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Digital Transition Dominates NAB

Apr 6, 2008  •  Post A Comment

With the digital transition less than a year away, most local television station executives heading to the annual National Association of Broadcasters convention have one thing on their minds. They are fixated on the equipment they need to make sure their TV station operations are ready when the switch is flipped and broadcasters enter an all-digital world.
In many cases, that means engineers and operations executives will be scouting the NAB show floor for such unglamorous and unsexy items as the switchers and routers that enable digital transmissions at a local TV station.
But they’re also going to be kicking the tires on digital equipment like editing systems that interoperate with other newsroom technologies and can speak the same language as cameras, laptops and other equipment. They’re intrigued by hi-def cameras that work for field reports and also back in the studio. They’re eager to get their hands on wireless transmission equipment that eases the process of sending video and stories back to the station.
Beyond the transition to digital broadcasting, many local stations are in the process of migrating their newsrooms to hi-def newsgathering. Some TV stations have made the full leap to hi-def, while others are using some hi-def equipment. But most haven’t invested in hi-def technology yet.
With the digital transition looming, and with consumers increasingly gobbling up hi-def TV sets at retail, TV stations know they will need to provide their news and local programming in hi-def soon to keep up with consumer demand.
TelevisionWeek spoke with engineering executives at local Fox, NBC and CBS stations and asked what’s on their shopping lists for NAB.
Here is a look at each of these groups’ interests, followed by a roundup of some of the hot product introductions from leading vendors.
Fox
Earl Arbuckle is the VP of engineering at Fox TV stations and he has a three-pronged approach to NAB. He’s focused on the digital transition slated for Feb. 17, the hi-def conversion of the newsroom and the allocation of spectrum for live shots.
“By Feb. 17, 2009, we need to be able to cut off our analog transmission and concentrate on our digital transmission,” he said. “Also, we want to originate news and other programming in hi-def to complement our network programming, which is already in hi-def. The third thing would be to put the Sprint Nextel and 2 GHz transition … to convert the existing analog live shot operations from analog to digital. This has to do with spectrum we use for live shots,” he said.
Mr. Arbuckle explained that the equipment needed for microwave transmissions of live shots, such as trucks and other portable equipment, needs to be converted. “You have to have a transition plan which involves transitioning each individual station in a market, so you have hundreds of TV stations and literally thousands of microwave transmitters that have to be changed out and coordinated so you can continue daily newscasts.”
To achieve those three goals at NAB, he’ll be looking at antennas from companies including Dialectic and ERI, as well as transmission equipment from companies such as Larcan, Harris and Thomson.
On the hi-def front, he will be scoping for hi-def encoding equipment from companies such as Tandberg, Harmonic and Tiernan. He’ll also look for routers, switchers and camera robotics in hi-def.
Fox owns 35 stations, 26 of which produce news. Its stations in Philadelphia and Cleveland have already built digital newsrooms. “We have a rollout plan for the next three years to do native hi-def production. Any station that can’t do that now is on track to be converted,” Mr. Arbuckle said.
Fox stations aren’t currently acquiring news in the field in hi-def, but Mr. Arbuckle does want to look at hi-def-capable studio cameras and hi-def cameras for helicopter live shots. “The infrastructure has to be hi-def through the microwave, and you have to have an encoder for the helicopter to bring it back, and the appropriate receiver and encoder,” he said.
Cameras from Sony and Panasonic should be able to work in a helicopter, provided they can be stabilized for the shooting environment. “It’s one of the areas where we feel there is bang for the buck. People like helicopter shots. They are impressive and provide perspective and a level of detail,” he said. He’s also looking at studio cameras from both of those vendors.
But he’s not ready to migrate to hi-def in the field because hi-def files are much bigger. As a result, editing and compressing the files in the field can be cumbersome and time-consuming, he said. “I would also say the general consumers would be probably hard-pressed to tell the difference unless they were side-by-side,” he said.
He plans to check out new graphics tools from vendors such as Chyron, Vizrt and Pinnacle as well as any smaller or newer vendors. “You need to have something that has got a usable and intuitive user interface that can be picked up by people that have normal TV station experience,” he said. “There are gradations out there in terms of usability and reliability and they are complicated computer systems.”
Mr. Arbuckle said in many cases Fox will rely on the same vendors it has used in Philadelphia and Cleveland for hi-def equipment, but he intends to evaluate all the vendors. “We want there to be healthy competition,” he said.
He’ll be checking out the latest in weather systems from Weather Central, WSI and Barron’s, with an eye toward their hi-def capabilities. In addition, Fox is interested in building out its Web presence with all of its stations, so he’ll look for tools to help put compelling news, traffic and weather information on the Web.
Also, for all of the equipment he’s perusing, he wants to make sure the vendors are offering standards-based solutions. “We are trying to avoid proprietary systems and formats whenever possible.”
NBC
The biggest benefit of NAB is that most of the suppliers and affiliate stations are in one place, said Darren Feher, executive VP and chief technology officer at NBC Universal. “We try to get a lot of business done. We get out technology and engineering and distribution folks and we try to carve out the major themes and innovation categories, so when we have folks on the floor we have people scouting,” he said.
Those themes include the digital transition, open standards and the growth in new media, he said. “That drives a lot of how we are thinking with production and technology and what we are looking at in the area of editing and graphics and innovation.”
For instance, he’s betting that his stations will need high-end editing machines that let users collaborate on the content. The systems need to move media around easily and enable sharing from acquisition to playout. That means the technology needs to be open and standards-based. “That doesn’t happen very easily today. There is no real end-to-end solution, so we are looking at solutions that are in between,” Mr. Feher said.
NAB also is a good time to check out cameras and graphics equipment. Like other executives, he will have his eye on camera innovations from Sony and Panasonic, such as solid-state technology from Panasonic and disc-based technology from Sony. “I’d like to see road maps for solid state from all the vendors, and I am also interested in off-camera workflow, where you transport the video from the camera into another medium, simplifying the number of steps,” he said.
He expects to meet with the usual suspects: Sony, Panasonic, Adobe, Avid and Tandberg.
CBS
Jeff Birch, VP of engineering for CBS Television Stations, wants to find the silver bullet for nonlinear editing at NAB. That’s a necessity because most newsroom vendors today use their own proprietary file formats that don’t talk to each other. “We want to share material back and forth and have a common thread to field acquisition gear,” he said. “Our cameras are all going to Sony XD Cam HD, which plays nice with some of the nonlinear equipment and not with others. So now I would like universality so all the stations can talk to each other.”
He’ll steer clear of vendors that haven’t adopted standards, he said.
Like Fox’s Mr. Arbuckle, Mr. Birch will keep his eyes open for new tools for live shots. That could be as simple as finding robust wireless cards that can plug into a laptop, so editors can edit and send files back wirelessly. He’ll talk to vendors such as Verizon and Sprint about that technology. “This is a generic card like you plug into your computer at the airport, but we might go to a carrier that will give us a faster one,” he said.
Weather is an important area, too. “We want to see what the latest toys are. The big thing with weather is immediacy,” Mr. Birch said. “If you have people in the field, how do you bring it back to the stations? I am getting the sense that weather and radar vendors are going to be focused on hi-def offerings.”
What’s in Store
Here is a sampling of some of the new tools, technology and equipment that vendors will introduce at NAB in Las Vegas.
-Panasonic will continue to focus on its solid-state camcorders and other new camera innovations. In February, the company introduced new memory cards for its hi-def and solid-state cameras that double the storage capacity, thereby providing more hi-def recording time. The cards will be available in the fall. The company also announced in February that it would introduce a handheld hi-def camcorder, a shoulder-mount camcorder and a line of hi-def cameras that capture video for high-level, hi-def production.
– Vizrt will introduce the latest version of its media asset management system, which can manage media and archives and handle ingest, playout, transcoding and other functions. The new release supports hi-def and integrates with computer newsroom systems. The company also will introduce updates to its mapping software to let stations create maps and geographic animations. Finally, Vizrt will introduce a new feature to its graphic systems to make the workflow easier between graphics and video, the company said.
– RF Central provides digital microwave technology and will introduce rack-mounted receiver units for news remotes and live sports stadium coverage that are upgradeable to hi-def. RF Central also will introduce digital transmission tools at the show.
– Harmonic will introduce a video transcoding solution that supports Panasonic hi-def compression technology. The new Harmonic solution will provide real-time transcoding of hi-def content.
– Pixel Power will debut its Clarity graphics system, which features real-time 3-D broadcast graphics. The system can automatically transform 3-D graphics objects in real-time in response to live external data sources such as sports scores, election results or other information.
(Updated 12th paragraph to correct number of Fox stations that produce news)

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