Local TV

NAB Mantra: Better, Faster, Cheaper

Station groups weigh tighter tech budgets, spectrum concerns 3/29/2010 05:07:00 PM Eastern

As they head to the National Association of
Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas next
month, top engineers from station groups
are looking for technology that matches
the new economic realities of the broadcast
business. The days of buying expensive
studio cameras and proprietary editing and
storage systems are over, they say. As groups consider how
to complete upgrades of their news operations from standard-
defi nition to high-definition production, they are increasingly
looking for IT-based, non-proprietary solutions.
Station groups are also looking for efficiencies in graphics
and master control. Some now have centralized approaches
that hub most functions at one or two stations, and others are
thinking about outsourcing master-control operations.
Top of mind for everyone is the threat to broadcasters’
spectrum that the FCC’s broadband plan represents. At NAB,
several groups will help promote new mobile DTV technology
as the most efficient way to deliver video to cellphones
and other portable devices. Mobile DTV insiders suggest that
several groups could announce business deals with wireless
carriers, a crucial step to commercializing the technology.

GRAY: A PRACTICAL VIEW
Gray Television VP of Technology Jim Ocon is heading to NAB
“looking for pragmatic solutions” in broadcast technology. “The
days are long gone where stations in middle markets are interested
in purchasing expensive servers, content storage or acquisition
[gear],” Ocon says.

Gray has been successful, for instance, with using compact
Sony XDCAM EX camcorders as studio cameras at several stations,
and Ocon expects that trend to continue.
“Nobody seems to notice the difference
between a $100,000 camera and a $10,000
camera,” he says.

That type of cost savings is top of mind
to Ocon, who is overseeing the gradual conversion
of Gray’s 36 stations from standard definition to high-definition news production.
About eight stations are now doing the news
in full HD, about five are producing in widescreen
standard-definition, and the rest are
conventional 4:3 SD.

While Ocon views widescreen SD as
merely an interim solution, he says that “if I
can switch a station out for under $100,000 to do widescreen,
I’ll do it.”

He expects that the majority of Gray stations will be doing
either widescreen SD or full HD by the end of the year. Gray is
installing Ross OverDrive production-automation systems across
the group as part of the HD conversion, and Ocon says that deployment
is going well, though he won’t comment directly on
any associated layoffs.

Ocon emphasizes that improving the overall quality of
Gray’s news was the main driver for buying OverDrive. “You
can do a lot more with this setup and make fewer mistakes,”
he points out.

As he looks to minimize bandwidth and storage requirements,
Ocon is particularly interested in products that employ MPEG-
4 advanced video compression. He would like to create a plant
that uses MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 compression all the way through
from acquisition to playout, which he says would likely require
half the bandwidth of the MPEG-2 systems in place today: “I
would like to build a plant that was end-to-end all H.264, and
have the acquisition-file size meet the play-to-air size.”

The bandwidth savings in backhauling HD content from the
field and storing HD video on servers would make adopting
MPEG-4 worthwhile, according to Ocon, even though Gray
stations would still have to transcode the
MPEG-4 content to MPEG-2 to broadcast it
over-the-air, as per the ATSC standard.
Of course, new mobile DTV streams that
Gray and other stations are launching will
actually be transmitted in MPEG-4 as part
of ATSC Mobile DTV’s “in-band” transmission
scheme. Gray began broadcasting
mobile DTV from WOWT, its NBC affiliate
in Omaha, last July; the company plans
to soon begin broadcasting mobile DTV
at its stations in Lincoln, Neb.; Colorado
Springs, Colo.; Lexington, Ky.; and Wichita
and Topeka, Kan. Ocon says he is a “strong
advocate” for mobile DTV and will participate in the Open
Mobile Video Coalition’s “Mobile DTV Marketplace” exhibit
at NAB.

Other technologies Ocon has his eye on are “cloud-computing”
solutions, such as online graphics systems, and IP-based
video backhaul. The Gray executive would also love to see
weather data/graphics suppliers and traditional graphics vendors
get together to create a single-box solution that could produce
both weather and standard graphics.

“I’d like to find ways to consolidate graphics systems
with the weather data coming in the front door, so we don’t
have separate boxes,” Ocon says. “Why have additional boxes
[for weather graphics] that eat up ports on the routers?”

BELO: SPENDING
CAREFULLY

Belo Corp. saw strong ad performance
across its 20 stations in the
first quarter of 2010, thanks to a
surge in revenue from the Super
Bowl, Olympics and the auto sector.
The improvement allowed Belo
to adjust its fiscal forecast in March,
but that doesn’t mean the company
will be spending at will at this year’s
NAB show.

“We’re no longer in the business
of putting $55,000 cameras in the
hands of all our photographers,”
says Belo VP of Technology Craig
Harper. He says this year the company,
like most others, will have a
pared-down presence at NAB, sending
“far fewer [employees] than we
did in the past” to the show. Harper,
along with a few of his colleagues
from the company’s Dallas headquarters,
will try to cover for news
directors and general managers who
won’t be attending.

Belo, an early adopter of HD products,
seeks to supplement its production
line and will look into HD
cameras from Sony’s XDCAM series
for solid-state recording. As mobile
and cross-platform use become more
vital, Harper says the company will
be looking into cost-effective HD
cameras, including those for videographers
and editors shooting content
specifically for the Web.

The company is also interested
in automation processes. “How can
we make our graphics centralization
easier and more effi cient?” is a
question Harper says he is continually
asking. He says he will check
out products that enhance encoding;
his goal is to be able to send an HD
news story that appears on one of Belo’s
linear channels to a consumer’s
BlackBerry or other mobile device.

ABC: AN I.T. FOCUS
With travel budgets still tight, the ABC Owned Television Stations
will send a smaller contingent than usual to NAB, less than
half of the 60-plus staffers across 10 stations who made the trip
in the past. ABC used to have an engineer, an IT staffer and at
least one news staffer attend from each station, along with a few
general managers, and conduct group meetings. But those days
are over.

The ABC engineers who are making the trip to Vegas will be
addressing the systemic changes in the broadcast business by
searching for information technology-based, non-proprietary systems.
“We’re paying
attention to how our
industry is changing
from a baseband audio-
and-video world
to an IT-like world
where you have different
core hardware
that you need to be
managing and making
it all work,” says
Dave Converse, VP
and director of engineering
for ABC’s
O&Os.

Converse has been
focused on ways to
cut costs in what
he calls the “back
room” of station
operations, the parts
of the plant outside
news production
that don’t directly
impact on-air product.

ABC has already centralized ingest and processing of syndicated
content at KFSN Fresno. It has also entertained the idea of outsourcing
some master-control functions to a firm like Broadcast
Facilities, Inc., which owns the Andrita Media Center in Los Angeles
and recently acquired Crawford Communications in Atlanta
to bolster its outsourcing capabilities.

Converse will also spend time at NAB checking out remote
monitoring systems and “station-in-a-box” products that
combine master control, branding and playout server in one
device.

On the other hand, Converse is less keen on pursuing centralized
solutions on the production side for functions like graphics, where
he thinks that having artists with local knowledge helps improve
the on-air product. “Typically when we consider centralization, we
look at what is the benefit you receive from it and what’s the risk
associated with it,” he says. “We shy away from some things that
make us less flexible and less local.”

ABC is also continuing to invest in converting news production
to HD. Nine of the 10 ABC O&Os produce HD news in their
studios, and the lone holdout, WTVG Toledo, should go HD in
the next few months. KABC Los Angeles and WPVI Philadelphia
also do their newsgathering in HD, and WLS Chicago and WABC
New York should be next to make the move. The rest of the stations
will continue to acquire field footage in standard-def widescreen
and upconvert it.

ABC does have HD camera systems on its helicopters at most
stations, and in some cases is moving from the original MPEG-
2 equipment to next-generation MPEG-4 encoders from vendors
such as Fujitsu. The group is also exploring the use of MPEG-4
for traditional backhauls from microwave trucks, but is keeping a
close eye on signal latency for live shots.

SCRIPPS: BIGGER PRESENCE
After scaling back its participation in NAB over the past few years
due to budget constraints, Scripps is making a renewed commitment
to the Las Vegas exhibition in 2010 and will be sending a
chief engineer from each of its 10 stations.

“In terms of staying current with technology and new concepts
in the business, I felt we needed to increase the presence,” says
Scripps VP of Engineering Mike Doback, who is thankful that a
slight improvement in the economy made the expense possible.
“I do see a liability in not staying current with where technology
is going and where
the industry is going,
if you were to
stay away for a protracted
period.”

Doback will be
assigning different
technology segments
for Scripps
engineers to investigate,
and will have
a group meeting to
discuss fi ndings. The
core focus, he says,
is “finding better,
faster, cheaper solutions
to things we do
every day.”

Scripps has already
made a significant
investment
in JVC ProHD camcorders
for fi eld acquisition
and in Apple Final Cut Pro for editing. Last year, it also
centralized some core operations, adopting Chyron’s Axis online
graphics system, creating a graphics hub in Tampa, and consolidating
traffic functions in hubs in Tampa and Phoenix.

With those systems in place, Doback is interested in workflow
solutions in areas such as format conversion, master control and
weather presentation, a particular segment where he would like to
see more competition to the handful of traditional providers.

Scripps is also looking to upgrade its newsgathering with a few
new microwave trucks, so Doback will be taking a look at those, as
well as new video-over-IP delivery systems. He says that Scripps
stations already commonly use Skype’s HQ (High Quality) system
to backhaul live video, placing it alongside live video boxes from
the field and the studio to create a pleasing overall HD frame.

“It’s a great tool, and it’s surprising to me that some groups are
not utilizing the technology,” Doback says. “They’re missing the
boat.”

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