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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.

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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