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What Networks Want To Buy

Future-minded executives will place their digital bets in Vegas 2/23/2007 07:02:00 PM Eastern

The industry converges at the National Association of Broadcasters Show April 14-19 in Las Vegas. A massive technology bazaar, the NAB Show is where more than 100,000 attendees will pore over the latest technology offered by 1,500 vendors.

That's why Broadcasting & Cable annually asks the top network technology executives to tell us what they will be scouting for on the exhibit floor.

This year, many networks are still trying to fill gaps in their hi-def plans. Others say they will be shopping for new equipment to extend their brands into the broadband field.

That's a sure sign of the industry's migration to new platforms—the buzzword and the reality of the media world in 2007.

ESPN Dresses Up Its L.A. Facility

ESPN's new facility in the Los Angeles area, scheduled to be completed by 2009, is prompting the giant sports network to take a close look at emerging technologies and equipment at this year's NAB show, particularly HDTV and graphics.

And although the network already has an HD showplace in at its Bristol, Conn., facility, it views the NAB show as an opportunity to explore new technology trends: IPTV and audio advances that may enhance its new L.A. digs.

"We're looking at HD production gear, routing and switching equipment for the new facility and will keep an eye on trends from manufacturers, especially with the 1080-progressive TV sets," says Chuck Pagano, executive VP of technology for ESPN. "We'll also be looking at production workflow in manufacturing and product processes across the board."

Graphics will be high on Pagano's list of must-see technologies. Says Pagano, "We'll look at those, along with delivering data to fans and customers as HD evolves."

For Pagano, it's as if Book One of the HD saga is complete. There are now enough producers and at-home consumers to have tested hi-def's capacity and acceptance levels. Time for a new story.

"We are very interested to see what manufacturers are coming out with at NAB for HD," Pagano says. "We're intrigued by where the next-generation production gear is headed in HD. The biggest question is where the HD production journey is going to take us."

For ESPN, part of the journey includes audio and the somewhat unheralded advances in that field that were ushered in with hi-def. Says Pagano, "New audio consoles and surround sound are always in the background but are pushing forward."

ESPN will delve further into what Pagano dubs "the age of IPTV." He explains, "We don't know if it affects our production process so there may be some products or solutions at NAB. We're keeping our eyes on IPTV as well."

The sports network will also explore trends in the convergence of computers and television, an area Pagano says should generate buzz at NAB: "This may be the show where there is movement on the convergence of PCs, TVs and the Internet. We want to see if there are production tools that can help us with that set."

Like seemingly everybody going to NAB, Pagano will be looking for the next undiscovered big thing. He says, "You never know when you'll see something tucked away on the floor that really sticks out." —Craig Kuhl

Fox hunts for new models

Now that construction is under way on a massive new playout facility in Houston that is scheduled to distribute its regional sports networks by late 2007, Fox is turning its attention to gradually upgrading the playout and control systems at its 11-year-old Los Angeles network center.

That means finding a replacement for aging Profile video servers and considering new ways of automating and monitoring content playout. Those will be two big areas of focus heading into NAB, where Fox will bring its usual complement of 50 staffers and break into category-specific teams to work the floor.

"The current plan is to replace some, if not all, of the original Tektronix Profiles," says Richard Friedel, executive VP/general manager, Fox Networks engineering and operations. "Some of them are over 10 years old. I can't complain; we'll probably get 11 or 12 years out of some of them. We had to replace a few drives and do some maintenance, but overall, I have to thank Tektronix." (That Tektronix unit is now part of Grass Valley.)

Fox has looked at server products from Harris, SeaChange, Omneon and Grass Valley. It picked Harris Nexio servers for the Houston facility, and since it already uses Harris Louth automation in its Los Angeles control rooms, going that route again might make sense.

But with so many file-based playout systems and automation vendors to choose from, he is hedging his bets: "I'm torn between, do we just build a traditional [playout] room like we have, versus, is this the ideal time to make a break and do something completely new."

Meanwhile, the automation vendor for the Houston facility, which will span 190,000 square feet with some 35-40 control rooms, is one of the few items that isn't finalized. Fox will be taking another look at those systems in Vegas.

"NAB will be the last shot for that," says Friedel.

With more cable networks, such as Fox's own business-news channel, coming down the pike, compression and multiplexing systems are always on Friedel's list. A particular focus is the overall HD expansion for the sports networks, which are slated to produce 1,000 events in 720-line-progressive (720p) HD this year.

Fox's grand plan is to connect the Los Angeles and Houston facilities via fiber and to use as many common monitoring and content-management tools as possible.

"Our philosophy is, by the time we're done, it will be as if we built one large broadcast facility, sawed it in half, and half went to Houston," says Friedel. "We're not there yet, but that's where we'll be."

With an increasing number of channels to manage, video- and audio-monitoring systems are an ongoing priority. Evertz is one of the big vendors to the Houston facility, and Fox has bought some of its monitoring systems; the network also uses Harris and Grass Valley monitoring products. But Friedel is still looking for better monitoring tools, particularly for digital audio.

"We want something that can go in every desk, but we haven't found that yet," he says. "We're trying to find the optimal thing for operators."—Glen Dickson

NBC: Broadband and broad vision

Although NBC Universal will bring the same number of people to NAB as in past years—50 total staffers, about half from its cable and local-broadcast operations—its overall approach to the show will be different.

"We're making it a very targeted trip," says John Wallace, NBC Universal executive VP of television operations and production services. NBC has divided its staff into four distinct teams: the studio group, graphics, editing and distribution.

"In effect, we're looking at our operations and trying to figure out how we can design them with an eye on digital but with traditional production values," says Wallace. "We're really taking an enterprise approach in order to streamline the process for multi-format production. The goal is to have one technology architecture for the entire operation, both for broadcast and cable and for the distribution of content."

For studio production, NBC will examine "virtual-objects" systems from graphics and effects vendors such as VizRT that allow virtual 3D images, achieved through chroma-key (blue-screen) technology. They are variations on virtual sets, introduced in the last decade, which have now grown popular in Europe.

"You can create a whole new look and feel in a fixed studio environment," Wallace says. "It's more of a digital play than anything else."

Mainly for its O&Os, NBC is also evaluating new software-based automation systems for its production- control rooms, such as OverDrive from Ross Video and Ignite from Grass Valley, that can be used to remotely control devices and automate functions previously performed by dedicated operators.

NBC just completed a centralized graphics-production unit, called Artworks, that serves all units, including NBC News, CNBC, the O&Os, NBC Entertainment and the digital group. With Artworks, NBC has taken about 35% of the workload of traditional art departments and "pushed it out to the desktop," says Wallace. Template-based graphics and the Artbox database from Proximity Software (acquired in December by Apple) now allow producers to create "self-service graphics" for everyday needs. In Las Vegas, NBC will be shopping for more—high-end 3D, high-definition graphics systems from such vendors as VizRT, Miranda, Chyron and Pinnacle.

NBC is taking a similar approach to editing, moving basic functions such as voiceovers to desktop editing systems that use commodity-type IT storage while keeping high-end proprietary gear, such as its existing Avid systems, for high-end work. At NAB, it will be evaluating desktop editing systems from Ardendo, Blue Order and Apple and storage solutions from vendors including Isilon and EMC.

The Wallace way means NBC will need more software-based collaboration tools. "We want one enterprise-wide solution for the entire TV group," says Wallace. "We hope to meet somewhere in the middle [between the desktop-based and high-end proprietary systems]. We don't want silos; that's our objective."

On the distribution front, NBC has deferred a project to convert its Skypath high-definition satellite system to MPEG-4 compression. Wallace says the technology "is still too raw for our comfort." Instead, the network is focused on moving from a "master-control, single-source distribution-center mentality" and toward being able to handle multichannel distribution to various platforms, including video-on-demand and mobile-TV platforms.

"When you consider the O&Os and multicasting, you're looking at 300 channels or more of distribution," he says. "So we're looking at software platforms that can add distribution channels and scale. It's the encode-once, deploy-to-many mentality."—Glen Dickson

CNN ramps up for HD launch

The shopping list for CNN's newsgathering production group will be top-heavy with HDTV gear, tapeless cameras and repurposing equipment to meet the growing needs of mobile platforms.

"Each layer of our production process is on our NAB shopping list—from newsgathering to control rooms," says Bob Hesskamp, corporate VP of broadcast engineering and system technology for CNN.

Yet while CNN is continually challenged to acquire equipment for newsgathering and producing news on a global basis, nothing is more important this year than HD-related equipment. CNN intends to launch an all-HD channel this year.

"We are replacing our equipment with HD-capable or HD-ready," says Hesskamp, "and will look at the latest and greatest in HD production equipment at NAB, along with up- and down-stream converters and better tools. Those are big deals for us."

From tapeless field cameras to studio production gear, the migration to an all-HD format is deeply embedded in CNN's long-term production strategy.

It changes the way technologists think. Says John Courtney, VP of CNN's News Division Media Group, "For us, to begin working in the HD space takes lots of planning and training. We have to think long-term. HD forces you to look at everything. For example, switches. You can't just plug in switches in the HD world. The same is true with field and editing environments."

System-monitoring equipment is also on CNN's list, along with advanced monitors. "We're aware that CRTs are going away," Hesskamp says. "We want to see what monitor makers are doing with LCDs to replace CRT technology."

Courtney keeps a close eye on multiple-platform equipment as it repurposes content for mobile phones and the Internet. "The increased complexity of multiple files and codecs is a big issue," he says. "We're looking at products in those areas."

CNN's visit to NAB gives executives a chance to see where the business is headed, and Courtney and Hesskamp say it gives them the opportunity to find a technological diamond in the rough.

"We can't take steps back when moving to HD, and major vendors are offering a variety of products," says Hesskamp, "but we're also looking at new kids on the block, and that will be interesting at NAB.

"Sometimes," he continues, "we find gems within the vendor community at NAB."—Craig Kuhl

TBS navigates new platforms

Turner Broadcast Systems' (TBS) trip to the NAB show will be highlighted by an in-depth look at advancing forms of content distribution, such as mobile phones, video-on-demand (VOD) and the Internet.

It will also be inspecting file-transfer equipment that will allow the network to store and distribute content more quickly and efficiently.

"We're built to be a file-transfer facility and pretty advanced," says Ron Tarasoff, VP of broadcast technology and engineering for TBS. "So at NAB, we'll be looking for products from manufacturers to help us with storage files, transcoding, splicing files and repurposing them. In the past, content would just sit on shelves as videotape. Now we're converting it to a file-based format. And we're not just looking at standard- definition but at high-definition, too."

The TBS contingent to the NAB will include staffers from both the broadcast and IT sides of the network, Tarasoff says. "The NAB show is not pure IT or even pure broadcast anymore; it's a hybrid of both. So almost all the people we'll send are from those groups, since we're in the midst of transitioning to all-IT in the next few years."

The other mission is to check out new technologies that can enable TBS to enhance the growing number of ways viewers are getting programming.

"We'll be looking at any new distribution models, like VOD and cellphones," Tarasoff says. "How can our content be used in the most ways, and where will our customers see our content five years from now?"

TBS wants to know what's new in the pipeline. "We hope to meet with several vendors, suppliers and partners to get an impression of what products are coming in the months and years ahead, and we'll try to visit the floor to see the technologies," Tarasoff says. "You never know when a vendor may have just the right technology that's tucked away somewhere on the exhibit floor."

A big upside to NAB for TBS is that the one-on-one meetings with vendors, suppliers and partners give Tarasoff a way to measure where certain technologies are in their development. "It's nice because we're all in one place," he says. "It helps us plan for the coming years."

Nonlinear editing gear is also high on TBS' want list. "We're finding that with repurposing programs, editing files is becoming urgent, even byte-stream splicing," Tarasoff says. "But the technology is not very far along, and we need it. We're always interested in seeing how far the technology has come at NAB."

The bottom line is, "we want to find ways to assemble content packages faster than real time, with quality," Tarasoff says. "More and more individualized packages are being put together, so we want to manipulate, assemble and deliver them to different formats, faster than real time, and include logos, labels, promos, breaks, and send it out quickly."—Craig Kuhl

HBO has sports on its mind

High-definition equipment for its in-house studio sports productions will be on HBO's shopping list at the NAB show, but the premium channel is also looking to upgrade its HD equipment, period.

And although executives at HBO consider the show primarily a chance to stay current with the technology and equipment learning curves, it also presents the network with an opportunity to see firsthand any new developments in the production and distribution spaces.

"We'll bring people from the production and technology sides and IT people interested in integration systems," says Bob Zitter, CTO/executive VP of technology for HBO. "We use NAB more for getting up the learning curve and seeing things, not necessarily buying."

HBO is currently exploring the expanded use of MPEG-4 encoding systems, and NAB will enable the company to witness some of the new technologies in network origination centers.

Like every other content provider, HBO is also migrating to new platforms, such as cellphones and portable devices. That's prompting a hard look at advancing technologies in transcoding.

"We transcode thousands of different videos a month on various platforms, more than ever before," Zitter says, "and we're creating versions of HBO programming for mobile services, which require lots of transcoding."

The company will also explore new test and measurement equipment for HD, most notably the sync between audio and video in the HD format. And on the studio side, HD camera equipment will be high on Zitter's list of must-see products, along with archival data storage.

"We're looking for systems to store data for longer terms than one year," he says. "We're also developing a mezzanine archival file system and a data rate high enough to do post-production before distribution to help prepare us to do everything in file format."

HBO has two production studios for sports shows and is switching to HD. That requires video switches, HD disc recorders, and a full complement of HD equipment and technology.

"We plan to gradually increase our HD programming as the number of HDTV sets in the U.S. increases. We're also looking to deploy improvements as displays show better [resolution]," Zitter says.

A contingent of software, IT and billing personnel will roam the halls in Las Vegas with Zitter. "We usually operate and deploy our own proprietary systems for billing, sales, etc.," he says. "So NAB offers our IT people a great location to see where the state-of-the-art is in technology."

What Zitter and HBO really want to see at NAB, he stresses, are products and equipment "related to managing digital files, asset management, mezzanine architectures, and how we manage, store, move and change into various video formats. That's a growing part of our business on the equipment and technology sides. We have to be sure we're doing those things right."

NAB's biggest upside for HBO, however, is the valuable face time it offers. Says Zitter, "It gives us the opportunity to meet with suppliers, vendors and associates in a convenient setting and gives our technical people from around the world a place to share information. We don't go to NAB with checks to buy something. That's more of a deliberate process."—Craig Kuhl

ABC revisits old problems

Although it's a new year, ABC will be tackling old problems at NAB: replacing first-generation 720-line-progressive (720p) HDTV playout gear and finding a camcorder format that can take ABC News into the hi-def future.

"Our issues are exactly the same as last year," says Preston Davis, president of ABC Broadcast Operations & Engineering. ABC will canvass the floor with some 55 staffers, he adds.

One outstanding problem is finding an HD program-playout server that can replace aging Panasonic tape decks and interface with ABC's existing Harris automation software.

Although there are numerous options on the market, Davis still finds current products lacking in key areas. "With some of the servers, timecode recognition is still an issue, and reliability is still an issue," he says. "Nothing has met our criteria yet."

ABC uses file-based systems for ingesting and editing content, but Davis isn't ready to leap into fully IT-based operations just yet.

"We're still more in the traditional space of routers and converter technologies," he says. "Part of our issue is that we have a legacy plant with some life in it. So we're not trying to force the obsolescence of our existing facility but, in a limited way, to spend capital to embrace new technologies. I think there's a comfortable marriage we can achieve between the two."

Another technology that needs to interface to existing systems is whatever camera format ABC News chooses to replace aging Sony Betacam SP, SX and IMX gear. Although the Sony cameras and tape decks still work, maintenance costs are rising, and, says Davis, "there's no question the news division is feeling the pressure to move to a later-generation technology."

ABC has evaluated systems from Panasonic, Sony and Grass Valley but still hasn't found a high-definition camcorder available today that interfaces seamlessly with the network's existing Avid editing systems.

"That hasn't moved very far in a year," says Davis. "There's been some progress made by the players, but we have not seen an end-to-end solution for any cameras with Avid. We've seen them take disc and flash memory to it, but we have not seen it working in a way that satisfies us."

He says JVC's ProHD HDV-format camera, which records in native 720p and has been used by Good Morning America and some ABC affiliates for live production, is definitely in the running.

ABC is considering whether to expand its HD news offerings beyond GMA, particularly since NBC plans to launch NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams in HD next month. So ABC will be investigating HD satellite newsgathering and microwave systems, as well as HD graphics.

The network is successfully using Snell & Wilcox Kahuna production switchers to mix SD and HD sources but will still seek new HD switchers and routers at NAB. ABC is also evaluating traffic software, in order to replace an aging, home-grown system, along with content-management tools.

"That's something I think all broadcasters are searching for," says Davis, "a media-asset–management solution from ingest to playout to archiving that tracks the movement of assets through the plant."—Glen Dickson

 

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