Industry Insight

High-Tech Communications

CBS 3’s New Studio Demonstrates the Possibilities of Technology

CBS 3 catapulted into the world of high-definition television this year when it relocated to a new Center City station that it designed and built with state-of-the-art technology.

Michael Colleran & Kathy Orr photo
Michael Colleran, president and general manager of CBS 3 and CW Philly 57, and Kathy Orr, CBS 3 meteorologist, atop Sky Deck 3.

The 120,000-square foot facility, located at 16th and Hamilton streets, across the street from Community College of Philadelphia, is one of the first entirely high definition news operations in the country and is now home to more than 300 employees of the two CBS Corporation divisions—CBS 3 and CW Philly 57.

High-definition (HD) television is the highest quality form of digital television, offering exceptional, almost lifelike picture quality and crisp, clear sound.

“It gives us the opportunity to have a more personal relationship with our viewers,” said Michael Colleran, the president and general manager of CBS 3 and CW Philly 57. “They can view our shows, including our newscasts, with a greater sense of clarity and interest.”

Whereas traditional standard definition TV uses analog signals to transmit pictures and sound, digital TV transmits pictures and sounds in data bits, like a computer, providing movie quality pictures and sound.

One newscaster who has benefited from the new HD technology is CBS 3 meteorologist Kathy Orr. “I love it,” Orr said, adding that the new technology increases the efficiency and effectiveness of her broadcasts.

CBS 3’s relocation was driven by the fact that extensive upgrades needed to be done to meet the Federal Communications Commission’s requirement that full-power television stations across the nation must switch from analog to digital broadcasting by February 2009. In addition, the station’s lease at its old home of 35 years at 101 South Independence Mall in Old City Philadelphia was about to expire.

“This was a night-and-day job for 10 months,” Colleran said, adding that it would normally take approximately three years to build such a high-tech facility.

The new facility made its broadcast debut on April 2 following the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game. The late edition of CBS 3 Eyewitness News, anchored by Larry Mendte and Alycia Lane, was the first program to originate from the station’s new headquarters.

The new station boasts two television studios, each with its own control room to allow for simultaneous broadcasts; a state-of-the-art master control room, manned 24 hours a day; an operations center capable of receiving hundreds of satellite feeds each day; a newsroom; and Sky Deck 3, a sixth-floor weather deck that offers a spectacular view of the downtown Philadelphia skyline for weather reports.

Inside the TV studio, robotic cameras can be controlled remotely from a nearby camera control room, which is equipped with touch-screen, HD monitor displays and state-of-the-art joystick controls that allow the cameras to be maneuvered. A yellow sticker on the base of each camera forewarns anyone nearby that sometimes the cameras may move as if they have a mind of their own: “Warning: Robotic Device May Move At Any Time.”

Such high-tech equipment has greatly enhanced Orr’s weather forecasts.

Previously, the station was able to broadcast a news alert—known as a “crawl” in television news lingo—by running type at the bottom of the TV screen, but it would take several minutes before the station could interrupt programming with a meteorologist’s weather alert. Now, thanks to the new robotic technology, Orr can be on the air in seconds, enabling her to warn viewers quicker than ever about impending hurricanes, storms and other potentially dangerous weather patterns.

“It gives us the ability to be on the air within seconds of a severe weather warning,” Orr said. “I don’t think any other station in the market has the ability to be on that quickly.”

Located down the hallway from the studio, the master control room is a large, dark room with several giant, wide-screen monitors that take up an entire wall. The screens can display dozens of images all at the same time in both SD (standard definition, the best obtainable picture using traditional analog television technology) and HD formats. The screens are used by a technician, who sits behind a long console with rows and rows of gadgetry, to monitor and edit programming, commercials and public service announcements.

The master control room is the last stop before any programming is transmitted. During a recent visit to the studio, the technician showed a visitor that he had half the room devoted to monitoring programs on CBS 3, while the other half of the room was devoted to monitoring programs on Philly 57 (CW 57). Across the hall is another control room used to not only monitor the programs on the two CBS stations, but to monitor the broadcasts of other stations. Twelve small televisions line the top of one wall in the room and are labeled with names like ABC, Fox, Sportsnet and Shorecam—a CBS 3 camera stationed at the South Jersey shore.

“This is the next generation of electronic news, the biggest leap in technology since the 1970s”

Editors, producers and directors sit behind two long, black consoles loaded with gadgetry that allow them to quickly edit news stories and switch from camera shot to camera shot. In the former station, editors had to telephone a technician and have them find the news footage they wished to use. The editors can now call up the footage from the new station’s computer servers and have it pop up on their computer monitors in seconds.

“Now everybody has the same access,” said Rich Paleski, director of Broadcast Operations and Engineering, adding that all of the workstations in the room are ergonomically designed.

Orr said another benefit of the HD technology is that it allows viewers to more clearly see the weather patterns pinpointed by the station’s one million watt, state-of-the-art Mega Doppler Radar system. Recently, when a large section of South Jersey’s wooded Pinelands region caught fire, Orr could better predict where the fire might travel to next because HD allowed her to more clearly see the smoke on the Mega Doppler Radar system.

Sky Deck 3 also gives Orr the ability to not only explain what the weather is like but to actually be standing outside, without being far from the studio, so that viewers can see the weather.

“The sky deck has really proved to be a great asset. It gives us the ability to be out in the weather and then quickly be inside to explain everything,” Orr said. “Before, we had to run outside, and I’d be ripping off my microphone and changing everything and running into the studio.”

Outside the station in the field, CBS 3 reporters use HD camcorders to bring back news in the wide-screen, higher resolution format optimized for HD television sets, which are in an estimated 20 percent of the Greater Philadelphia area’s homes, according to Paleski.

Videotapes are a thing of the past in this newsroom of the future. Instead, reporters use Sony portable cameras that record on VD-Cam disks that are very similar to the new Blu-ray Discs. All of the news content is stored on computer servers.

“An incredible amount of training has had to go into making the product viable on the air”

VD-Cam discs have much more storage capacity than traditional DVDs, which support SD but do not have the necessary capacity to satisfy all the needs of HD. The discs also allow for quicker turnaround of news stories and for several editors to work with stored material simultaneously.

“This is the next generation of electronic news, the biggest leap in technology since the 1970s when reporters first began reporting live, on location, from the field,” said Susan Schiller, vice president and news director.

Computers are essential. By storing information on computer servers, editors and reporters can store far more data and access stories much faster, which in the news business is vitally important if you are going to beat the competition and get the story first.

CBS 3 controll room

“Everything is becoming more computer-based and Internet-based,” Colleran said. “Time in television is money.”

The station itself is immaculately clean and cavernously large. Three wide-screen HD televisions greet visitors as they get off the elevator and enter the lobby on the sixth floor. Colleran has a bank of midsized HD televisions tuned in to the broadcasts on CBS 3 and CW Philly 57 in his office. His administrative assistant, Wilma Lunsford, also has HD televisions tuned in to the same channels in her office.

Previously, the station took up three floors at its old home at Independence Mall. Today, it takes up just one floor—the entire sixth floor of a building that spans a whole city block, bounded by 15th, 16th, Hamilton and Spring Garden streets.

Colleran calls the station a television “studio without walls” because of the number of places inside that can be used as a backdrop from which to broadcast news.

“The broadcast center was designed for flexibility and to provide an unlimited number of locations to shoot in addition to the studios,” Colleran said. “Over and above the weather deck with its stunning city views, there are numerous broadcast positions throughout the newsroom, the operations center, in the control rooms themselves and in the public spaces.”

CBS 3 weather center

All of the new gadgetry has required the station’s staff to learn new ways to broadcast the news. “An incredible amount of training has had to go into making the product viable on the air,” Colleran said. He added that while news is still news, computer skills and Internet know-how top the list of requirements for working in today’s high-tech television stations. “You’ve got to know your way around cyberspace,” he said.

In the studio, Orr’s Weather Center is the second largest news station, next to the news anchor desk—a sign of just how important meteorology has become in today’s television environment. It has three large, wide-screen, HD televisions. Below them are eight Dell computers that Orr uses to forecast the weather. Technicians also use the computers to produce graphics that spice up and add color to the weather forecasts.

An Emmy award-winning meteorologist, Orr came to Philadelphia in 1998 as the first female meteorologist in the Philadelphia television market, according to CBS 3’s Web site. She joined CBS 3 in January 2003 from NBC 10. She provides weather forecasts weekdays on CBS 3’s Eyewitness News at 4, 6 and 11 p.m. She also provides forecasts for CBS 3’s sister station, SportsRadio 610 WIP.

In addition, Orr is a mentor for the American Meteorological Society’s DataStream Project in the Delaware Valley, educating teachers in the field of meteorology so that it can be added to the curriculum in local schools. To encourage students to become meteorologists, she started a community project called “kidcasters” in November 2003 that gives local area students an opportunity to audition for a live appearance on a CBS 3 weather forecast.

Orr advises students who want to work in today’s high-tech, HD newsrooms to start early taking technical courses in meteorology, sciences and television broadcasting. “They’ll be growing up in the HD world,” she said.

Michael Colleran

Michael Colleran has been president and general manager of CBS 3 and CW Philly 57 since March 2005. Colleran, who has strong roots in the Delaware Valley, returned to Philadelphia from Miami, where he was most recently president and general manager of Viacom's South Florida stationsÑone CBS station and two UPN stations. He was also director of Sales for KYW-TV from 1993 through 1997.

Community service has been a hallmark of Colleran's career. He is currently a member of the Police Athletic League Board of Directors and serves on the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Ad Club and the Executive Committee of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Colleran has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of Scranton. He is a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania. An avid runner, Colleran has competed in numerous city marathons including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York and San Diego.

Kathy Orr

Growing up, Kathy Orr had a keen interest in watching sports, particularly televised sporting events. That passion eventually led her into a television career. Although meteorology has traditionally been a male-dominated field, Orr said she decided to dive in when the technology progressed to the point where weather forecasters could do more in-depth reporting and less comic shtick to fill time on the air. "People would say to me: 'There are so many guys that do it. You're the only girl," she said, adding that whenever there is something you love doing, you should stick with it.

Orr has a Bachelor of Science degree in Meteorology from the State University of New York at Oswego and a dual Bachelor of Science degree in Broadcast Journalism and Marketing from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and School of Management at Syracuse University.