NAB 2008: What Networks Want
Top network executives will roam the halls to plot their technological future
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/17/2008 2:00:00 AM
Television technology takes center stage at the National Association of Broadcasters' annual convention in Las Vegas, where broadcast and cable networks eye the latest in production, transmission and automation gear. This year's show, which runs April 11-17, promises to be as big as ever, despite decisions by major editing vendors Avid and Apple to skip exhibiting at NAB this year.
Show organizers expect some 1,600 exhibitors and more than 110,000 attendees to hit the Las Vegas Convention Center, eventually generating an estimated $50 billion in commerce. Once again, B&C checked in with top network technology executives to find out what they will be scouting for, both on the exhibit floor and in private hotel suites in Las Vegas. While equipment needs vary from network to network, two areas of focus appear to be common: continued investment in HDTV, and finding easier ways to repurpose content for the Web and other new platforms. (For complete coverage of the 2008 NAB Show, click here.)
NBC: Planning for 'Constant Change'
NBCU's shopping list is long.
Darren Feher, NBC Universal's chief technology officer, is focused on the company's drive into digital platforms, the migration of the company's cable networks to high-definition and the completion of the NBC television stations' conversion to digital. He's sitting on the cutting edge and he expects the vendors who serve NBCU to be there, too.
Feher and his team of 40 to 50 engineers are not just looking for the traditional fare of cameras, monitors, encoders and switchers when they hit NAB in April. They also are looking for gear that will help them offer mobile television, interactive TV and Web-based programming. That includes open-standards-based products that allow swappable components and smooth end-to-end workflow.
“These concepts have proved themselves online,” Feher says. “Now they have to move into the broadcast space. Gone are the days when you could go build big monolithic environments—now it's about constant change. You have to be able to add or subtract one component at a time. Clearly, the software and the Internet worlds work that way. The broadcast world has to as well.”
Feher says that NBC is “looking at hybrid production environments. The complete end-to-end proprietary edit-to-graphics space is not feasible anymore. So we are looking for things that will help us broker that hybrid environment.”
For starters, NBC has been working with Dutch-based Building4Media to custom build an Apple-based end-to-end workflow solution. “We are really looking at our engineering and how our production spaces should function going forward. We have to reduce the costs of our whole production workflow,” Feher says.
As a founding member of the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), NBC Universal also is heavily focused on mobile TV as well as interactive TV applications. “We believe very strongly that ubiquitously delivered digital television is a key piece of our future,” Feher says.
The OMVC—comprised of broadcasters such as Belo, Fox, Gannett, Gray, ION Media Networks, NBC/Telemundo, Sinclair and Tribune Broadcasting—is working furiously to complete a mobile-TV standard that the entire industry can agree to by the fourth quarter, thereby allowing standardized mobile TV products to be ready in time for NAB 2009.
NBCU also is occupied with preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, from which some 2,600 hours of video will be streamed live over the Internet. “We're well on our way,” says Feher. “In the first week of February, we started packing things up in containers and shipping it over there. But in terms of the task ahead, it's huge.”
NBCU has chosen to use Sony's new XDCam PDW700 HD optical-disc camcorder for electronic newsgathering during this summer's Games. Sony's new cameras use a 2/3-inch imaging chip and record high-definition at up to 50 megabits per second with 4:2:2 color sampling.
If those perform well, Sony could have a leg up in winning an order for the rest of NBCU's camera business; the network is also testing Panasonic P2 HD. “We do have quite a number of purchases to make in the ENG space at our stations,” Feher says. “We have a lot of very old cameras that need to be refreshed.”
NBCU is focusing its hunt on cameras stocked with solid-state storage that are easy to sync up wirelessly.
MICROWAVE VS. IP
“We are looking at it from an innovation point of view on the solid-state side,” Feher says. “We are not huge fans of disk-based cameras. And the wireless connectivity—whether that is microwave or wireless IP—of the cameras will help differentiate things for us.
“For wireless microwave, the trade-offs are size and weight. That's what we are looking for—smaller cameras that are better integrated and offer better throughput than what has been seen in previous cameras.”
ABC: The Big Overhaul
The ABC Television Network is in the process of spending $70 million to overhaul its New York production facility by 2011. Preston Davis, president of broadcast operations and engineering, and some 35 network engineers will have that timetable on their minds as they head to this year's NAB.
“We're moving out of an entirely analog facility into an entirely high-definition facility,” Davis says. “There, we will be providing production services for ABC Sports, ABC Daytime, ABC Entertainment marketing and promotion, and ABC News.” The new studio will include an HD master control room and three or four studios.
As a result, ABC is looking for all sorts of infrastructure equipment, from master control switchers to signal distribution equipment to large routing systems and multichannel servers. It's also shopping for high-definition studio cameras and looking at solutions for high-definition newsgathering, according to Davis.
“We've already replaced a significant number of our studio cameras with high-definition cameras,” he says, and he's still looking at cameras from Sony, Ikegami, Panasonic and Thomson Grass Valley for studio and field use, even though he thinks high-definition electronic newsgathering is still a ways off.
“Field acquisition of high-definition footage still has the longest distance to go,” says Davis. “We are still not seeing enough development in the area of microwave equipment or in methods of moving big files of high-definition content.”
That process may be further slowed now that the FCC agreed in early March to extend by another year the deadline by which the Sprint-Nextel-led migration to the 2 GHz-band must be completed.
AN EYE TOWARD SOLID-STATE
Like many broadcast engineers, Davis is looking to solid-state servers and recording devices to solve his burgeoning storage needs. “You can certainly see a world coming where large-scale flash memory is used as a popular storage medium,” he says.
And ABC also wants to go “green.” As Davis says, “We aren't only looking at technology in terms of functionality, but we also want devices that consume less power and take up less space.”
FOX: New Times, New Solutions
Fox is racing across the country to convert its many production facilities to HD.
This year, the company is renovating Fox Broadcasting Co.'s network production and master control center in Los Angeles; it's building a new high-definition production center for the Speed Channel in Charlotte, N.C.; it's upgrading FSN's production centers across the country; and it's continuing the HD conversion for FX, National Geographic and the company's other basic cable networks.
So when Jim Hopkins, senior VP of engineering at Fox Networks Engineering and Operations, and his team of 36 hit the floor at NAB, they'll have a lot of ground to cover.
“We really go to NAB to evaluate technology and to trigger within us discussions to make sure we're on the right track with our thinking,” Hopkins says. “We'll maybe even change our vision if there's new technology out there.”
The Los Angeles tech center will be getting a top-to-bottom makeover, Hopkins says. “We're going to be upgrading the whole infrastructure, including routers and switchers, and changing the workflow in the room. It will be going from a high-definition/standard-definition room to a room that's doing hi-def as the primary transmission, and then downconverting to standard-definition as needed.”
Fox Broadcast Network has been broadcasting in high-definition since September 2004, so it's time to upgrade much of the equipment as well as “pick up some more efficiencies,” Hopkins says. To that end, the new network center will be built on open standards, he says: “Open-standards solutions are very important to us. If we have a problem with one thing, we need to be able to plug in something else and have all of those different manufacturers talk to each other.”
Hopkins has a real wish list, too. He hopes he can go to NAB and find a quality control system that can reliably check the levels, timing, synchronization and integrity of audio and video files.
“There are a couple of companies that kind of do it, but there's not one company that does it completely. We've been looking for that for a couple of years,” Hopkins says.
Hopkins also is looking for open-standards-based digital asset management systems, which also remain rare. “It's a work in progress,” he says. “There's a lot of customizing of code to create one very complicated system. We have several content management projects that we're working on.”
In Charlotte, Fox is building a state-of-the-art HD production center to shoot car-centric shows and cover racing events. “That is getting built from scratch,” he says. “We're starting that shortly and it's due to be done by the end of the year. That center will have a couple of studios, one of which has to be large enough to drive a car into. We want to be able to feature NASCAR race cars and trucks there.”
Scripps: Hi-Def Priority
Scripps is focusing its efforts on HGTV and the Food Network, both of which will launched HD services in 2006 and will start simulcasting all standard-definition programs in HD this month. Scripps also is building a Manhattan-based, all-HD production facility for Food Network that should be complete by the end of the year.
When Mark Hale, Scripps' executive VP of corporate technology operations, and his team of 10 hit NAB, they will be seeking production and post-production equipment, including cameras, monitors, editing systems and character generators. Both networks currently offer 20%-25% of their programming in native HD, and upconvert the rest.
“One of our prevailing themes for NAB this year is to satisfy our high-definition requirements,” Hale says. “HGTV and Food Network will both have simulcast HD feeds by then, so we are looking at how we enhance our production capabilities surrounding those networks. Most of our content comes from outside partners, but we also produce some content in-house. Surrounding all of that are the post-production requirements that we try to satisfy in-house.”
Monitors are of particular interest to Scripps. “We are looking for display devices that allow you to manipulate more than one image on one large screen.” Hale says. “We're always looking to see advances in display technology, and the industry is slowly moving from CRT to LCD for quality-control monitoring. We have a keen interest in seeing if the image quality is up to par.”
Scripps also has a thriving broadband business, so devices that will help the company put video online more quickly and cost-effectively are in great demand.
And like many broadcast groups, Scripps wants to get its content on mobile devices as soon as possible. “Last year, we spent a healthy amount of time talking to mobile video vendors, trying to get an idea of how to receive content on mobile devices, how to display it and how to enable interactivity with it,” Hale says.
KEEPING TABS ON DIGITAL ASSETS
With so much going on, keeping track of its content through digital asset management is becoming increasingly important to Scripps.
“We've had an ongoing media asset strategy, but we're moving into year four of a five-year road map so we're starting to look around for a new solution,” Hale explains. “Obviously we'll check in with the incumbent digital asset management vendors, but we're always looking for the latest players as well. We need everything from cataloging to storage to a system that allows efficient access to files, search-type applications and digital rights management. That's very valuable to us since we own 90% of our content.”
Thus far, Scripps has used different vendors and several custom-based applications to meet its media management needs, but it's interested in investing in a more streamlined solution if possible. “In a case like ours, where we have diverse locations and a wide array of content that needs to be distributed on air as well as online, there are a lot of very different types of applications that need to be used,” he says.
All that action in HD means Scripps' overall storage needs are escalating. “We're looking at everything: tape, holographic, spinning disc, DVD, optical,” Hale says. “We just invested in Ibrix' technology, but we'll also be looking at Hitachi, Sun and Sony. Next year we're probably going to get serious about how we're going to upgrade that.”
Turner: Speed and Flexibility
Ron Tarasoff, VP of broadcast technology and engineering for Turner Entertainment Networks, is in the fast lane. He's looking for any technology that can automate and speed up Turner Networks' productions.
When he attends NAB this year, with about 12 network operations executives from Turner in tow, he'll be shopping off a long list. With TNT HD, TBS HD and NBA Digital all originating from his Atlanta-based shop—and CNN HD and Cartoon Network HD distributed from there as well—he's got plenty on his plate.
“NAB is an opportunity to meet with a lot of manufacturers we work with all in one place,” Tarasoff says. “We also like to explore what changes have taken place since the last time we were there.”
Tarasoff will be looking for the latest and greatest in encoders, file-based quality control equipment, automated AFD (Active Format Descriptor) downconversion devices, audio and video synchronization gear, storage, cameras, monitors and production workflow systems for generating video-on-demand (VOD) content. On top of all of that, he wants his purchases to be both open-standards-based and as power- and space-efficient as possible.
For starters, Tarasoff will be checking out new encoder devices so he can move Turner to MPEG-4 sooner rather than later. He also would like to automate Turner's quality control systems.
“There's a lot of material that comes in as a file rather than a video or an audio stream,” he says. “We then have to record it and send it on as an e-mail. I'd like to be able to check that material without someone having to sit down in front of a video screen, convert it back to video and audio, watch and listen to it, and then send it along. That's a new area, but some manufacturers are starting to build equipment that can do this.”
Along those lines, Tarasoff, and most of his peers, are eagerly seeking ways to more quickly and efficiently send and receive high-definition content.
“What if we suddenly needed a new copy of a movie because something happened to the copy we had?” he says. “Sometimes the ability to put a movie in a Fed Ex package and deliver it to us does not exist. Wouldn't it be nice if we could receive that movie as a file? What companies are developing new ways to electronically deliver big files like movies or large commercials?”
Turner also needs a device that can automatically determine what downstream format is required for a piece of content.
“More and more commercials will be distributed in high-definition so they'll be in the 16:9 aspect ratio, but all cable companies are required to also distribute their content in standard-definition for the next three years,” Tarasoff says. “What do you do with a 16:9 picture with a disclaimer at the edge? Do you shrink it and make it letterbox? Do you cut it off? There are no devices like this yet, but the industry is working on it.”
Another piece of equipment not yet available but coveted by Tarasoff would automatically synchronize audio and video. “In high-definition, the sound and the video are processed separately. Now with 5.1 surround-sound, the majority of processing takes place with the sound, and sometimes sound gets to its destination behind the video. What kinds of equipment can automatically match them back up again?”
Turner also seeks automated production workflow solutions for VOD. More cable operators are offering customers high-definition VOD, but those files have to come from the originating network. And an episode of HD VOD contains more than just the episode—it also typically includes a 30-second pre-roll advertisement, closed captioning, promotional content, parental ratings and so forth.
“The trick of it is to have an automated system that can build VOD packages for standard-definition playback faster than you could do it yourself in real time,” Tarasoff says. “That's not yet available in HD.”
Tarasoff is intrigued by potential applications for Sony's new organic LED display technology. “It's like a television set that's about the thickness of a piece of corrugated cardboard. The contrast ratio on these screens is one million to one—it's much higher than any other TV screen or panel or LCD or plasma display that's out there right now, and it's very, very thin so it doesn't take up much space.”