Learning To Speak HD on the Fly

By Jon Rees

Vice President of Operations, Mountain West Sports Network

Here at The Mtn. (Mountain West Sports Network), we decided to end our third college-football season with a bang and produce our last two games in HD. Sounded like a pretty straightforward idea at the time. Little did we know what lay ahead.

From the very beginning of this project, the biggest hurdle had been communication — not the usual kind, where sales forgets to tell production about a new in-game sponsorship or the remote team changes the backhaul parameters without letting anyone at the studio in on the change. No, this time, we had a fundamental inability to communicate, an ignorance of the definitions of what each of us was talking about.

Four weeks before the event, we finally received word to move forward with HD telecasts for our last weekend of football. We frantically booked mobile units, acquired an occasional space segment for the HD transmission, lined up affiliates to distribute the events, and tried to ensure that we did not screw up our SD feed in the process. I’m sure we all remember the lyric, “the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone, the hip bone’s connected to the …” Well, with this project everything connected to everything else, and God help you if you don’t believe it!

Decision 1: what flavor of HD do you want, 1080i or 720p? This decision was actually made easier by the fact that our origination facility operates in a 1080i environment.

Decision 2: what about audio? Dolby 5.1 or stereo? This one took a bit of time, but knowing that it’s always the audio that causes problems (just kidding), I opted for the safer stereo with faux 5.1 on the outbound signal.

Decision 3: what encode rate and what bandwidth would we need? Now we’re getting serious. After some consultation with the smart folks, we opted for 4:2:1 encoding and a robust 17.5-Mbps bandwidth allocation.

Now that we’d made some decisions on the native-HD side of the house, our attention turned to our studio productions. For our Saturday football telecasts, we typically produce a one-hour pregame show, halftime shows, and a postgame show. For this event, we added a truck in Salt Lake City to provide an on-site perspective of the game during our day-long broadcast window. We integrated that SD feed into our studio feed and fed it into the HD control room. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Let’s begin with the term 16:9. Until this project began, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of what that meant.

My thoughts at the time led me to believe that a 16:9 television or monitor is filled with video edge to edge. I was mistaken. Do you mean widescreen 16:9 or letterbox 16:9? Now, this isn’t my first gig in the business, so I understand that some questions have long-term effects. This answer was something I was going to live with for the duration of the event. “16:9 widescreen non-letterbox,” I answered with authority.

I had several déjà vu moments standing in front of the white board, and they weren’t emanating from Ms. Jennings’s second grade class, where I was forced to write “I won’t shoot spit balls at Tommy anymore” 200 times. But I did draw up proposed signal paths at least that many times.

At this point in the process, we needed to understand what gear in our current production chain was able to handle HD. Very little, as it turned out. So we began the conversion conversation, and I doubt that, in the history of organized religion, as much time and energy has been spent on the topic of conversion: upconverting the SD signal from the studio and integrating it into the HD signal path, downconverting the HD signal for use in the SD chain. And then the most unfamiliar term of all: “anamorphic 4:3,” the formatting of all the previously produced SD content. This involves essentially squeezing the image vertically in the SD world, so that, when played out in the 16:9 widescreen mode, it appears in the correct aspect ratio.

Remember I mentioned not wanting to screw up the SD network? Well, we gave it our best shot with all these format manipulations and upconversions, so now we had a standard studio feed all stretched out, in widescreen 4:3 anamorphic format, and we needed to get it back to standard-definition 4:3. So what do we do? Introduce ourselves to another new term: 4:3 center cut. Just like taking the heart out of the watermelon, center cut 4:3 was the ticket. Amazingly, it looked pretty good. Perhaps a little soft with all the manipulation going on but still better than I expected.

So there you have it; learning a second language the HD way. Join me next time when I discuss how ordering an HD event is a lot like getting a coffee at Starbucks.

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