Broadcasters plan for HD and a tapeless future
By Ken Kerschbaumer -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/25/2004 8:00:00 PM
There is the power of positive thinking—and the power of positive products. For the nearly 98,000 attendees at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, new technology fueled high spirits. After all, the industry has been hurt in recent years by a poor economy and broadcasters' preoccupation with DTV and HDTV transmission.
Today, the DTV transmission transition is largely over. More than 1,200 broadcasters air digital signals.
For manufacturers of cameras, switchers, editing systems, and graphics tools, that spells renewed interest in their gear as stations prepare for the next phase of the DTV transition: HDTV production. The one clear message on the NAB show floor was that high-definition equipment is here—and it's cost-effective.
In Las Vegas, the letters "HD" were as ubiquitous as "digital" was at NBA a decade ago. Companies like Pinnacle Systems showed HD servers and offered free HD upgrades. Apple did the same with its HD version of Final Cut Pro. Even products like Evertz's new $14,000 audio/video system for cutting profanity in standard-definition and HD telecasts played up high-def angles.
Most manufacturers charging HD premiums are keeping surcharges to 10%-15%. For example, Pinnacle's HD version of its Deko 3000 character generator, which drew crowds throughout the show, is priced at $52,000; the SD version is only $48,000. Manageable costs coupled with free upgrades may be the real drivers of HD production over the next few years.
Broadcasters have already spent nearly $3.5 billion building out their DTV transmission facilities, which is why many stations have put off capital expenditures related to plant infrastructure or the newsroom. But there is more work to be done regarding transmission, including the move to full-power DTV broadcasts.
Aging equipment and expanding budgets will place HD-capable or at least HD-upgradable equipment on the shopping list of many broadcasters. Especially since it is becoming easier to edit and port the current standard-definition workflow directly to HD without losing functionality.
Indeed, the viability of high-def workflow was a consistent message from HD editing and graphics companies in all corners of the convention center.
Though the HD gear grabbed most of the attention at NAB, developments in interoperability may prove the most important. Silicon Graphics, for example, demonstrated its InfiniteStorage CXFS SAN server replicating a workflow that tied together systems from Apple, Discreet, Quantel, Avid, and others.
All the applications were running on different computer platforms, including IRIX, Mac OS X, Windows 2000, and 32- and 64-bit Linux systems. Five years ago, such a demonstration would have been technically and competitively inconceivable. But the 21st century's market demands it.
The expanding use of the Material Exchange Format (MXF), which allows content to be sent between disparate systems, was also in the spotlight. The importance of MXF is that it will finally allow broadcasters to implement the products they want, not the ones they need to satisfy compatibility.
MXF will also drive another trend: the move to IT and potentially cheaper equipment from IT-based vendors like IBM or Apple. (Apple's xSAN storage area networking platform is $999 per seat). With MXF making it easier to transport files from one device to another, it also encourages broadcasters to build plants that have transportation pipes optimized for pushing files.
And broadcasters are now able to take advantage of new pipes.
Next-generation advanced video-compression formats, like Microsoft's Windows Media 9 and the MPEG-4 part 10 standard (also known as H.264), will soon be used in field transmission systems. They make it easier and cheaper for news crews and journalists to send content back to a station or bureau without satellite or microwave transmission gear.
The two formats may even redefine the nature of broadcasting.
In fact, Emmis President Jeff Smulyan's plan to bring together local broadcasters to create an over-the-air subscription multichannel service will use one of those formats (see story, page 9). It will be enlisted to encode the cable networks Smulyan promises to deliver.
Both Windows Media 9 and MPEG-4 can transmit twice as many channels as MPEG-2, meaning that a station could conceivably transmit 10 standard-definition channels in its 19.39-Mbps digital television signal.
There was also a buzz around Sony's XDCAM optical-disk system and Panasonic's P2 format. The two formats, coupled with the advanced video-compression developments and the widespread adoption of MXF, clearly indicate the direction the industry is headed: tapeless acquisition, tapeless editing, and tapeless distribution.
For an industry that spent the past five years threatening to splinter into factions over HDTV formats and business plans, the tapeless revolution may finally have everyone moving in the same direction, newly invigorated and focused.
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