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AP rolls out global HD strategy

The Associated Press has put an aggressive HD rollout strategy into action that will encompass nine international locations this year and 25 in 2012. Melanie Dayasena-Lowe visited the scheme's first target of attention - the AP's London hub.

Melanie Dayasena-Lowe takes a tour of the Associated Press’ new Master Control Room (MCR) at its London office in Camden – part of the news agency’s global HD rollout strategy

The Associated Press has put an aggressive HD rollout strategy into action, starting with its London hub. This year the global news agency will complete its HD rollout at nine international locations and 25 in 2012.

In a multi-million dollar upgrade, the AP is transforming its video business by switching its entire newsgathering, production and distribution systems to HD, forming the largest rollout of HD by any news agency globally. This investment will provide AP customers with a wider range of options in how they receive video content, both in the traditional broadcast market and on digital platforms.

The AP began rolling out HD in phases, beginning with entertainment news on 11 November 2011, followed by sports news via its joint venture with Sports News Television (SNTV) in January 2012. The completion date for the main breaking news service will be June next year. “2012 was the tipping point for HD because of the Olympics and the US presidential elections,” explains AP’s Nigel Baker, VP, Business Operations, EMEA and Asia. AP took the decision to go HD to “keep ahead of the competition,” he adds.

Baker believes there is an appetite out there for HD: “The most recent research we’ve done with our entertainment customers would indicate 1/3 of our customers are going to be HD within the next 12 months. It’s actually keeping faith with the major customers and also ensuring that we take the lead in the marketplace. It doesn’t mean that customers who are still SD are disadvantaged as we’ll be providing the files in both HD and SD.”

Upgrading technology

The move to HD will see the AP change the way it gathers, produces and distributes news to its customers, involving a series of upgrades, including the introduction of over 200 HD cameras, upgraded mobile satellites and enhanced backhaul capabilities to handle the HD signal. Video news bureaus around the globe have also been upgraded to the latest generation of video editing, compression and transmission technologies, and state-of-the-art HD Master Control Rooms (MCR) are being constructed in more than 20 locations including London, New York, and Washington. The AP’s extensive video archive will also be transformed to accommodate HD with customers able to download broadcast quality and HD footage from its website.

Also part of AP’s HD strategy are the upgrade of SNG mobile trucks and flyway units to HD, the introduction of a new production system, and the upgrade of its internal connectivity for moving HD video around.

AP Director of Global Video Technology David Hoad says: “The magnitude of this project is such that we are upgrading all our infrastructure right from the camera lens to the distribution technologies and everything in between. We recognise in today’s information driven world it’s all about choice and getting the information you want, when, where and how you want it. As such, we’re upgrading our technology to make it simpler than ever for customers to receive and use our video footage.”

AP’s London hub has a brand new HD MCR, which moved from the third to the first floor to accommodate more space for additional operational positions. The physical control room is three times the size of the old MCR and the technical infrastructure is twice the size.

The news agency selected ATG as its systems integrator for the new MCR, which features furniture from Custom Consoles. The six workstations in the MCR have been designed to be identical. “The new MCR is part of our HD infrastructure upgrade, providing a state-of-the-art video infrastructure for AP’s video operations” explains AP Senior Technical Lead Peter Watson.

“The control room provides enhanced video monitoring and ergonomic workstations for the operational team. ATG Broadcast was a logical choice for the project given its successful track record in designing and installing comparable systems for major broadcasters in many countries.”

“With organisations of the calibre of Associated Press making the transition to high-definition, 1080-line is now clearly the benchmark resolution for broadcasting,” comments ATG Broadcast Managing Director Graham Day. “We designed a complete multi-seat MCR and transmission facility that can accommodate five operators plus a supervisor. It is fully equipped for 1.5 Gbps operation but with a core that can easily be upgraded to 3 Gbps as or when required. The project includes connection to existing architecture and migration of live services to the new area.”

Hoad explains the challenge AP encountered at its Camden site during the construction: “The Interchange is a Grade II listed building so there was a lot of work with English Heritage and Camden local authority to get the appropriate approval. It was helped by the 2007 complete refurbishment of the building that we carried out so they got to know us. They quite like the contrast of very new against very old; it shows up the heritage of the building by that complete contrast.

“As we continue our HD journey, then more and more feeds in here will be originated in HD and we’ll phase out the old SD infrastructure,” he adds. The rollout of HD does mean some of AP’s workflows will need to be changed or adapted. “One of the bigger challenges around HD workflow is the speed of content gathering and some retraining for the camera people to understand the differences of shooting for HD as opposed to SD. It is a good opportunity for us to reflect and challenge existing workflows. HD is a great catalyst to open up the can to look at how we do it. There must now be a better way of doing things.”

Getting close to the news

The newsroom at AP’s London bureau is excited about the move to HD, says Derl McCrudden, head of newsgathering for AP. “If you look at some of the key stories we’ve done this year, clearly it’s been dominated by the Arab Spring and we were exclusively inside the Gaddafi compound. In the future the prospect of having those kinds of images in HD I think is a very tantalising prospect because if news is stories about individuals and people, the sense of taking people to the story is really great.”

He explains that there has been an investment on the technology side, matched by an investment on the editorial side reflected by the recruitment of new video journalists in Asia, south and central Europe and the Nordics. “We’ve also put in place some new kit, LiveU units, which help with our live delivery of content. These are small mobile units using the GSM data network and allow us to be live in places that previously you would have needed a lot of kit and expensive people to do that. So it gives us a lot of flexibility and the new units are also HD capable. It’s all in the step of HD,” McCrudden explains. The new HD strategy also builds on the success of AP’s Global Media Services (GMS), which has been providing HD transmission to international broadcasters from major news events for several years, most recently including the UK Royal Wedding.