Defining Moment

TV's technological revolution marches on as WBFF becomes the first Baltimore station to broadcast local news in HD

June 02, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporter

He's not exactly journeying into a brave new world, but Bill Fanshawe clearly gets a kick out of being something of a pioneer. Today his TV station becomes the first in Baltimore to broadcast its local newscasts in high definition, meaning that viewers will be able to see anchors Jeff Barnd and Jennifer Gilbert more clearly than ever.

Welcome to the future, TV watchers.

"I don't know if it's the same as going from black and white to color, but it's comparable," says Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF (Channel 45). "It's a better viewing experience - the clarity of the picture, the detail. Anyone who has ever had an HD set, they'll never want to go back."

Of course, that's part of the rub. Less than one-third of Baltimore's homes currently have TV sets capable of receiving the HD signal, according to Nielsen Media Research. For most of the area's television audience, the only difference between last week's WBFF news and today's will be the appearance of a flashy new studio, complete with enhanced graphics and multiple backgrounds.

But at a time when TV stations are rushing to keep up with new technology - and to meet the federal government's February deadline for going digital - the early transition to HD at least gives WBFF bragging rights. And in a competitive marketplace where the Fox affiliate is anxious to make inroads against entrenched powers WBAL (Channel 11) and WJZ (Channel 13), Fanshawe is hoping the novelty will pique some viewers' curiosity enough to sample his station's broadcasts - and maybe then stick with them.

"Being first in converting over to HD should help us in getting to a stronger position," he says. "We don't want to be second to anyone."

Those who do have HD will notice not only the sets and the picture clarity. Broadcasting in HD will enable WBFF to eliminate those vertical black bars that until today appeared on both sides of the newscast; now, the picture will take up the entire HD screen, which is considerably more horizontal than the traditional TV screen.

For the station's on-air talent, the transition to high definition has had a practical ramification: they've had to pay even more attention to their appearance. Softer, more forgiving lighting has been installed on the set. Special consultants were brought in for a two-day workshop on makeup. People didn't panic, but they definitely paid attention.

"When they said that you'll see every nook and cranny in HD, it made some of the ladies raise their eyebrows a little bit," says Patrice Harris, co-anchor of the station's morning news. "It was a little scary to think, `Oh, wow, we're going into this new realm of television, where people will see everything.'"

Overall, Harris says, the transition has proven "no big deal" - at least so far.

"Ask me again next Friday, after I've had a few days to see myself," she says with a laugh, "and I may say something different."

The transition to HD will also turn WBFF's news, at least temporarily, into something of a hybrid, since only the studio broadcasts will be shown in the new format. Remote transmissions from reporters in the field, as well as many videotape sequences, will revert to the old format - meaning that the image sometimes will take up the entire screen, and sometimes it won't. Broadcasting an entire news show in HD is still "a couple" months away, Fanshawe says.

Phase-in plans

Both WBAL and WJZ foresee similar phase-ins for their high-definition broadcasts. WJZ plans to have its studio broadcasts in HD by the end of the year, says Vice President and General Manager Jay Newman, with the rest of the newscast following suit in March or April next year. WBAL plans to broadcast the studio portion of its newscasts in HD by February, says President and General Manager Jordan Wertlieb.

WMAR (Channel 2) has no plans to broadcast local news in HD, but is "investigating our options," says Vice President General Manager Bill Hooper. "We're more focused on making sure that we're up to speed on the digital conversion, which we have no choice on," he says.

By government decree, all TV stations must switch from analog to digital broadcasting in February. That switch, which will make analog TV sets without a converter box (or satellite or cable connections) obsolete, will improve picture quality everywhere. Adding HD kicks the quality up yet another notch.

But adding HD technology is not cheap. Channel 45 has spent more than a year getting ready for the conversion, and spent "a couple million" on the new set, cameras and other equipment, Fanshawe says.

Technological changes, such as broadcasting in HD, have not always translated to improved ratings. In 2005, WUSA (Channel 9), for example, became the first station in the D.C. market to broadcast all its local news in HD. Its ratings remained unchanged immediately after the transition.

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