Live at 11: today's top news, and the anchors' pores

By By Eric Deggans Times TV/Media Critic
Published August 7, 2007

Days after his debut on WFTS-Ch. 28's new high definition local newscasts - a first for the Tampa Bay area television market - anchor Brendan McLaughlin knows two things:

First, the new, highly detailed broadcasts don't make the anchors look as bad as some people predicted.

And, since the HD cameras pick up the details of powder makeup and lip gloss, it has the curious effect of forcing on-air staff to use less stuff on their faces.

"We were told our wrinkles could resemble a Google Earth picture of the Grand Canyon . . . turns out, it's not that bad," said McLaughlin, WFTS's top male anchor. He made a rare Saturday appearance to helm the July 28 start of high definition newscasts at the ABC affiliate. "This high definition reveals all your attempts to hide what you look like."

It was an unspoken horse race among local TV stations: Who would be the first to go high definition in the country's 12th-largest TV market? And WFTS indulged its bragging rights immediately, splashing news of its high definition debut across promotional advertisements and stories within its newscasts.

For months, area TV news executives have refused to answer rumors about their HD broadcasting plans for fear of tipping their hands to competitors. When Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13 got a new studio set, general manager Bob Linger downplayed the notion that it was built to look better for HD; the arrival of new HD-capable cameras at WFLA passed without much notice.

Top officials at WFLA, WTVT and WTSP-Ch. 10 did not return repeated phone calls for comment on their HD broadcasting plans, though most experts predict every TV station in the market will be broadcasting in high definition by the year's end.

"It's like asking, in the 1960s, 'Will everybody get color TV?' " said Elliott Wiser, vice president and general manager at cable news channel Bay News 9, who wouldn't say when his outlet might offer high definition broadcasts, either. "It's the future."

Viewable only on HD-capable TV sets, high definition broadcasts offer sharper visual detail and audio, transmitted on a different frequency than old-school, analog broadcasts.

Folks with HD-ready televisions can simply stick up an antenna or ask their cable provider for a high definition-enabled channel tuner. If the government actually implements plans to cut off analog signals in 2009, this will be the way all television is delivered in short order.

Fine-tuning ahead

Watching WFTS's newscasts, the HD format seems a work in progress. So far, only the in-studio cameras at the ABC station broadcast in high definition, though WFTS plans to upgrade its weather graphics soon and then bring the format to field reports.

But because the high definition screen is wider than analog, the station must place blue borders at either side of the non-HD images - known as "sidecars" - which means high definition viewers see the screen shifting from bordered images on weather reports and stories to full screen shots in the studio.

True enough, you can see a few more lines and differences in skin tones on the faces of anchors, while elements such as ties, jewelry and blue eyes seem to "pop" off the screen. It's also easier to see the difference between an anchor's makeup-covered face and areas on the neck and chest which aren't. Even viewers without high definition TV sets can see a difference in their picture quality.

And though viewers with HD-capable sets can see broadcasts of all other local newscasts in the digital frequencies - the images are stretched a bit to fit into the expanded screen size - only WFTS offers a high definition signal, so far.

WFTS general manager Bill Carey compared their HD rollout to the "Microsoft model" of introducing new products, noting that the software giant never waits until a project is perfect - it releases anticipated software as soon as possible and improves the features over time.

"It's not like we're launching a spaceship - we're rolling out a new technology where the viewer has a more pleasant experience," he said. "Why not do it as soon as you can?"

High def news value

In some cities, local TV stations have offered high definition broadcasts for years. So why did it take so long for HD to come to local TV news?

Most experts cite two factors: technical complexities and money. Though no one will give exact figures, executives who have overseen such changes say the expenses for new cameras, control room equipment and even new types of anchor makeup run into the millions.

"People who have HD TV sets really want to see product that fills the screen," said Shawn Bartelt, general manager at Orlando ABC affiliate WFTV, which became the first station in Florida to offer high definition local newscasts in June 2006. "It's more accurate, because people can see better, the weather graphics tell you more. But high definition won't cover up if you don't have a great newscast."

That's also the answer WFTS's Carey gives when asked whether high definition newscasts will prove a problem for the bay area's top TV anchors, some of whom are older than the 49-year-old McLaughlin.

"I think people make too much of HD's impact on anchors," he said, while acknowledging that female anchors may feel more pressure to hide their age.

"When it comes to newscasts, you value experience, and you value longevity. I don't think anybody looked at Walter Cronkite and said, 'I don't trust him because he looks too experienced.' "

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com">href="mailto:deggans@sptimes.com" mce_href="mailto:deggans@sptimes.com">deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

Five things we don't want to see on local HD

Gasparilla parade coverage - There are partygoers you don't want anywhere near a high definition camera, especially if they are demonstrating what they've done to earn their beads.

Certain kinds of animal stories - WFTS had a shocking story last week on an animal sexually assaulted by a man. The story featured the veterinarian showing off his suture work, a shot that made me glad their field stories aren't in HD yet.

Devil Rays fans - Tears of frustration can't look good in high definition.

Any speed eating contest - Write your own punch line here.

Police mug shots and perp walks - Any regular viewer of COPS knows there are some faces - especially on people nabbed, shall we say, under the influence - who would benefit from less visual detail. Call it the Nick Nolte rule.