High Def in an Analog World

Throwback Thursday: CBC History

“I’ve got vision and the rest of the world wears bi-focals” is one of the lines delivered by actor Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy in the movie “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.”  The 20th century version of that line could be “I’ve got high definition in an analog world,” perhaps delivered by Jim Goodmon.

Capitol Broadcasting Company has never shied away from exploring technical frontiers. In fact, CBC usually zips to the front of the line to lead the charge. That is exactly what Jim Goodmon did to place WRAL front and center in High Definition exploration as early as the mid-80s.

Philip J. Ciani, one of the HDTV pioneers wrote, “The world at large is unaware of how the revolutionary innovation of digital HDTV progressed from research labs to living rooms. Only a member of the technologist order can ever fully understand the interplay of the technical, business and creative factors that led to the integration of two of the 20th century’s greatest technological achievements, broadcast technology, and computer science, to separate the wheat from the chaff and decipher and relate the story between the lines.”  That quote from Ciani’s book “High Definition Television” written in 2012  gives us an idea of how dense, deep, and wide the development of HD would impact the world, including government policies. The implementation of color television pales in comparison to High Def.

Our “Throwback Thursday article” will give us a snapshot of the early HDTV days at WRAL.

January, 1987 – Jim Goodmon and WRAL GM and VP John Greene traveled to Washington D.C. to watch NHK, Japan’s Public Broadcasting Company, demonstrate HDTV.  Japan was already broadcasting in HD and had its specific technical standard. Japan viewed this invitation as a perfect opportunity to convince the powers – that- be in America to adopt its standard, which would dovetail nicely with its television products.

NHK’s demonstration of HD video images was absolutely stunning. Savvy broadcasters saw the potential and the need to quickly establish standards and practices before larger cable and movie companies.  A few days later, NHK gave another demonstration at the US Capitol. The reaction was a bit different from our elected representatives. They were rocked back on their heels to see that another country already had advanced technology in place ahead of the United States. This realization motivated then-Senator Al Gore into action. He raised concerns whether the United States would be a factor in the global market for HD and the related technologies. He also raised concern about the future of the tech industry in America and a loss of dominance in the computer industry if HD and computers became intertwined. Pennsylvania Congressman Don Ritter, a graduate of MIT, was quoted to say “to miss out on HDTV is to miss out on the 21st century.”

The gauntlet had been thrown down. America would not pass the technology torch to another country.

Needless to say, Goodmon and Greene saw the sharper picture and made sure CBC would be at the forefront of this new technological frontier.

Fast forward to 1996, all of the various technical standards and systems had been, for the most part, established. WRAL seized the day and moved at record pace. Check out the general timeline.

May 1996 – WRAL  files application for experimental HDTV license.

June  1996 – FCC grants WRAL-TV first experimental license for HDTV.

July 1996 – Thirty-four days later, on July 23, 1996, WRAL transmitted the first digital signal. It took an army of engineers and equipment experts working almost around the clock, doing in 34 days what normally should have taken eight to 10 weeks to accomplish, which included the installation of a brand new Harris HD transmitter.

August 1996 – WRAL-HD and Washington based Model HDTV Station Project stage joint demonstration of HDTV video transmission.

August 1996 – WRAL-HD uses NHK production gear to tape three local events in HD.

April 1997 – FCC assigns channel 53 to WRAL-TV for digital TV.

April 1997 – WRAL-HD engineers drove a specially equipped van all around the Raleigh area, measuring the strength and quality of the HDTV signal. Reception was successful 90 percent of the time at 65 miles. Picture reception increased to a 95 percent success rate at 55 miles. FCC staff members were especially pleased with the results of the tests and additional test plans.

July 1997 – FCC grants WRAL-TV one-year extension of experimental license.

September 1997 – WRAL-HD delivers first local live broadcast of ACC football game.

Jim Goodmon

CBC President & CEO Jim Goodmon with WRAL’s first HD van.

October 1997 – Jim Goodmon, President & CEO of Raleigh’s Capitol Broadcasting Company, was appointed to President Clinton’s Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Broadcasters (PIAC). The committee reported to Vice President Al Gore and was referred to as the “Gore Commission.”

December 1998 – “The Cape Light” was the 1st locally produced documentary in HD. Producer: Scott Mason.

1999 – During the 1999 National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Convention in Las Vegas, NV, Jim Goodmon, President and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Company, was recognized for his outstanding contributions to the advancement of digital television. Goodmon received the Digital Television Pioneer award given by Broadcasting and Cable and Digital Television magazines.  Goodmon credited the honor to the people he works with every day. “This award is for all the people at Capitol Broadcasting who worked so hard to get us on the air and keep us going for the last three years, and for the many companies such as CBS, Harris & Andrews, that were so much help to us. I received the award on their behalf,” said Goodmon.

Digital Dynamos

CBC President & CEO Jim Goodmon (center) on the cover of the April 1999 edition of the RTNDA Communicator, with John Harris (left) & Tom Beauchamp, who were at the time the news director and director of engineering at WRAL, respectively.

Meanwhile, the majority of television stations were still wearing “bifocals” while WRAL clearly had the vision. For other stations, the four letters HDTV might as well have been a four letter word. In the April 1999 edition of the “RTNDA Communicator” magazine, the big CBS O&O – KCBS in Los Angeles, was mired down in daily work. Larry Perret, then-news director at KCBS-TV said “On the news side, we really haven’t had a lot of conversation about it. Like most stations, we’re just dealing with what faces us today and tomorrow.” In Boston, WLVI-TV’s news director, Greg Caputo said “Honestly, I’m not paying much attention to it.” Contrast that with WRAL-TV then-news director John Harris’ thought process at that time. Harris advised his peers in the industry to “get set for viewers to know us better than ever before. HDTV makes reality more real and fakes more unbelievable.” Harris had the vision, the others were wearing bi-focals.

John Greene, retired VP and former GM, was quoted in the same magazine article to say, as only John Greene could, “I’m appalled at the ignorance of some GMs. They are behind the curve.” One thing that can never be said about CBC is that it is behind the curve.

Our CEO and President, Jim Goodmon, is fond of saying, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” WRAL stayed focused and dedicated to digital. By remaining true to the main thing, WRAL was able to lend guidance and wisdom to other stations dipping their digital toes into the pixels. Scott Mason, producer/reporter advised his peers to remain true to the basics of solid journalism. Good writing will always be good writing. Jay Jennings, documentary photographer instructed his fellow photographers to shoot interviews in their natural environment and to be very, very steady. Tom Beauchamp, then-director of engineering was matter of fact in saying that, “HDTV is not plug and play; it’s a work in progress.”

This has been a “bird’s eye view” of HDTV development at WRAL. In a future article, we’ll take time to dive deeper into the digital development during those formative years.  It has been said that WRAL is always on the leading edge of technology. Sometimes the leading edge can be the bleeding edge. Perhaps that is just another way of saying “no pain; no gain.”

What’s next? Have you heard about ultra HD? Stay tuned.

Thanks to Corp’s Pam Allen for this capcom story. Pam Parris Allen is a former WRAL newscast producer/director who now works as a researcher and producer on the CBC History Project.

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