Remembering Edward R. Murrow in High-Def


An edited transcript follows:

Q: How fast are you’re members making the transition to local newscasts in high-def?

A: It is a change that is certainly picking up steam and now growing geometrically. One of our members has been tracking this and he tells me that between 1999 and 2006, there were only 7 stations that were broadcasting news in HD. Then, in 2006, 19 stations went to HD. Now, I think, there are more than 50 that are broadcasting their news in HD. So with each passing year, more and more are doing it.

Those that have made the switch seem happy with it. They feel it gives them something to promote to their viewers and that it offers clear benefits to the station because the audience can get much clearer and crisper picture.

And, of course, as more consumers buy HD sets, they gravitate to high def programming. We all want news programming to be part of that.

Q: What are of the major challenges you members face as they make the transition?

A: One of the most difficult things is that we are in a transitional period. A lot of the material that people are working with and a lot of what viewers see is in the 4:3 aspect ratio, yet you want to take advantage of the 16:9 ratio. So taking material that might be coming into the building at 4:3 or archive material in 4:3 and then incorporating that into 16:9 ratio is a challenge that every news room is trying to work with.

The other big challenge is field acquisition. The equipment is being developed for that, but it is tricky to use and it isn’t easy to convert in a live situation. That is next big step. We’ve been doing HD it in the studio in some thing and that is fairly easy to do but the field acquisition is a challenge.

The 3rd thing, I think, is how do you revise the workflow in general to deal with the new digital equipment and all the new platforms -- mobile, the Web, podcasts, whatever -- in addition to HD.

Q: What about the capital costs of making the transition to digital? Is that having an impact on staff and news budgets at a time when stations are also having preparing for the shutoff of analogue signals and having to invest in the web, mobile and other platforms?

A: It certainly means you have to spend your dollars wisely. But staff levels are pretty stable because you have to produce news for so many more platform than you were even five years ago. Stations need to make an investment in those other platforms and they are making those investments.

But it isn’t just a matter of buying hardware. The staff may have to have different skills and has to be trained to work in new platform and technologies. But you have to invest in the people who are using the hardware.

Q: How healthy do you see local TV business at this point and what that mean for the development of HD newscasts?

A: I think everyone who is working in traditional media -- whether its newspaper, TV or radio -- is trying to figure out how to meet the consumer demand. Consumers want more interactivity. They want more control of the content and the way they access content and stations are trying to figure out how to respond to that with their strategy for the internet, mobile and other smaller screens.

Fortunately, HD is very strong way to keep viewers interested in broadcast television. People love watching television and they love watching big sporting events in HD. Weather in HD is a real growth business right now. As more people invest in HD sets, they are going to want to see as much HD as possible and they are going to want to see local news in HD. So that is something new and very attractive that stations can offer.

Of course, the stations are affected by the general economic climate just like any other business. What is going on this year will certainly have an impact. But there are lots of reasons to be optimistic about the business and HD is one of them.

Q: What are you doing at the association and at this year conference to help people with them move to HD?

A: We’ve been doing sessions on converting to HD at our convention every year since 1999 and this year is no exception. We have a session called ‘The Digital Conversion Countdown: It's Later Than You Think’ that will deal with HD and other issues.

We’ve been covering HD in our magazine, Communicator. The magazine did a cover story in 2005 about KUSA with the headline ‘High Def and Loving It’ In the last three issues of the magazine we’ve had a feature on high def in each one. So as it’s become more important, we’ve been writing about it on a monthly basis.

But what we do best for our members is to act as a source for networking and information exchange. So when people are about to make a decision about equipment or have questions about workflow, they can turn to their peers who have already made the conversion and learn from them.

I think it is a really exciting time to be involved in TV news. Our members are passionate about telling stories in a vivid meaningful way and HD gives you such marvelous tools for storytelling. The impact is just amazing. It is just a very exciting time.

But one of the themes at this year’s convention is that we remembering the 50th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s speech to the RTNDA convention. That was the speech where he said unless people use television to illuminate and educate, then it is just wires and lights in a box.

As the technology gets more and more impressive, we still have to remember that it is the content, the story that you are trying to tell that gives heart to the technology. I think the technology is wonderful but we have to remember what it is for.