Media Watch

KVOA Makes Splash with HD Unveiling

While the launch date was never made public during the two-month promotional push leading up to its high-definition debut, KVOA Channel 4 management was pushing behind the scenes for April 22. The local NBC affiliate wanted to have its multimillion-dollar investment up and running in time for the May sweeps period, but very often, overhauls of this nature lead to unforeseen problems--and unforeseen problems cause delays.

That's why KVOA was not overly specific about the launch date until the third week in April, when it became apparent the transformation could occur. Sure enough, on the Sunday, April 22, 10 p.m. news, Channel 4 became what is believed to be the 35th station nationally to take the step every station will need to take in the not-too-distant future--before February 2009.

"We didn't know until the end of the year we were a go," said general manager Gary Nielsen. "We had no equipment ordered, no set designer picked out, no graphic company picked out, no weather system picked out. From the end of the year until April 22, we were up and on the air."

To say it was a massive undertaking is an understatement. As was the case with every station in the market, KVOA made the initial investment from analog to digital, but kept that transformation from going into the inevitable HD realm.

"It's a virtually upside-down process for the station," Nielsen said. "Every piece of gear that had to touch anything had to go out and be changed. When you change a piece of gear, you have to train everybody on it. Besides doing the installation, photographers, engineers and production crew were going through training. There were days when you walked through, and you'd find three different groups in training. You do that plus the installation plus your normal stuff, and everybody did extremely well."

Visually, the on-air product has been impressive. KVOA enlisted the assistance of Tim Saunders of Broadcast Design International to create the set. That company also designed the set for Katie Couric's debut on the CBS Evening News.

"You can always go on and look at Web sites, but the way he approached it was, 'Tell me about your news product. Tell me what you envision it to be as far as character.' We went from there," Nielsen said. "We basically said we wanted a clean, contemporary, crisp, forward-looking feel, and yet we want a touch of Tucson in there. I've been back through his Web site, and I can't find anything that's real close to ours. He started from our wishes and got real close the first time."

Visual elements of the extreme makeover include faux-brick columns, the prominence of the grammatically questionable "coverage you can count on" catchphrase, a news desk that in standard definition makes weather personality Jimmy Stewart seem distant and isolated (it's a depth-creating mechanism for high-def) and glass behind the anchors that fogs the Tucson cityscape background.

"It's to make sure the talent pops from the background," said KVOA marketing director Yvette Perez. "When (the glass is) clear, the talent doesn't stand out from the background as much as when you have the diffused Plexiglas. It's used in a lot of set design."

While rapid and effective, the transition has not been flawless. Most notably, the newscasts have been wrought with video problems since a new system went online. Anchors will read a story expecting accompanying video, and it won't be there. That's left a lot of talent on a lot of live-shot islands.

"Everything is ones and zeroes anymore, since we don't have any tape in the house," Nielsen said. "You have a computer that the news graphics are in, a computer the news video is in, a computer in between that computer and a computer in the control room, and another computer that spits it out over the air. It's a matter of taking three or four different systems and making them talk to each other. That's what we're working through now. We've had three vendors in this week to help the diagnostics. We're working our way through the list, crossing things off and getting the major things done."

From the major to the seemingly benign, the HD transformation has changed numerous things, all the way to the application of makeup. KVOA hired a consultant to work with on-air talent using an air gun for more even distribution.

"Whether it's the video in the field or the reporters or the anchors, you really don't want people distracted by anything other than content," Nielsen said. "The old makeup with sponges and whatnot looks great on analog, but if someone walked out of the studio and had to grab a hamburger at the corner place, they might have frightened someone to death being seen in person. This (new makeup application) is extremely natural. It's like pixels on a screen, but in droplets of makeup. It just goes on evenly."

As of two weeks ago, 34 stations nationally had made the HD leap. Eight stations, including KVOA and sister station WLEX in Lexington, Ky., also owned by Charleston, S.C.-based Evening Post Publishing, have launched since then, and they're all probably enduring many of the same issues and some different unforeseen scenarios that might better mirror what KGUN Channel 9 and KOLD Channel 13 face when they make the inevitable move.

"I equate it to open heart surgery. You have the patient on the table; the chest is open, and we've repaired the heart, but we have a couple other surgeons repairing smaller things," Nielsen said. "It's always nice being proactive. There's a lot of good news product in Tucson. We're just going to try to do the best we can for our viewers."


On the personnel front, KVOA is bidding adieu to Dave Sabo, a building maintenance technician who worked at the station for 32 years.

"The building and the people in it would have ceased to function on many different occasions without Dave," said KVOA operations manager Dave Kerrigan. "Replacing him won't be an easy task."

KVOA is making a donation to the Jon Ruby Scholarship Fund in Sabo's honor.

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