Making The Switch

St. Louis' Gannett-owned local affiliate KSDK upgrades its technology to become one of the first stations to broadcast local news telecasts in high definition. 6/29/2006 5:58 AM Eastern

Making The Switch

St. Louis' Gannett-owned local affiliate KSDK upgrades its technology to become one of the first stations to broadcast local news telecasts in high definition.

CHALLENGE: To become one of the first affiliates in the country to produce local news in high-definition and execute a seamless switchover.

SOLUTION: Incorporate an SD-to-HD router that made it possible to imbed audio in video and avoid sync problems.

KSDK, ST. LOUIS' Gannett-owned local affiliate, prides itself on its firsts. It was the first station to go on air in the St. Louis area in 1947, and one of only seven in the country at the time. It remained the only local affiliate until 1953. It was also St. Louis' first station to broadcast in color in 1956. So, in keeping with that tradition, it was only natural that it would be the first station to broadcast local news telecasts in high definition (HD).

The NBC affiliate flipped the switch on its local HD programming on Feb. 6, 2006. It wasn't the first in the country this time — stations in Raleigh, NC, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., beat it to the punch — but that wasn't the goal, according to the station's leadership. And it didn't matter that HDTVs had yet to saturate the market.

“When you look back to 1947, it didn't make a lot of business sense building an entire station for only four TV sets — but in hindsight that decision showed vision and leadership,” says Mike Shipley, KSDK's news director. “We know that in February 2006, the majority of our viewers may not have high-definition televisions to appreciate this technology, but that day will most certainly come. With or without an HD set, everyone will see a big difference in the delivery of our product.”

Making that happen fell to Dave Hummert, the affiliate's chief engineer. The station had already made the conversion to broadcasting in DTV well in advance of Congress' deadline (see sidebar), and when the decision was made late last September to convert to HD — Hummert says it was an in-house mandate and not an order from Gannett — Hummert moved quickly to get the process started. He had only about four months to get the project done.

He won't reveal the total cost, offering only that it cost “several million dollars.” He adds: “It was invigorating. It was challenging. All of those things.”

The first — and one of the most crucial —decisions was to take care of the project in-house. Instead of hiring a third-party integrator to design, test, and implement the new system, Hummert took on the responsibility himself. With the exception of some help from the maintenance crew, he only had help from Don Heus, engineering maintenance supervisor.

It wasn't an exercise in masochism, though, according to Hummert. Instead, it was an exercise in efficiency.

“If we had hired someone else, we would have had to spend time explaining to whomever we farmed this out to, how we do what we do,” he says. “And if we were spending time telling them, we would have already been doing it, in a sense.”

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Making The Switch

St. Louis' Gannett-owned local affiliate KSDK upgrades its technology to become one of the first stations to broadcast local news telecasts in high definition.

Is that to suggest KSDK's system was more complicated than it should have been? Jury-rigged, even? “No, not at all,” Hummert says. “Every building is different, so even if we'd hired a company that had done this before, that company would have come in and our engineers would have had to explain what kind of equipment we have, what kind of router we have, and what our sources are. It would have taken a month or more with a company like that before we could have ever gotten going.”

Got going they did, with a heads-up from sister station WUSA out of Washington, D.C., which undertook the process of converting to HD in the spring of 2005. The most difficult part of the project for WUSA was incorporating standard definition (SD) feeds into its HD news broadcasts and keeping the audio and video in sync. Lucky for Hummert and KSDK, the engineers at WUSA were willing to share how they did it.

Handling video shot by KSDK's news team wouldn't be a problem; four new Sony HDC 930 cameras would ensure that segments taped and produced in-house would be HD-ready. However, that left news feeds, sports highlights, and other segments from affiliates that were still taping in SD.

“Anything that we wanted to put on air that we don't shoot ourselves would be 4:3 aspect ratio,” Hummert says. “So we had to incorporate that into our work flow so that we could make it as simple as possible.”

Instead of giving every signal the option of up-converting, which would have been far too costly, Hummert took care of the problem using his Grass Valley Trinix HD-to-SD router. “In other words, if I want a satellite feed that's 4:3 — we put curtains (reddish-colored side panels used on 4:3 video) on everything that's run on our news —that signal had to be run through an aspect ratio converter and through a logo inserter, which puts the side panels on it, and it had to go through an SD-to-HD converter,” he says.

Although that process, in and of itself, wasn't the problem, one of its by-products was. As a result of moving the SD video through each of the steps in the process — first an Ensemble Designs 8500 frame sync, followed by a Miranda ARC 101i aspect ratio converter and an Ensemble Designs 5420 digital logo inserter — the video signal was delayed, so the audio preceded the video, presenting the potential for sync problems.

“Every module that the video is going through, the audio is waiting for it,” Hummert says. “It's already at the other end. What we did was imbed the audio into the video at the first stop — the first module in the frame syncs. So now the audio ran with the video through all the processing, and at the last stop, we de-imbedded it.”

The solution wasn't based strictly on the station's router. Hummert decided to take the main sources that were used in every news cast and feed them to a Sony MVS 8000 switcher. Then he gave those feeds alternating paths so they could call up off the router the sources that they needed, and choose what kind of conversion they needed.

“Let's say we have a feed on a satellite, but it's one of our cameras that's 16:9,” he says. “That particular path would have gone through a frame sync, which imbeds the audio, but it doesn't go through aspect ratio conversion because it's already 16:9. It doesn't go through a side-panel keyer because it doesn't need side panels. So it goes through a frame sync and then an SD-to-HD upconverter. But then we also have paths into our production switcher that go through a frame sync, aspect ratio conversion, side panel keyers, and SD-to-HD conversion, in case we're getting a live shot from another affiliate that's not 16:9.”

That didn't mean he could ditch his analog router, though. “We still move video around here in 4:3 for programming purposes,” Hummert says. “We record ‘Oprah,' we record ‘Jeopardy,' whatever the case may be. So that was where we had to sit down and think out every source in the building, and try to put a plan together that would be cost effective and give us the opportunity to be hi-def for news while maintaining our normal router and paths.”

Making The Switch

St. Louis' Gannett-owned local affiliate KSDK upgrades its technology to become one of the first stations to broadcast local news telecasts in high definition.

This, of course, all had to be completed without affecting the SD newscasts that were taking place while the build-out was taking place. The fact that the signal was never affected is a source of pride for Hummert.

“Obviously, when you're wiring up a new router and you're making a lot of infrastructure changes, the chances of some cable getting misplaced or unplugged greatly increases,” he says. “You're in areas of your building or your racks that you don't get into unless there's a serious problem.”

The hardest part, Hummert says, was the day of the switch. Because he had to maintain the old system until the 6 p.m. news wrapped — the switch would take place for the 10 p.m. broadcast — he took his Philips DD-35 analog production switcher out of its position and put it on a cart modified to hold it. The new Sony switcher was installed in the control room two days before the switch to high-definition was made. The analog switcher was then rolled behind the new switcher.

“So in our control room, we had two switchers,” Hummert says. “We had the hi-def switcher where it was going to go live and where it is right now, and we had our old switcher positioned directly behind it. And then at 6:30 — literally as soon as the 6:00 news was over — we disconnected and carried out the old switcher, and then we had to start wiring up all of the camera tallies to the new switcher and be ready for the 10:00 news.”

It went off without a hitch. The project was responsible for depriving Hummert of plenty of sleep — and more than a few weekends, but as far as the station was concerned, the time investment was well worth it.

“We felt it was important to be first,” says Jeff Winget, KSDK's public relations manager. “I think being second in something like this doesn't quite cut it. We were the first in color and the first in stereo. That's important to us as a station. We wanted to lead the way, and I'll be darned if we weren't one of the first in the country to do it.”


Of course, HDTV wouldn't be possible without DTV. Congress' original deadline for the analog-to-digital-television-transition was the end of 2006, but hardware delays (particularly the set-top boxes that would allow homeowners with analog sets to downconvert a DTV signal to analog) have made that deadline unattainable. The new deadline, which was set by Congress last February, is Feb. 17, 2009.

Delays in the transition have little effect on end-users or the television stations themselves; each station was allotted an additional broadcast channel for simultaneously transmitting analog and DTV signals. Public safety operations are feeling the pinch, as they wait for the additional spectrum to be freed up.

As of March, 887 stations had converted to DTV. KSDK converted in 1999 — yet another example of the station operating well ahead of the curve.

Greg Matthews is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, MO. He can be reached at

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