With voters pondering the prospect of the first African-American or woman gaining the presidential nomination of a major party, cable news networks are preparing to make television history with their coverage of the election in high-definition.
“For those of us who cover politics and elections, this is the election you want to do,” said David Bohrman, senior vice president and Washington, D.C., bureau chief for CNN. “We knew from the beginning it was going to be interesting with two open races but it has turned into this amazing story that has almost transitioned into a spectator sport. That has really caught on with people.”
It has also caught on with networks ramping up their high-def offerings. HDNet provided gavel-to-gavel high-definition coverage of the conventions in 2004, but this year will mark the first time that the major broadcasters and 24-hour cable news networks will be using an HD pool feed.
“We expect HD to be a big part of our convention coverage and going forward a big part of everything we do,” said Warren Vandaveer, senior vice president of operations and engineering for Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, which will provide the pool feed for the Democratic Convention in Denver in high-definition. “All the pool members wanted an HD feed, and we’ll be providing that.”
When voters go to the polls this November, it is also likely that all the 24-hour news networks will offer HD simulcast feeds.
CNN was the first to jump into the game with the launch of a simulcast CNN HD in September 2007. Fox News followed on May 1, 2008 and MSNBC is planning to launch its HD offering sometime in the fourth quarter.
“We hope to get it on earlier in the fourth quarter rather than later,” said Phil Griffin, senior vice president of NBC News and executive in charge of MSNBC. “It is critical that we get out there.”
This marks a major shift for the news networks, which have been much slower to embrace HD production than sports, movie, drama and documentary programmers.
Rising HDTV set penetration, particularly among the more affluent viewers that make up the core audience of cable news networks, is one key reason for the rush to HD this year, executives said. As viewers tune in to election coverage in record numbers, all of the networks are also hoping to keep viewers with HD sets by offering a high-def feed.
So far this year, ratings leader Fox News is up 22% in total viewers in primetime compared to a similar period in 2006 and 2% from 2004, according to Nielsen rating data provided by MSNBC.
Even larger gains can be found at CNN, which has seen its total viewers in 2008 during primetime jump 55% from 2006 and 36% from 2004.
MSNBC, meanwhile, has more than doubled its primetime audience. So far this year it is up 108% among total viewers in primetime compared to similar periods in 2006 and 2004.
Still, it isn’t clear how much of an impact the new HD feeds will actually have on this year’s ratings race. None of the news networks were able to provide audience breakdowns for HD viewing and their HD feeds still have relatively limited distribution.
Third place MSNBC, which has seen the biggest audience gains, won’t launch its HD programming until the fall and Fox’s HD feed is currently available only in a few markets, notably Time Warner Cable’s New York City and San Antonio systems.
Second place CNN’s HD feed has the largest reach, with carriage on DirecTV, Dish Network, Cablevision Systems, AT&T’s U-verse and select systems on such major operators as Comcast, Time Warner and Cox Communications.
While distribution for CNN HD is much smaller than its regular feed, CNN executives see their early embrace of HD news production as a significant competitive advantage.
“It takes a while to get distribution,” said CNN’s Bohrman. “By going out early, we are now able to capitalize on the success we’ve had in getting distribution at a time when more people are watching TV in HD.”
Bohrman also stressed that being first out of the gate has given them valuable experience in how to best exploit the technology. “It has really paid off in terms of what we’ve learned and our ability to avoid problems,” he said.
During the conventions Bohrman said CNN will use some of the same techniques they used in 2004, while making significant changes to take advantage of their HD coverage.
“In 2004, we broke out of the hermetically sealed anchor booth and we anchored from the floor of the conventions,” Bohrman said, a move that helped them capture the excitement of the event.
CNN will repeat that approach this year but will produce the convention coverage from its HD-ready New York facilities, rather than using a truck outside the events. “Because the conventions are back to back, it didn’t make sense to go out to Denver and then move everything to St. Paul [Minn.] and build a second huge HD infrastructure,” Bohrman said.
CNN will also cut from the convention coverage to the New York studios so they can use touch screen technologies and the video wall to enhance their coverage and provide more analysis.
Besides its own convention coverage, Fox will also provide the pool feeds, according to Vandaveer.
“It shows just how quickly we’ve come up to speed on this” and “our commitment to providing as much HD programming as possible,” he said.
For the pool coverage, Fox will be producing a feed in 1080i because a majority of the pool members — NBC, CBS and CNN — work in that format, Vandaveer said. ABC and Fox will then cross-convert the signals to the lower-resolution 720p format.
Fox News producers are still discussing the particulars of their coverage of the conventions but it will likely rely heavily on their popular primetime personalities that have allowed Fox to maintain a commanding lead in ratings.
In April, Fox had 1,638,000 average viewers during primetime, versus 956,000 for CNN and 597,000 MSNBC, largely on the popularity of its primetime personalities, according to rating data posted at TVNewser. In April, Fox also had nine of the 10 top-rated shows on news networks among total viewers.
Personalities are also playing a key role in MSNBC’s ratings growth, argued Griffin. “Our people are what set us apart.”
Griffin said MSNBC’s move last year from New Jersey to NBC headquarters in Manhattan has also allowed them to integrate such on-air talent as Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert, Andrea Mitchell and others from NBC News into their coverage. “We have the best in the business and they are finally playing on MSNBC along with MSNBC’s talent,” Griffin said. “Keith Olbermann is honestly our tent pole. Bill O’Reilly for many years was the tent pole and helped build Fox. Now Olbermann is doing that for us.”
In the talk and personality driven formats that currently dominate the cable news networks, such personalities may even trump technology. “CNN spent a fortune,” Griffin contends. “They have a lot of bells and whistles but they don’t have the people.”
CNN executives dispute that, pointing to their ratings increases and the fact that the network embraced HD technology as a way of enhancing its coverage. “We’ve worked really hard to make sure we don’t let technological hurdles stand in the way of stories and editorial information,” Bohrman said.
Still, all of the networks also face some hurdles, including some significant upgrades to their facilities, as they attempt to expand their HD coverage.
Bob Hesskamp, senior vice president at CNN broadcast engineering and systems technology, said the news network’s transition to HD began with its 2004 move into new facilities in the Time Warner Center in New York. “We knew we would eventually be converting to HD so we built it with HD in mind,” he said.
In 2006, when the company began extensive planning for the launch of an HD feed, it decided to focus on making the final upgrades to the New York operations “because that is where our primetime and morning shows are and also because it is our newest facility,” Hesskamp said. “We went control room to control room, taking one offline, convert and then go to the next.”
At the same time, they added transmission capacity between Atlanta and New York, upgraded some trucks, acquired some HD-capable field cameras and built a completely HD CNN Election Express bus. CNN has a policy of not discussing which vendors supplied equipment.
Currently the shows produced in New York are full HD, including CNN Election Center, American Morning, Anderson Cooper 360°, Lou Dobbs Tonight and Your Money. But much additional work needs to be done in the other production centers.
“In both Atlanta and Washington, our two other production centers, we have an infrastructure that has been in place going on 20 years,” Hesskamp said. “As we were considering HD in New York, we took a hard look at our infrastructure in Atlanta. We created a plan to make this transition over a number of years so that we don’t have to make a giant investment all at once.”
While much of this additional work is being done gradually, as equipment needs to be replaced, CNN is also investing heavily in HD equipment for this year’s election coverage.
“This year, a big goal has been to replace a lot of our aging field equipment in the field engineering and operations division,” Hesskamp said. “A lot of the infrastructure we take on the road for pools and for covering large special events, we’ve been replacing with HD equipment so that when we go into the conventions we can take full advantage of it.”
Fox News has also used newer infrastructure in New York to develop an HD simulcast service.
“As part of the launch of the Fox Business Network, we built an HD foundation for Fox Business that is now being grown out to support the Fox News Channel in HD,” said Vandaveer.
In addition to the HD infrastructure that was created for Fox Business, Fox built a new HD master control room and is constructing three new studios and three new control rooms at the company’s Manhattan headquarters. “The new control rooms and studios will go online by the election and be a big part of our election coverage,” Vandaveer said.
Currently, morning show Fox & Friends and Fox Report at 7 p.m. are in full HD in the 16x9 aspect ratio while the other shows, including The O’Reilly Factor, use a 4x3 centercut feed.
“In the other hours of the day we take the 4x3 centercut feed and push it over to the left side of the picture and add a graphics panel on the right side” to create the HD feed, Vandaveer said.
While MSNBC has yet to launch its HD feed, it moved last October to new facilities in NBC’s headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza that were built to handle HD.
“We built the new studios and facilities with HD in mind,” said Griffin. “The cameras are HD-ready. All the monitoring was purchased for HD. One of two control rooms is HD-ready. All our audio is digital. We are fully integrated into the HD infrastructure at 30 Rock.”
NBC News has launched its Nightly News in HD but some significant work remains before MSNBC can launch an HD simulcast feed. One of the control rooms needs to be upgraded, the equipment fully integrated and a number of other issues need to be addressed, Griffin said.
One of the thorniest issues in the path to true HD is the source materials the news channels get from their broadcast affiliates or from the field.
Many of the local broadcast stations who provide footage for Congressional and state races have not made the conversion to HD. Only about 80 to 90 broadcast stations currently offer HD local newscasts and only a small portion of those get high-definition footage from the field.
“Dealing with all the different formats that will be coming in from the local stations [which are shooting in standard definition in either the 16x9 aspect ratio or in 4x3] is actually pretty difficult,” said CNN’s Bohrman. “We have already had a couple of meetings on how we can monitor a couple of hundred feeds that are available at any point in time in a variety of formats.”
Another issue is the fact that the networks are not only producing crisp high-def video for large-screen TVs; they must also supply clips and footage to the Internet, mobile and other platforms.
“That is a big challenge and a huge priority for us,” said CNN’s Hesskamp. “As we look at the next generation of systems we would like to make sure that our journalists, editors or production people can easily access the content in the format they need.”