In Depth

Bargain Hunters Head to NAB Show

Station Engineers Aim to Get News on Air Cheaper, Faster

Television station engineers attending the National Association of Broadcasters convention this week in Las Vegas will be single-minded in their shopping mission: They want to save lots of money.

When combing the booths at the Las Vegas Convention Center, they’ll be looking for technology, services and products they can use to produce, edit and deliver news faster and cheaper.

Saving on costs is important at all times in any business, but it’s taken on an urgency this year in the midst of the deep recession. Stations in particular are focused on how to pinch pennies as much as possible given that their viewership is shrinking and that advertising dollars are declining by double-digit percentages.

“It boils down to one thing: How do we do our business faster and cheaper?” said Jeff Birch, VP of engineering, CBS Television Stations. “Local news is one of the biggest costs for the division. I will be looking at how do I do local news better.”

For Mr. Birch, better means more efficiently. It doesn’t mean whiz-bang toys though, he said. The challenges stations face are how to funnel reports back to the newsroom more quickly and how to repurpose news more cheaply across TV, the Internet and mobile devices.

To streamline CBS’ local newsgathering process in the field, Mr. Birch wants to check out advances in microwave equipment, Wi-Fi networks and Internet technology to bring footage back to the station. “I will look at any way to get that material back faster than I have traditionally done. Do I go to Starbucks and plug into the Internet? Do I light up a Wi-Fi card?”

The Fox station group also will be scouting new transmission tools. The key focus at NAB is testing bandwidth capabilities to ferry news reports and footage to their home base, said Earl Arbuckle, VP of engineering for the group.

He’s particularly interested in extending each station’s local-area network out to the trucks in the field. “We want to leverage that and maybe start using Internet Protocol from the trucks and have an Internet connection in the field,” he explained. “That allows us to edit field content in the truck and transfer back to the station for any additional immediate editing, and then we want to connect it to our news servers for playback.”

Already the station group has introduced laptop editing equipment in the field, but the next step is to link the networking equipment in the newsgathering trucks back to the station in a seamless manner, he said.

To do that, he’ll peruse new trucks from companies like Television Equipment Corp. that include Internet connectivity in the vehicles. He’ll also visit companies that make video encoders that transmit both live and recorded footage from the field back to the station using Internet technology.

Cutting Camera Costs

When it comes to field equipment, Mr. Birch plans to evaluate cheaper cameras for newsgathering. The day of expensive news camera is drawing to an end due to the proliferation of inexpensive cameras that are often good enough, he said. He’ll be assessing cameras for his station that fall in the $10,000-and-under range. To be sure, broadcasters still need sturdy cameras with bells and whistles for some stories. But for many reports, a $1,500 consumer camera and an Internet connection does the trick, he said.

“The rules of the game have changed completely,” he said. “It used to be only a TV company could afford $40,000 for a camera and another $30,000 for a tape deck and then the cost of a microwave truck. Now the average Joe on the street can shoot video on a cell phone and e-mail it to us and we can clean it up and put it on the air.”

CBS has found other ways to use consumer technologies to lower costs, such as leaning on inexpensive Internet-based tools like Skype to deliver video. Its New York flagship station WCBS-TV has experimented with Skype for some of its reports, but the video isn’t crystal clear, he said. Some viewers have complained because they expect the video on big-screen high-definition sets to look better, Mr. Birch said.

“It has its drawbacks. It’s a little grainy and can suffer from freeze-frame. But every day it gets a little bit better,” he said.

While broadcasters are leaning on cheaper tools for shooting and transmitting news, they still need to buy professional equipment for other areas. “You still need to design infrastructure and build high-definition capabilities and master control and automation, and that won’t be commoditized,” Mr. Birch said. “The commoditization is occurring with cameras and bandwidth, but the average consumer isn’t building hi-def infrastructure in his basement. That’s where we have the advantage.”

Even though technology is now widely available to consumers and broadcasters at any time of the year, the annual trek to Las Vegas in April is still vital, Mr. Birch said. While he spends more time throughout the year checking out vendors and researching their products online, NAB is still a gathering place and a good spot for starting business. “You never will get away from the face-to-face, shake the hand, get a feel for the products,” he said.

CBS also will do some transmitter shopping at NAB and will look at control room computers, but Mr. Birch said he’s not interested in technology for digital subchannels, despite the digital transition under way this year. Digital subchannels are created in the bandwidth space previously used by analog channels. Several subchannels often occupy the same amount of spectrum that an analog channel used, enabling stations to now carry one or more types of programming or services on the same frequency.

CBS has decided as a station group not to program its digital subchannels currently. The broadcaster doesn’t want to draw audiences away from the main channels, Mr. Birch said.
By contrast, Mr. Arbuckle at Fox will keep an eye out for mobile capabilities for digital subchannel technology. That’s because the group is focusing on how to use its digital spectrum to transmit its programming to mobile devices.

In Chicago, the group’s MyNetworkTV station WPWR has begun testing mobile handheld television on its subchannels to transmit sister Fox station WFLD’s programming to handheld devices such as mobile phones and even DVD players.

Other broadcasters also said they’ll take time at NAB to evaluate streaming technology to launch new channels on the real estate created by the digital transition.

Stations also continue to assess “hubbing” technology that allows a group to connect all its stations and easily share files, graphics, video and even programming. Some stations are doing this already, but centralization technology remains a major goal for the broadcast business.

Staying Ahead of Curve

But the biggest issue is efficiency. “We need to do whatever we can to break the mold,” Mr. Birch said. “Just because we did it a certain way yesterday doesn’t mean we need to do it this way tomorrow. We need to use technology to reduce the number of times something has to be touched.”

In addition to newsgathering equipment and transmission tools, TV station engineers will check out equipment for other parts of a TV station. They’ll look at high-definition and master control technology, as examples. Fox’s Mr. Arbuckle said he’s also interested in file-based workflows, open standards equipment, and interfaces between traffic systems and automation systems.

“We are looking for anything that can make our facilities more efficient because of the poor economy and poor ad market,” Mr. Arbuckle said. “We are looking for stuff that can work automatically and tools that facilitate the ingest of commercials and programming to save time.”