The big thing at this year’s National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas: 3D technology. The need to go 3D was amped up by the stunning success of James Cameron’s film Avatar, which used stereoscopic 3D effects to create a highly immersive film experience. Just after Avatar reaped huge box-office dollars over the holidays, ESPN and Discovery, in partnership with Sony and IMAX, showed up at CES in January and announced they were working on two new 3D networks.
Offering 3D will take plenty of new equipment and technology, both of which will be a focus for networks at this year’s NAB. The convention is lending a hand by providing its Content Theater for the third year. There, creators will talk about designing stereoscopic 3D effects in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon, while ESPN will host its own session on how to produce sports content in 3D.
Besides 3D, networks have plenty of other needs, from the mundane—automated quality control equipment and cheap storage—to high-end and customized gear.
NAB runs from April 10 to 15, but networks are making their plans for the show now. Says Bob Zitter, HBO’s chief technology offi cer: “Typically, we have pre-NAB meetings with major suppliers so that by the time we’re at NAB, we’re only looking at items we’ve already been turned on to.”
CBS: HD REWIND
Bob Ross and his CBS engineering team will be taking a fresh look at high-definition studio cameras and graphics systems, as several smaller internal studios at the CBS Broadcast Center in New York still need to make the move from SD to HD. In many ways, it will be a repeat performance of NAB visits from five to seven years ago.
“We’re going to renew the database on where everybody is, and see what’s really changed in the landscape,” says Ross, CBS’ senior VP of East Coast operations. “We’ll look at what’s new, what’s broken, and what the cost/benefit ratios are with the new gear.”
Ross notes that some of today’s smaller HD cameras “can make absolutely gorgeous 1080i pictures.” But he still wants to make sure that any camera CBS purchases will accept a large studio lens and will be substantial enough to be driven by a standard camera operator. “There are a variety of ways of satisfying those requirements,” he says.
CBS has a range of graphics systems, including Vizrt template-based graphics, and continues to evaluate changes in that marketplace. Ross has looked at online-based systems like Chyron’s Axis product, which renders graphics at a remote server and then delivers them over the Internet, but hasn’t found any of them to be a good fit for CBS’ needs. He does like the overall trend in graphics hardware, though, which is for more power in a smaller package.
“It wasn’t so long ago that you needed multiple frames of equipment to render a graphic,” Ross says. “Now, a single rack-mountable PC allows you to do template graphics.”
Elsewhere on the news front, Ross will be taking a look at production automation systems from several vendors on behalf of the CBSowned stations. Snell and Sony both bowed production-assist systems at last year’s NAB, entering a market controlled by Grass Valley and Ross Video, and Ross expects more new entrants this year.
CBS won’t be looking at much master-control gear, as it has begun using parts of its new Media Distribution Center (MDC), a 32,000- square-foot, multi-million-dollar file-based origination facility that the network began building in January 2007. The MDC architecture uses Harris Nexio servers to ingest content at Television City in Los Angeles and sends it via fiber to New York, where it is held on NetApps storage arrays for a short period before being played to air off the Nexio servers. Software vendors for the MDC include Pilat Media for program scheduling and OmniBus for playout automation.
“It’s so big, it’s the project that will never be completed,” Ross jokes. “But it’s on the air in various dayparts, and we’re finishing up training of some people. There are parts that are fully operational, like ingest of commercials and ingest of material from the West Coast. We’re very happy with the overall system architecture and design, and it’s working.”
Ross will evaluate new 3D hardware at NAB, though he doesn’t expect to worry about storing and playing out 3D programming for some time, as early 3D efforts have focused on live events like sports. He’ll also be looking for innovative solutions to old problems, such as an app that one monitoring company has already created for the Apple iPhone that allows an operator to remotely monitor terminal gear. Another vendor has created an iPhone app that uses the unit’s internal camera and compass to indicate how to align a satellite dish to pick up a particular satellite.
“That used to take three or four pieces of equipment, including an inclinometer and a compass,” Ross points out. “Now there’s an iPhone app that literally allows you to hold the phone up and see the satellite you want. Having struggled with that stuff for years, I found that one particularly interesting.”
ESPN: 3D RAMP-UP
ESPN is getting ready to launch its 3D network on June 11, starting with the broadcast of the FIFA World Cup from South Africa. Two months before that, ESPN will produce back-nine coverage of The Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., in 3D that will be telecast by Comcast on a special channel.
“We have a slate of 85 events over the next year on our schedule,” says Kevin Stolworthy, ESPN’s senior VP of technology. “We’ve produced a couple of events so far, and we’re gearing up to do a lot more. It’s a big learning curve for everyone.”
That learning curve starts with production, according to Stolworthy: “3D is about being immersed. In 2D, you throw a lot of graphics and fast cuts at the viewer. In 3D, if we cut too fast, it’s overwhelming. We want you to feel like you’re a part of the action.”
While ESPN already has relationships with Sony and other wellknown 3D vendors, “at NAB, we are looking for vendors with whom we are not as familiar,” Stolworthy says. “We think there’s going to be a lot more people out there with new 3D equipment, software and production tools after the announcements at CES.”
Beyond 3D, ESPN also is looking for better ways to automate its production, while producing higher-quality content. “We’re looking at automated tools, such as automated control rooms, to shrink the amount of personnel that we need to produce content,” Stolworthy says. “We’re also looking at low-cost master control solutions. We want to produce more content for digital platforms or other opportunities, and we want to do it as cost-efficiently as possible.”
That also means investing in new editing and transcoding equipment, as each piece of content has to work a little harder. A single clip is likely to end up on one or more of ESPN’s cable networks, its Websites or its mobile offerings.
“We produce a lot of product here, so we’re always looking for next-generation tools to speed up that process,” Stolworthy says. “What we would like is to be able to do the transcoding and distribution of any given clip in real-time. That’s what we’re really looking for.”
Last year, ESPN built out its new Los Angeles plant around a 1080p infrastructure, and ESPN is still seeking more 1080p production tools to flesh out that facility. “From switchers to edit tools to graphics to routers, you name it, we’re looking for it,” he says.
ESPN’s commitment to converting to 1080p coincides with its plans to offer 3D. “1080P eventually gives us more bandwidth for 3D, which should allow us to give consumers a better experience,” Stolworthy says. “I’m not predicting that everything we do will be in 3D, but it’s an exciting way to offer marquee events.”
HBO: ON THE GO
Premium network HBO is focused on building an internal architecture that, among other things, supports its rollout of HBO Go, the network’s anywhere, anytime online offering for subscribers that’s currently in beta testing.
“We’re building a mezzanine-level system to handle all of our content,” says HBO CTO Bob Zitter. “That includes everything from workflow management systems to digital asset management systems, as well as the infrastructure that’s required to tie all that equipment and software together at high data rates. In this case, that means 5-gigabit Internetprotocol and fiber systems.
“Putting all of that at the mezzanine level lets us ingest and store our content at a higher level from which we can create broadcast, home-video and Internet assets,” Zitter adds. “This way, we’re doing it at a higher quality using native frame rates and resolutions. Doing that makes everything come out better and work more efficiently.”
HBO is a bit ahead of its time in terms of its platform needs, so the network is waiting and watching for some equipment to come online while it’s customizing its own software in other cases.
“Some of this technology is just coming into place for the JPEG 2000 format we’re planning on using,” Zitter says. “We’re just now seeing equipment be produced that allows us to operate at that level. We’ve been doing on-demand television for about 10 years, and using asset and workflow management systems that we developed in-house because there weren’t any 10 years ago.”
That doesn’t mean HBO isn’t interested in new software-based management solutions, but it doesn’t expect one package to come along that will be able to handle all of the network’s needs.
“By the end of this year, we will have implemented a system where we have all of our content in its native highest-quality form, and then we’ll have all the transcoding and management systems in place to create the different versions we need,” Zitter explains. “We have as many as 16,000 assets a month representing different versions of HBO programs that need to go on different platforms.”
A bit further off, HBO is eyeing 3D. “3D is something that we’re looking at technically, but it’s very early in the game,” Zitter says.
Because HBO has output deals with major film studios such as Fox, Universal and Warner Bros.—producers of films such as Avatar, How to Train Your Dragon, Clash of the Titans and the Harry Potter franchise—HBO likely will be forced to get on the 3D bandwagon sooner rather than later. As Zitter puts it: “We’re looking at what’s necessary to make 3D happen in our broadcast distribution plant.”
TURNER: MOVING FAST
Turner is “moving full speed ahead” on 3D, says Ron Tarasoff, Turner’s VP of broadcast technology and engineering. “We see it as a viable way of transmitting in the future.”
That said, Turner is starting out by testing and waiting for 3D standards bodies to set some guideline before jumping in with both feet. “There are many different possibilities in how you produce and distribute content in 3D,” Tarasoff says. “We need to look very carefully at what will help us with 3D delivery. We’re almost at the same point we were many years ago with HD. There’s this big push toward 3D, and there’s very little 3D equipment out there. There are still many different possibilities in how you produce and distribute content in 3D.”
In the meantime, Turner has more immediate and practical needs, almost all of which revolve around how to automate processes more effectively. For example, Turner is looking at better, faster ways of transcoding its file-based content so it can play on an array of platforms. “We’re working on ways to do that more efficiently and at a larger volume so we can get it out to content partners almost immediately after it airs,” Tarasoff says.
Turner also is seeking equipment that more efficiently performs up- and downconversions of content from HD to SD and vice versa, as well as automated quality control equipment that reliably checks incoming programs and commercials for errors before content ends up on-air.
“Commercials represent money,” Tarasoff points out. “You don’t want to put a commercial on-air if there’s something wrong with it.”
Tarasoff also is looking for equipment that automatically regulates sound quality and video formats. “Surround sound is getting more important as people get better TV sets,” he says. “We need to do a very good job of monitoring that on our end.”
Similarly, Tarasoff would like to automate converting video to a 16:9 or 4:3 format. Turner still operates SD and HD feeds, so a movie might air in 16:9 on TNT HD while it’s in 4:3 on TNT’s SD net.
And the House of Representatives last year passed the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM), which now awaits action in the Senate. Should that pass, it would force Turner and all networks to look into gear to help comply with the new law.
“We take a look at everything, and we want to be involved with everything,” Tarasoff says. “The marketplace is really going to decide what succeeds and what fails, so we want to gain experience with every one of these things. If one of them succeeds more wildly than another, we will already have the ability to move ahead in that particular area. If we didn’t do that, who knows? Five years from now, we could look back and say there was this one technology we weren’t involved with and now we aren’t in that game.”