published Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Chattanooga TV stations spend millions on hi-def switch: Viewers might not see where most of the money went

Kolby Brown works on the new set for WTVC, which is being redone to accomodate the wider view of high-definition TV.
Kolby Brown works on the new set for WTVC, which is being redone to accomodate the wider view of high-definition TV.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

LOCAL HD

WDEF-TV 12 became the first station to broadcast its local newscasts in high definition on April 4, 2009.

WRCB-TV 3 switched its newscast to HD on Sept. 29, 2012

WTVC-TV 9 will switch to an HD newscast on Jan. 27.

FAST FACTS

• To get high definition television, you need a newer HD-capable set.

• Anyone using an over-the-air antenna with an HD-ready TV or a converter box can get high-definition signals.

• If you have a cable provider and an HD TV, it does not mean you are necessarily watching HD, however. Cable providers offer it for an extra monthly charge.

• A recent Leichtman Research Group study found that 62 percent of U.S. households have an HD TV and that 52 percent of those use HDTV channels.

• An EPB Fiber Optics spokesperson said about half of its customers in Chattanooga have HD service.

• Comcast Chattanooga does not release such information, according General Manager Jim Weigert.

Mike Costa figures most people won't see the major difference — or at least they won't focus on it.

Despite the fact that, as general manager of WTVC-TV 9, he figures he's spending "well over" $1 million to upgrade the station's newscast to a high-definition signal, the super-sharp image won't be the first thing viewers notice.

"The (newscast) set will be the big thing to the viewer," he says.

Nor will the viewers notice -- or even necessarily care -- about all the equipment upgrades that went into the changeover, he says.

"The technical upgrades are mind-boggling, yet only interesting to an engineer or a techie," Costa says.

When WTVC flips the switch on Jan. 27, it will become the last of the three major local stations to convert its news operations to high definition. It will also be the most complete conversion to the new technology with the station upgrading everything from its computer software and hardware to rebuilding its newscast set and bringing in new lighting and cameras. On the new set, viewers will see a wall of 12 46-inch HD monitors, two stand-alone kiosks with monitors and four other large HD monitors.

While WTVC is making the conversion all at once, WDEF-TV 12 and WRCB-TV 3 took different routes to hi-def. WDEF, a Morris Network station, began the switch in 2009 and has been upgrading equipment a piece at a time. In the coming weeks, News Director Dutch Terry says, the addition of a new computerized weather system and a few more in-the-field cameras will essentially complete the conversion.

WRCB, which is owned by Sarkes Tarzian Inc., began planning the switch to HD in its newsroom in September 2011 and flipped the switch a year later on Sept. 29, 2012.

Like Costa, officials at WDEF and WRCB say that, on some level, the biggest changes are fascinating mostly to techies, but they all say the new signals are vast improvements for viewers in both the quality of the picture and in the ways the stations can now deliver information.

"To be honest, I'm not even sure most people realize they are looking at HD," Terry says, unless they see it next to an older analog signal. "Then it is awesome."

Some of the improvements are subtle while others are dramatic.

WRCB News Director Derrall Stalvey says that, for example, because the HD picture is so much sharper, more information in graphics and text boxes can be included.

"With things like school closings, we could just use one line before and now we can do three or four lines of text," he says.

During a tour this week at WTVC, where the changeover is in full swing, reporter Beth Neuhoff was putting together a traffic update using new software that tracks drivers using their cellphones. Similar to the maps apps on a smartphone, she was able to use the system to locate heavy traffic areas and determine in an instant how fast cars were moving. With the click of a button, the images were ready for broadcast.

FACE THE FACE

Several years ago, when the move to HD was barreling towards TV -- both local and national -- one of the biggest concerns was the on-air talent, be it actors or journalists. HD is pretty unforgiving when it comes to such things as acne scars, large pores, pimples and moles. In the past, heavy makeup could help cover those, but HD makes that more difficult.

"HD is less forgiving," says reporter Latricia Thomas at WTVC.

Even those who are not covering blemishes say getting the look right is important and new makeup made especially for HD has been developed.

To deal with the difference, all three stations -- and their on-air staff -- had to relearn the techniques for putting on makeup which, at some stations, now includes the use of an airbrush machine instead of the usual brushes and pads. WRCB, for instance, has purchased four airbrush machines to put makeup on the reporters and anchors.

"You have to relearn how to apply it because you don't want to distract viewers," Thomas says.

WDEF news anchor Chip Chapman says learning how to put on the new makeup is not "a vanity thing."

"If you saw the same anchor on the screen with HD makeup and then with no makeup, the difference is dramatic," he says.

New HD makeup takes a few minutes more to apply, he adds, and it's also more expensive. While the old makeup cost $2 or $3 for a one-ounce bottle, that same bottle can run about $30 for the HD version.

"But I do a morning and noon show and it takes just a little bit of touchup to get ready for the noon show," Chapman says. "The secret is to put it on and not have it look like you are wearing any. And a little goes a long way."

WIDER FORMAT

Part of the reason behind WTVC's complete overhaul at WTVC, especially the newscast set, is that HD is broadcast in a 16:9 ratio, rather than the familiar 4:3. The wider picture offers more space on the screen, so News Director Tom Henderson says it made sense to do a total conversion rather than try to make the old set work.

WRCB's news set, because of the large room surrounding it, needed only some reconfiguring in order to make the change, Stalvey says.

"The existing set is pretty versatile," he says.

The wider format and sharper image allows producers to put things like graphics and key shots or images over the shoulder of the anchors on the screens.

WDEF also kept its old set.

Cost

All three stations spent millions to make the switch to HD. WRCB General Manager Tom Tolar says the overall conversion -- including new behind-the-scenes equipment -- took about $7 million while the conversion of the newsroom cost about $1.2 million.

Costa says he is not sure of the total cost for WTVC because the work is not completed and parent company Sinclair Broadcast is footing the bill.

"It is well over seven figures, however," he says. "It is a total reinvestment in this station."

WDEF's Terry also says he's not sure of the final figure, but he estimated the master switcher, the piece of equipment that's central to the HD signal, ran "close to $1 million" all on its own.

"That was the significant first step," he says.

OLD AND NEW

Despite the amount of time and money invested by all three stations, officials know that not all viewers have HD-capable televisions and won't be able to see the differences.

In addition, the stations' archival footage was all shot in the 4:3 format, so producers and videographers must be aware of that when setting up cameras. While an image or person located on the outer edges will appear onscreen in the 16:9 format, they are cropped out in the 4:3 format.

"We have a safe title box (which indicates what 4:3 viewers are seeing) we use around our graphics as a reminder," Terry said. "You have to look at framing a little bit differently."

Henderson said the wider format and sharper image "changes everything." They allow reporters and producers to think of new and creative ways to add more information into a shot, he said.

Videographers also must rethink how they frame shots because of the wider frame and the greater depth of field, he says. Things that might have been blurry or lost in the background under the old signal, now can be seen clearly in HD.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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