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A Tapeless Revolution

Apr 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Tapeless camcorders are at the top of nearly every broadcaster’s shopping list for the upcoming National Association of Broadcasters Convention in Las Vegas.
Many station group reps are looking forward to kicking the tires on the long-awaited next generation of news-gathering camcorders that will enable tapeless news acquisition. Such devices from Panasonic and Sony are either currently available or will be next month, and broadcasters plan to open their wallets.
NBC, CBS, Sinclair, Liberty, Scripps, Cox and other station groups have said they plan to invest in tapeless camcorders this year. Scripps has already placed an order for the Panasonic P2 at its Cleveland station, ABC affiliate WEWS-TV, and is considering the P2s for ABC stations WCPO-TV in Cincinnati and KNXV-TV in Phoenix as well as its seven other stations.
Camcorders Hit the Market
Sony began delivering its optical disc-based tapeless camcorders in March and has sold them so far to CNN and Dispatch Broadcast Group.
“This is the marriage of IT and broadcasting,” said Mike Doback, VP of engineering for the broadcast division of E.W. Scripps Co. “What comes out of the camera are Internet-based files.”
Other technology solutions that broadcasters say they will peruse at this year’s show include asset management tools, high-definition sports equipment, server upgrades and weather systems.
CBS is eager to round out the tools it needs for HD sports production, while NBC is in the early stages of developing an asset management system that would allow easy access to scripts and video at the owned stations, the cable networks and the affiliate feed service.
The networks would love to radically simplify the way they share resources with their stations. Currently, they do so largely the old-fashioned way-by picking up the phone to see what the others have. But NBC is in the market for a solution that would automate much of that process.
“We are kind of approaching NAB a little differently than we have in the past,” said Steve Schwaid, senior VP, news and programming, at the NBC TV stations division. “We’re all looking to work more closely as one organization. In the past, one part would have bought one type of technology, another, another,” he said.
The goal is to allow the 29 NBC-owned and Telemundo stations to share scripts and video electronically with each other and with CNBC, MSNBC, the NBC News Channel affiliate feed service and NBC News, he said.
Tech Firsts
The initiative fits into the approach NBC has taken in the past as the first to dive into uncharted technological territory. NBC in 2002 was one of the first groups to begin centralizing graphics, a practice that is becoming increasingly popular. It was also the first large station group to select Marketron for its traffic and business intelligence system.
Mr. Schwaid envisions the NBC journalists having access to all usable video content online and being able to drag and drop it across a computer network. The challenge is finding the right software to wrap around this process and make it easy for journalists to use, said Richard Westcott, VP, stations technology, for NBC. MassTech Group, Blue Order and Artesia Technologies are all making products in this area.
Mr. Schwaid said he expects the first phase of the project, which entails tying all the scripts into the system, will be completed within 12 months, while access to the video will be made available the following year.
Automation, another key area of interest for NBC, is particularly important because it drives the finances behind multicasting, which NBC and other broadcasters plan to do with their digital spectrum. Creating a 24-hour digital weather or sports channel becomes affordable when most of the content creation and management can be automated, Mr. Schwaid said.
All these new technologies are likely to have a major impact, but none quite so major as the tapeless camcorder.
Both Sony and Panasonic made a big splash at last year’s show with the announcements that they were working on the devices, long considered the Holy Grail of the all-digital newsroom because they allow acquisition of content in digital form. Camcorders have so far been the missing link in the digital newsroom chain, from acquisition through playout.
Broadcasters are weighing the pros and cons of both vendors.
Panasonic’s P2 camcorder is based on the notion of “no moving parts.” It relies on a P2 card, which can be inserted, with the video on it, into a laptop or an editing system immediately after shooting. This eliminates the time needed to transfer videotape into a digital file for editing. The camcorders are slated for May availability and are retail priced at $19,500.
Sony’s optical disc camcorder is similar in concept, but relies on optical disc technology. The video can be transferred at up to 50 times real time, meaning 50 seconds of video can be dumped into a server in one second. The camcorder starts at $19,900, although, as with the P2, station groups and other mass buyers will likely enjoy significant discounts.
Interest in the P2s seems slightly higher than for the Sony option, but most broadcasters said they are looking at both. “It is my expectation that no moving parts is substantially better than even one moving part,” Mr. Doback said, explaining his preference for the Panasonic unit. But the benefit of Sony’s camcorder is that it uses discs for video storage, at $30 per disc, rather than solid-state memory cards, which start at $1,000 per card.
Sinclair Broadcast Group is also interested in the P2 camcorders. The station group expects to transition from DVC Pro camcorders to Panasonic’s P2s as the new Panasonic camcorders become available, said Del Parks, VP, engineering and operations, with Sinclair.
Mr. Parks said he’s not dissuaded by the greater expense of the P2s because their cards are reusable. Also, Sinclair plans to pair the P2 with fuel cells from Jadoo Power Systems instead of traditional camcorder batteries, which will offset the higher camcorder cost, he said.
CBS will check out the camcorder options too. While CBS has worked with Panasonic on the development of the P2 over the last year, the Viacom Stations Group is considering both Sony and Panasonic camcorders, said Bob Ross, senior VP of East Coast operations for CBS. Most of the camcorder equipment at CBS-owned stations is upward of 7 years old and on track for replacement. Investing in both camcorders is also a possibility, he said.
Tapeless Goal
Indeed, the primary technology focus for CBS-owned WFOR-TV in Miami this year is going fully tapeless. “That’s one of the things we want to push for this year,” said News Director Shannon High-Bassalik. WFOR uses digital editing equipment for nearly all its special projects, but not daily news. Once the tapeless camcorders are in-house, it’ll be easier to use digital, nonlinear editing equipment on daily news too, she said.
Cox may try the Sony and Panasonic camcorders in tandem to evaluate them, said Jeff Block, general manager for Cox-owned KTVU-TV, the group’s Fox affiliate in San Francisco. “Because it’s a new medium, you not only have to check to see how easy it is for photographers to use, but how easily it downloads into the server and if there are any editing issues,” he said.
Mr. Ross at CBS also hopes to round out the network’s live HD sports equipment needs at this year’s show. That includes an HD wireless field camera and an HD “Super Slow Motion” machine, a high- frame-rate camera system that is used, as the name implies, to slow down the action immensely. He expects to see prototypes at the show.
Like NBC, CBS is interested in asset management technology, once systems are available at the right price, Mr. Ross said.
Mr. Parks said he’ll look at asset management solutions at the show that will help to more efficiently manage library content and movie packages at Sinclair’s TV stations.
Station engineers and general managers also said they’ll check out the latest in video server technology. Finally, advances in weather technology, s
ystems and graphics will be watched closely at this year’s convention, since weather is always an area of interest for TV stations.