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High definition a high priority

Three-quarters of Raycom stations to be converted to HDTV by the end of the year 3/25/2001 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Our first concern is the conversion of our transmission facilities to incorporate high-definition broadcast," says David Folsom, vice president of technology at Raycom Media Inc., based in Montgomery, Ala. Raycom operates 36 owned stations that are controlled from 27 locations, and he estimates that about 75% of them will be converted by the end of this year.

Transmitter acquisition has been settled in a group deal with Comark, ranging from the largest IOT to the smallest solid- state transmitter. Antennas will be nearly all Dielectric.

Where they aren't, this will be because of the unique pattern required or because of co-location agreements with other stations.

Microwave Radio is providing all studio-to-transmitter links, and the encoders are coming from Divicom.

"A major issue," Folsom reports, "is finding ways to centralize our master-control and backoffice operations. We're investigating this now, and a key concern in centralizing master control is the cost of connectivity into centralized locations."

With this process still in a back-of-the-mind state, no decision has been made on the number of centralized locations. He points out that the cost of connectivity is coming down but is still problematic in many parts of the country. And finding the solution is an industrywide effort.

"The biggest source of information has been my peers, and we've all been sharing information on how to solve this problem," he adds. "We're a whole lot further ahead than we were a year ago, but it has a way to go before being practical."

It is relatively inexpensive, for example, to connect New York with Washington because as many as 10 vendors are competing for business in Northeastern locations. But considerably higher costs are seen in less densely populated areas, where fewer fiber-optics resources are available.

"It isn't a hardware issue, technology, or even a long-haul issue," he adds. "It's really odd. The tail is wagging the dog on this one."

Despite the last-mile problem, there is the possibility that some functions can be centralized more easily. Folsom says those are things like traffic and quite a number of the backoffice functions. "The economic problem, though, is that the cost of doing business today is greater than revenue growth, so something's got to happen," he explains. "It's a matter of optimizing automation and doing things in better ways."

Technology allowing stations, in digital form, to store, forward and take out commercials, programming and news is also being investigated.

The key to the store-and-forward process, according to Folsom, is the lower cost of the necessary bandwidth. "If you're using the Internet vs. satellite time, the difference in cost is phenomenal," he points out.

Another encouraging factor for store-and-forward technology, he asserts, is plummeting costs for computers, disk drives, and MPEG encoders and decoders. The technology is now being used at Raycom stations for news, and there are plans also to use it for centralization of promotion, graphics and common syndicated programming.

For this purpose, the stations are using Telestream's Clipmail, which is one of the devices that is easiest for newsroom personnel to understand, according to Folsom. The group is considering more of the same but will also consider other options that may be shown at NAB.

"We'll continue to look at nonlinear editors," he notes. "In the past, they haven't been inexpensive or flexible enough for news."

This situation is changing, he suggests, pointing to the nonlinear editors made by the Vibrint division of Grass Valley Group as one example. "They fit the newsroom paradigm very well," he explains, "and their price is very competitive with standard videotape recorders."

March