If timing is everything, as the saying goes, it has certainly played a pivotal role in the creation of WealthTV, a newly launched lifestyles and entertainment network and one of the first to air original television programming in true high-definition (HD) format.
Masterminded by Robert Herring Sr., president and CEO of Herring Broadcasting, Inc., WealthTV made its network debut on June 1st in a renovated, fully HD facility in San Diego that has been outfitted with state-of-the-art audio/video and production equipment. The facility, which includes a 48 by 47-foot broadcast studio and a series of post-production suites, was completed in record time and ahead of schedule.
In his quest to bring viewers the highest picture quality available and a fresh, extensive programming lineup, Herring sought out HD experts and acknowledged leaders in the broadcast industry to provide a turnkey solution. He also brought sons Charles and Robert into the venture. Sony, a leader in high-definition technology, was chosen to supply most of the HD equipment, while Sony’s Integration Center (SIC) was contracted to integrate the various technologies and install equipment. New Jersey-based A.F. Associates (AFA) was selected to design and build the technical infrastructure. Ascent Media, AFA’s parent company, and its Palm Bay Group were charged to perform the satellite uplink and encoding aspects of the project, including dish installation.
“We started with Sony first because they are one of the best in the area of high definition,” Charles Herring explains. “At the time, in January (2004), Sony’s integration business had just been sold to Ascent Media, so it made sense for us to consider working with them and AFA as well.” In fact, the WealthTV project was the first to tap the combined resources of AFA’s new San Jose operation and SIC, both of which have now been incorporated fully into A.F. Associates. “As the first project after the acquisition it could have gone well or poorly,” he adds, “but indeed it went very well.”
The Herrings had come into the start-up from a highly successful background in the manufacture of circuit boards but with little knowledge of the broadcasting world or of the equipment needed to run a studio. However, creating a specialized lifestyle network had been a decade-long dream of Robert Herring Sr., who as a youngster living in modest surroundings had always wondered how the truly wealthy lived. After selling his electronics company to a Japanese firm, he began thinking in earnest of a television channel that could be a source of entertainment for those who enjoy luxury or aspire to a lavish lifestyle.
“I wanted WealthTV to serve as a sort of shopping channel to those that have already made their fortunes as well as provide a pleasant diversion for those who are entertained by that standard of living,” he says. He also wanted the facility itself to be state-of-the-art in its technology in order to develop programming at its very best.
“There are two things that make HDTV preferable to standard TV,” remarks April Calou, the senior project manager for AFA who had led the Sony integration team. “One is the image, which is about three times higher in quality because it is composed of 1920 x 1080 pixels rather than the typical 720 x 46. The other plus is the ‘aspect ratio’ — the ratio of the width of a picture to its height — which in HDTV is 16:9 versus 4:3 in conventional TV. The result is a much higher resolution to the viewable image.” She continues, “In conventional TV, the component signal is all run down one cable — color, brightness ‘mushed’ together. HD has three separate signals: the brightness part and two color signals. By keeping them separate, you get a much better quality image, a much sharper one.”
At WealthTV the primary signal is a high-definition 1080i signal, which provides the highest quality picture now currently available. (The “i” means that the 1920 x 1080-pixel video image is being “interlaced” — picture movement smoothened by increasing the number of scan lines per frame and making the lines longer and closer together.) “We are convinced that HD is the way of the future, and we shoot all of our footage in high definition,” says Charles Herring, “but we don’t want to limit our viewership, so we also broadcast a downconverted standard digital signal — and the picture still looks great.”
The facility’s uplink satellite sends twin signals from the studio to PanAmSat Galaxy 13, the premier HD “neighborhood” for national cable networks with a reach to most of North America. Two smaller roof-mounted dishes pull signals down, one for Reuters News, the other for live programming being conducted elsewhere. Most homes receive WealthTV programming via satellite service providers, but the network is working with cable providers coast to coast to expand its market.
The studio utilizes the latest HD technology from Sony, including cameras, production switcher, routing and monitoring equipment, and audio processing. The several post-production and edit rooms also employ high-end equipment and software: Pro-Tools in the all-audio suite; Discreet Logic Smoke and Apple Final Cut Pro in the four edit suites.
“In many ways, an HD studio is like any other TV studio,” says Calou. “It’s true that the equipment is slightly more expensive, but it is of far better quality — the lenses, tape machines, monitors are all better. Nor is the equipment as bulky or heavy, and it doesn’t pull as much power or generate as much heat.” She adds, “HDTV equipment has shrunk in size, too: what used to consume two racks now fills about one-half of one.”
After Sony’s sales support and engineers developed the initial equipment list, it fell to Calou and her team to revise and refine the choices to better suit their client’s needs and budget — trading some items up, others down, and leaving still others for future purchase and installation. “At that early stage, the list was really rough and it was up to us to design a system to get everything to work together and flow through the facility,” she recalls. “I like to think of the process as a painting. You start out by painting a background and making a rough sketch of what the subject will look like. Eventually it becomes a landscape, perhaps with trees and birds, and the details get filled in over time.”
The building the Herrings purchased had been an optical manufacturing plant dating from the early 1980s and lacked the flexible layout needed for a broadcast studio setup. San Diego architect Gary Potter was called in to redesign the second-story spaces and create a taller, largely open central area for the 2,256-sq.-ft. studio. “We had to remove a portion of the roof and eliminate several support columns that were dead-center in the studio plan,” Potter explains, “which necessitated enlarging the footings on the first floor and stiffening existing columns.” New steel columns were incorporated into the walls and a steel roof deck added to hold a mechanical platform for HVAC equipment and the satellite dishes.
The edit and audio suites were refashioned from existing offices — the production control room had served as a conference room — and ceilings throughout lifted to accommodate cabling trays. Walls received extra insulation for acoustic separation between spaces. “Robert Herring Sr. insisted that all perimeter rooms have glass fronts looking towards the studio,” says Potter, “so that even if a program were in the production stage visitors could watch without disturbing the crew.” Windows in the audio control room are positioned to permit interior views in several directions.
Both Potter and studio set designer Gil Jimenez worked closely with Calou to ensure that the building’s redesign did not interfere with the electronic wiring design and implementation. After the final drawings were signed off, Calou turned the job over to the installation team, headed by AFA’s Pat Jordan, first to assign a number to every wire in the schematic (“wire listing”), then to precut and label each wire before bundling into cables. Each cable also carries a label and description.
“The great thing about our wire list and labeling system is that you can just pick up any wire and know exactly where it is coming from and going to without even looking at the drawing,” Calou observes. “In addition, we employ a rack-based mnemonic system in the production control room to simplify maintenance and troubleshooting. Everything in the room has a unique mnemonic, so there are no identical pieces, with no confusion.” She does note, however, that the edit-room operators tend to associate equipment with its brand name rather than a numbering system — the “Smoke Room,” for example, or “Pro-Tools.”
Throughout the design process Robert Herring Jr. served as the overall project coordinator and oversaw the progress of the studio. He was particularly impressed with the work of set designer Jimenez, based in Vista, Calif., and hired him and his son Drew to implement a set and lighting design that would offer versatility and showcase the high-definition 16:9 big screen, as well as two smaller plasma screens. “We told them to ‘get creative’ and the results are awesome, even brilliant,” Herring remarks.
“Some studios are overdesigned, with too much happening in the background,” Jimenez comments. “Here was an opportunity to simplify, to provide options to use the space for a variety of productions and different styles of programming.” For example, a news report delivered at the kiosk can be supported by a dramatic over-the-shoulder visual on the big screen alone, or make use of all three screens. Comfortable armchair seating in the interview area can be replaced with bar stools to promote a more lively, face-to-face discussion.
“By keeping it simple,” the designer observes, “the set does not get in the way of the most important parts — the talent and the content.”
“In order to launch WealthTV, we needed 300 hours of programming, so we used independent producers to put together our first shows,” recalls Charles Herring. “Now we’re producing a number of our own.” Among them is the “WOW” series, which highlights exciting living areas around the country and focuses on why affluent people gravitate there — locations such as La Jolla, Las Vegas, Aspen, and Palm Beach, Florida. Other signature series in production include “Wealth on Health” — the most recent program discusses the timely issue of stem cell research — “Wealth Profiles,” and several original programs revolving around travel and sports.
“With only one signal feed, we’ve had to look carefully into the optimal time for broadcasting,” says general manager Dean Harris. “For example, a live newscast at six o’clock in the East airs too early in the West to capture much of an audience.” Lifestyle programs are easier to schedule for cross-country viewing, but he admits it’s still a challenge. Though nearly all subscribers receive WealthTV via satellite, cable is becoming available in some areas.
The facility currently has 40 employees, all with a strong background in television and/or network experience, including five cameramen, four editors, and a full-time audio person fluent in the latest sound technology. “We also have a slate of great producers wooed away from networks such as A&E, Fox, and the TV Guide channel,” adds Harris. “These are industry veterans working on our shows.”
The Herrings admit that the family commitment to seek out top-notch people and cutting-edge HDTV technology has been a significant investment in energy and funds. They also believe that the timing was right and the decision to use the resources of Ascent Media and A.F. Associates a key move. “The most important thing I’ve learned in business is to hire the right people,” concludes Robert Herring Sr.
After its launch in June, the WealthTV network reached out to approximately 750,000 subscribers in the United States. It is now expanding its presence into Europe and has high hopes of being received eventually in 80 million homes around the globe via cable and satellite service providers.
CHRISTINA NELSON IS A REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR TO ARCHI-TECH WHO LIVES IN NAPA VALLEY, CALIF. FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT WEALTHTV, VISIT WWW.WEALTHTV.NET.