WTAP-TV To Make History with Local HD Newscasts

(Parkersburg) – WTAP-TV, the television station serving the Parkersburg-Marietta area, is about to become the first TV station in West Virginia to do its local newscasts in true High Definition.

The station will launch its local HD newscasts on Sunday, May 29 with the airing of WTAP News at 11.

“The picture will be absolutely stunning,” says WTAP vice president and general manager, Roger Sheppard. “We’ve gotten used to seeing HD video from national news sources and DVDs, but to see our local news, weather and sports in true high definition, will be incredible.”

The process of going “Local HD” doesn’t happen overnight. WTAP has been getting ready for this for several years.

“Our Engineer, Kevin Buskirk, and our I-T and Production Manager, Larry White, have been brainstorming and planning this move since at least 2005,” Sheppard says. That was when Gray Television, owners of WTAP, directed the local team to launch two new stations to complement the long-standing NBC affiliate which signed on in 1953. In the Spring of 2006, WTAP put FOX Parkersburg and My5 on the air, utilizing entirely new master control and production control rooms, conceived several years earlier by Buskirk.

Those control rooms and equipment areas were built with HD in mind.

“It was our goal to avoid building in any ‘dead end technology’,” Buskirk says. “Everything we did, we were constantly thinking, ‘How does this plan or this piece of equipment help take us closer to HD?’”

“We didn’t want to waste time or money putting in systems that we’d have to replace when we got ready to go HD,” White says.

Most of those efforts paid off. Due to fast-changing technologies, a few did not. But they certainly gave WTAP a “leg up” when Gray began making the move to HD at its stations across the U.S.

“We are Gray’s smallest, free-standing television station,” Sheppard says. “But Gray believes in West Virginia and believes in this community. So, it made the additional, sizeable investment necessary to take us the last steps few to full HD.”

Many stations are now shooting news in “wide-screen mode” (also known as “16X9,” which is the screen ratio of newer wide-screen TVs), Sheppard says. But most of those stations are still actually shooting in standard definition.

“The difference between 16X9 standard definition and 16X9 high definition is night and day,” he says.

Standard definition, or SD, means the screen image has 480-lines of resolution from top to bottom. WTAP’s local news footage and in-studio live shots, will be done in full 1080 HD, meaning the screen image has 1,080 lines of resolution from top to bottom, more than twice that of SD. And the improved way in which each image is “painted” on the screen many times per second, also enhances the experience.

Local newscasts to be shown in full High Definition are: Daybreak (Mon-Fri, 5:30-7am); WTAP News at Noon (Mon-Fri, 12-12:30pm); WTAP at Five (Mon-Fri, 5-5:30pm); WTAP News at Six (Mon-Sat., 6-6:30pm); and WTAP News at Eleven (Sun-Sat, 11-11:35pm). FOX Parkersburg News at Ten (Mon-Fri, 10-10:30pm) will also be in full HD on WTAP’s FOX Parkersburg station.

To enhance these HD local newscasts, WTAP has installed robotic studio cameras and a new automated system to give the newscasts a cleaner, more uniform look, day to day. It has also purchased a new on-air graphics system to make those graphics crisper and more flexible.

But local newscasts are only part of the story.

“Our NBC station will now be virtually HD all day long, from sign on to sign off,” Sheppard says.

WTAP was the first TV station in West Virginia to carry NBC network programming free, over-the-air in true HD beginning in 2004. With the transition to local HD, WTAP’s NBC station is now capable of carrying its syndicated (non-network) programming in HD as well.

The current weekday syndicated shows, which will now all be available in HD on WTAP, include “Live with Regis and Kelly,” “Inside Edition,” “Ellen,” “Dr. Phil,” “Oprah,” “Wheel of Fortune,” and “Jeopardy.”

WTAP will also be creating local TV commercials in High Definition very soon. “The great news is that we have been shooting high-quality, digital video for our commercials for several years,” Creative Director Jeff Nutter says. “That video will still look great as it appears in our HD programming. And as time goes on, our new local commercials will be shot in the new wide-screen, HD format, too, just like our news video.”

The good news for WTAP doesn’t stop with HD.

The station has also gotten the approval of all city planning groups, to erect a new 120-foot-tall tower adjacent to its main facility in downtown Parkersburg. The tower will stabilize and improve the signals that WTAP must send to and from its main transmitter site, so that people who are not on cable or satellite, can see the local stations free over-the-air.

“Many people tend to forget that there a lot of folks out there who can’t get cable or can’t afford satellite,” Sheppard says. “We are their local station, too. And they rely on us for local news and updated information about weather emergencies and national and world events. We don’t ever want to forget about them.”

The new tower is to be erected in the next few months. When it is done, WTAP will move the Highmark West Virginia skycam from the top of the former Mountain State Blue Cross – Blue Shield building at 7th and Market Streets, to the top of the tower. That camera will also be capable of outputting a high definition video image.

“WTAP is one of the smallest TV stations in America, serving one of the smallest population bases in America,” Sheppard says. “But that doesn’t keep Buskirk and White from ‘thinking big.’ And it doesn’t keep Gray Television from thinking big, either.

“We are grateful to the people of the Mid-Ohio Valley for their viewership, and to the businesses of the Mid-Ohio Valley for their partnership over the years. These major improvements would not be available without both groups.”

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