The Ed Sullivan Theater Gets a Really Wide Shoe

HT goes inside the Late Show with David Letterman's HD transition.

It's been more than 40 years since the piercing screams of shrieking adolescents ricocheted off CBS Studio 50's brick-lined catacombs. But, walking the narrow basement hallways of the 78-year-old New York City historical landmark where the Beatles made their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, it's easy to imagine those screams still reverberating. The music still does.

Throughout its 78 years, the studio has witnessed a rich and varied sampling of entertainment history. In addition to the indelible Ed Sullivan show, the game shows What's My Line?, To Tell the Truth, Password, and The $10,000 Pyramid were taped there, as was the '80s sitcom Kate & Allie.

Located at 1697 Broadway and renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater during the long-running show's 1967-'68 season, CBS purchased the television studio (it had previously been leased) when David Letterman moved to the network from NBC back in 1993. CBS extensively refurbished and remodeled the theater, changing it from a 1,200-seat venue to a more cozy 400 and adding acoustical treatment and lighting improvements. Because of the building's historical status, all of the architectural changes are reversible. The Ed Sullivan Theater has been home to the Late Show with David Letterman since 1993.

When NBC converted that other late-night talk show to HD a few years ago, I called my friend Vinnie Favale, CBS's East Coast vice president of late-night programming, and asked him when Letterman's show would go HD. (You may know Vinnie from his frequent appearances on The Howard Stern Show.) Vinnie told me I'd be the first journalist to know.

Vinnie called back in April of 2005 to let me know that they had transferred the show's production to a mobile studio in a truck parked on 53rd Street so that the HD upgrade could take place while they continued to record the show in the Ed Sullivan Theater. Four months later, on August 29, 2005, after the show's usual two-week summer hiatus-during which time all systems were tested and proven ready to go-the Late Show with David Letterman broadcast its first show in high definition, and history was once again made in the venerable theater.

Early that fall, CBS publicist Kim Izzo invited me to tour the facilities accompanied by Howell W. Mette, vice president of engineering, and John E. Ferder, director of studio and postproduction systems engineering. Afterward, I was privileged to spend a half hour interviewing Late Show producer/director Jerry Foley.

I spoke with Mette and Ferder outside the building, in the basement "rack room," and in the production control and editing suites.

Michael Fremer: Tell me about the lead-up to moving the production team out of their comfortable chairs and into a remote truck.

Howell W. Mette: The planning began a couple of years ago, because we knew it was going to be complex. We knew we had to build some new technical space, because, over the years, more and more devices were added into the mix of production tools. It made sense to build a new rack room and build it ahead of time so we'd have that space to work with when we made the transition. That way, we could prewire a lot of that equipment before they even moved out to the truck.

MF: And did this new equipment require more or less electricity?

HM: It's basically a wash. The equipment became more efficient over the years, but I don't know that we've actually taken measurements. My inclination is to say that it's a wash. But there are some things we have to do differently for high definition. Because the bandwidth is so high, all of the interconnections between the control room and the basement and the editing facility on the seventh floor are on fiberoptic connections rather than copper.

MF: Could you route that through the conduits that existed?

HM: Well, one of our subprojects was to clean out the shaft that goes between the basement and the seventh floor. We literally took out some old abandoned, um, pipes.

MF: I thought you were going to say comedians.

HM: No, we didn't find any of those! But there were a lot of little subplots to the whole story.

MF: It must be a good feeling when you're doing something like this, not to simply be changing one thing or another but to be really cleaning house completely and starting from scratch.

HM: Absolutely. Other than the physical space we have to work with, this gave us a green field to start fresh and build it the way we really think it ought to be built.

MF: Once everything's in place-and it's more than simply flipping a switch-did you do rehearsals without Dave here to just see if everything worked?

HM: It's not so much a matter of Dave being involved or not, because we had replaced the cameras on the stage two years ago. They were already high definition. That was part of a normal update, and we were using a downconverted output. Two years ago, it made no sense to buy a standard-definition set of cameras.

MF: Were you taping in HD?

HM: No. The only thing here that was high definition prior to this project were the cameras.

MF: Did the lighting and the set have to change?

HM: No. A lot of people think you're going to be able to see scratches and nicks and things like that, but it's not really an issue. The sets are built well enough.

MF: they've obviously been well taken care of, because, even in standard definition, you could tell it was clean. It is overstated how much more you can see on people's faces, too. Pretty much what you could see before you see it in HD.

HM: The only thing that they have to do is be mindful of their aspect ratios, so they have to take care not to have things visible in the periphery that they don't want viewers to see.

MF: How long did this transition take to complete?

HM: We moved them out of the truck and back into the control room during their normal two-week vacation period back in August. That was a bit of an exercise unto itself, but, by that time, the new audio booth had already been shadowing the operation in the truck. Everything had been debugged, so it was really just a matter of disconnecting the truck and normalizing the stage back to the control room.

MF: Was there a serious learning curve involved in becoming familiar with the new equipment?

HM: Absolutely. All of the editing is now done in a nonlinear platform [hard-drive based] as opposed to videotape. The audio operator had to learn his new audio console, the technical director had to learn his new switcher, and the graphics operator had to learn new operations. The new equipment doesn't work in fundamentally different ways from the older equipment, but it's still something you have to get used to. And our team has far greater capabilities now.

MF: Are you broadcasting in 5.1 now?

HM: Not quite yet. They want to learn to walk before they run, plus the music mix for the band has not yet been upgraded. That's the next thing.

MF: Well, that's a big thing then, because the band is an important part of what goes on there.

HM: Well, yes, but there was only so much that we could bite off. But that will get done. And then they'll begin to do the whole show in 5.1. But the new audio booth is completely 5.1 capable.

MF: So, for now, it's a stereo mix, but there's a surround sound analog matrix?

HM: No. It's just a stereo mix.

MF: When do you think the changeover will happen?

HM: I can't tell you precisely. It's on the road map.

MF: Was there a lot of pressure to get this done because the competition was doing HD earlier?

HM: Well, we took our conversion to HD part by part. Almost all CBS prime time is in high definition now. The only prime time that is not in high definition are the reality shows and news magazines. We're doing a lot of sports in high definition, and one or two of the soap operas are in high definition. So, the next logical thing to do was Late Night.

MF: You know when this whole high-definition revolution started, the naysayers-and there were a lot of them-said, "This is never going to happen because there's no profit motive in this. There's no reason why a broadcast company would invest millions of dollars for this when there's no return," and yet look at what's happened. Do you see a reason why that prognostication was so wrong?

HM: I think that those people did not understand that we could not remain an analog medium when everyone else is going digital.

MF: Is peer group pressure a lot of it? Corporate pride?

HM: I think it's a matter of remaining competitive. If we're going to compete with all the other forms of digital media, we had to step into the 21st century.

[At this point we go inside, and head into the basement to the rack room.]