB senior VP, science and technology, the dust from 200 petitions filed against the new assignments and FCC/Congressional discussions about spectrum issues didn't settle until almost the end of February.

That delay, along with local zoning and tower problems, may keep some of the first 26 stations from making their November, 1998 air deadline. Claudy also says progress is being hampered by a scarcity of analog-to-digital encoders and competent tower crews to erect the new towers for the yet-to-be-ordered antennas.

LIN Television VP of engineering & operations Bob Ogren has been seeing both sides of the coin as well. On March 30, LIN's KXAS was scheduled to broadcast the opening game of the Texas Rangers baseball team, both in NTSC and HD. "The game will be produced in NTSC as usual by our own LIN Productions. The HD telecast will be a combined effort of LIN and HDVision. We're using six or seven of their Sony HD cameras. Chyrons can go wide to 16:9, but they don't have HD resolution yet. We'll have prerecorded roll-ins and commercials."

Ogren hopes KXAS won't have the problems competitor A.H. Belo Corp's WFAA, Channel 9, Dallas, had when they fired up their transmitters for the first time. Shortly after WFAA went on the air on channel nine, some of the 60 wireless heart monitors at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas stopped sending data to nurses' stations. WFAA shut down for a few days, allowing Baylor to find some solutions to the problem.

On the consumer side, Ogren's biggest problem is getting receivers set up for the audience to see the new broadcast. "We hope to have demos at first and third base entrances at the ball park.

The only catch is that the transmitter (a Comark Advantage 50KW transmitter with two 25KW RF amps) which was ordered last August and originally scheduled to ship by the end of 1997, was due to be on site by March 23.

Regardless of the tight schedule, Ogren seems unperturbed. "All the wiring and cooling is in. We're just waiting for the exciter and R. F. amplifiers. We've been getting ready for digital since 1994 with our Indianapolis station. We had owned a potential tower site for nearly 20 years, but found out it was in the middle of a small airport flight path, so we had to find a new piece of property. It took over a year to get the FAA approvals, and then it was only conditional for one year until it could be proven there was no RFI with ILS and VHF communications. We've also built towers in Portsmouth, New Haven, Austin, and Dallas."

Ogren has sympathy and a positive prediction for stations looking at tower construction. "Fortunately, we have the experience in getting towers built. It's difficult work; usually taking a year from drawing board to completion. Part of the problem is that there are only about a half dozen crews who will work on 1,000-foot and higher towers. I think some of the foremen of those crews will be forming their own companies, but the capital needed for the hardware is not trivial, and there are plenty of weather and zoning problems. Joe Flaherty from CBS said it's easier to get permission to build a jail than to build a tower. I have only built towers, but I tend to believe him. For KXAS, we built a new 1549 foot T-bar tower with channel 39 (analog) on one side and digital channels 41 and 40, stacked one on top of the other, on the other."

Like many broadcasters, LIN has been working with Comark to get the digital RF system online. KXAS will be broadcasting an 860KW directional signal using Dielectric TFU-30 antennas. Ogren says LIN hasn't purchased any HD production gear yet and has opted to lease the $450,000 Mitsubishi 1080I digital encoder from Comark instead of buying one.

He's also interested in a multicasting flexi-coder Harris and Lucent are working on with the assumption that it will handle all 18 DTV formats. "Our Sony BVP500 studio cameras are capable of 16:9 at standard definition. I would like to be in as much 16:9 as possible, in the field as well as in the studio. We have a contract with Panasonic for DVCPRO and hope they'll have 4:3 to 16:9 switchable by 1998. But until they do, we'll let the upconverters do the stretch from 4:3 to 16:9.

According to WETA senior VP of Operations Joe Widoff, WETA-HD has been on the air in the Washington D.C. market since April 1997. "We were authorized on July, 29 1996, but it took a while to get the Harris Sigma IOT 70KW transmitter. We expect to get more power from the FCC. We may have to add another cabinet or tube to get there. The antenna is a Dielectric, vertically polarized, directional, side mount at 416 HAAT (height above average terrain) on our own FM site in Arlington. The good news is we are able to put the DTV antenna on our own real estate. The bad news is the location is 8 km outside of the planning parameter used by the FCC in assigning the second DTV channel, so our NTSC and DTV transmitters are not co-located. If we decide to make it the permanent location of our DTV channel, we'll have to jump a few more hoops to make sure there are no unacceptable interference problems caused by this location. That means we can't fill out the five-question short form and expect a construction permit in five days."

Like KXAS, WETA hasn't bought any HD production gear yet. "We have produced four HD programs by contracting with Randall Dark's HDVision in Dallas. Our first, two years ago, was Impressionists on the Seine, a program showcasing a collection of impressionist paintings shown at a local museum."

Widoff continues: "We were going to do it in NTSC, but realized you could never see the quality, brush strokes, and color. We bit the bullet and shot it and got it underwritten by a local patron. It was a very successful program. We made $60,000 in pledges on a 26-minute show. Those who saw the program said that the broadcast was better than seeing it in person because of how close they let us get with the cameras."

Widoff, who looked for production gear at NAB, says, "Few places can post HD right now. We'll be looking to do our own HD production and making the service available to others." Of particular interest to Widoff are solutions for plant processing of the HD signal, where to store it, edit it, how to put local IDs in network programming and how to handle interstitial material.

Widoff's biggest hope is that HD receivers start showing up in stores and in public places as quickly as possible. "HD sells itself. You don't have to talk about it, you just have to show it. We've done a fair amount of getting that around for people to see. Right now we have an HD projection system and 34-inch direct view set. For stations in transition, he suggests shooting 16:9 Digital Betacam.

Randall Dark, President and CEO of HDVision in Dallas ( offers limited agreement. "Upconverted wide screen Digital Betacam is adequate for talking heads, but as soon as you compare a nature program in shot in HD to upconverted Digital Betacam, you'll go looking for HD again. I think Super 16 is great for some projects, certain documentaries, but with 35mm, 30 fps or HD you get a real sense of being there. Feature films shot at 24 fps, will still have some motion strobing, but when you look at at 35mm transferred to HD, it's spectacular.

Dark shot his first HD program eleven years ago. "It was a 14-part miniseries called Chasing Rainbows for CBC Canada. It was shot in 1125/60, 15 x 9 analog using a Sony HDC-100 tube camera and a HDD-100 VTR. We've been involved with hundreds of HD productions. We just bought three Sony HDW-700 HD camcorders. They record on HD cassettes. They will revolutionize documentary and ENG. At $120,000 with glass, they are affordable. I was the first in North America to order them from Sony a year ago at NAB."

Beyond the present hashing out of technical details, Dark is quick to point out the competitive aspects of HDTV. "The ad agency creative departments will slowly migrate to shooting in HD because their clients will understand that this 'new look' is compelling and enhances their product. Any products that require the reach out and touch type of marketing campaigns, i.e., food, soft drinks, cars, beer spots, will become early adopters of this medium. What better way to show how well a shampoo makes someone's hair shine, or how a mascara doesn't clump, or how shiny and slick a new sportscar looks?"

To that end, Dark sees ad agencies as having no option but to finish their spots in 35mm. "By November, thousands of HDTVs will have been sold and stations and advertisers will not want to upconvert ads from NTSC to HDTV because the image quality will be so poor. They will want to air them in 35mm transferred to HDTV. Also, once the advertisers actually see their spots aired in this new wonderful format, I truly believe they will insist upon airing certain types of ad campaigns in HDTV."

He expects the same forces that push the advertising market to move the stations and the viewers. "It's the Fear Factor: Station 'X' has been the market leader with the number one news program at 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., and they decide to wait before going HD. Now they hear station 'Y' advertising that they will be the first to broadcast in HDTV. Will station 'X' want to be second or third in the market place?" Dark says the pull on the consumer will be just like the switch from radio to TV and from black and white to color: Once the consumer sees HD, there will be no turning back.

Recently adding a third HD truck to his fleet and postproduction facility, he sees only more work in the future. "Our new truck (HDV-3) is a 35-foot Air-Ride trailer & Freightliner tractor with up to seven cameras and five VTRs. We're using the Sony HDFT-300/HDFR-300 Optical Fiber Transmission System for all runs from Sony HDC-500 CCD cameras to the Sony HDFT-2-ME Production Switcher w/DSK and five Sony HDD-1000, HDV-10 or Panasonic HD-D5, Uni-hi VTRs. We use a Probell HDTV RGB Routing Switcher, Drake Intercom /RTS, Chyron, Paint System/Stillstore and Sony HDN-2000 downconverter."

To the timid or nonbelievers, Dark offers, "Everything shot in HDTV can be downconverted to standard TV. HDTV is evergreen. What we record is digital. No matter what form video evolves into, what is recorded today in digital high-definition can be transferred to it. HD is not an 'if', it's a 'when.'"

from Digital Content Producer Magazine