ABC is doing its NAB shopping remotely this year; the network isn't formally sending any members of its Broadcast Operations and Engineering staff to the show in Las Vegas due to budget constraints. While a few ABC engineers may still make the trip on their own dime, the network is doing its best to bring the show floor to its New York headquarters by asking key vendors to visit in advance of NAB to present their new products. The visits, which will be supplemented by some Web-based presentations, begin this week.
“We're doing rather exhaustive pre-NAB sessions, where we'll get a lot of the information we need,” says Preston Davis, president of ABC Broadcast Operations and Engineering.
Unlike some other broadcasters, ABC is still very much in shopping mode in 2009 despite the rough economic environment. The network is in the midst of a $70 million overhaul of its New York production and playout facilities to convert them fully to high-definition operation. ABC's new “content distribution center,” which will deliver broadcast HD feeds and distribute content to on-demand, Web and mobile platforms, is slated to be completed in late 2011 or early 2012.
ABC signed a large contract last September with Miranda Technologies for a variety of infrastructure gear for the new distribution facility in New York. This includes signal-processing and monitoring systems that will help manage inbound feeds from its Washington, D.C., news bureau, its studios at Times Square, and news and special-events feeds arriving on satellite and fiber links.
But ABC is still evaluating other necessary pieces for the content distribution center, including large routers and playout servers, and is in negotiations with several vendors for those items. A key requirement for any new enterprise-class router ABC might buy, according to Davis, is support for 3-gigabit-per second (3-gig) operation, which is necessary to route 1080-line progressive/60 frame-per-second HD signals. While ABC and other networks aren't producing or distributing 1080p content at this point, many engineers expect that the industry will eventually transition to the high-quality format, which has twice the data rate of 1080-line interlaced HD.
“3-gig routers is where we think we're going to have to go,” Davis says. “We think 1080p is certainly going to happen at some point. So anything you build at this point needs to be future-proofed for producing in 1080p.”
Other technology that ABC is evaluating for the new facility includes automation software, such as systems from current supplier Harris and others; and new traffic and billing software that would replace ABC's 25-year-old homegrown TNS (Traffic and Network Sales) system, which has become outdated.
“That's a multi-million-dollar project, and the new traffic system will actually drive whatever automation system we go with,” Davis says.
While ABC is overhauling its programming distribution to be fully hi-def, and recently completed a new HD production control room that could be used for soap operas or other entertainment programming, the network is holding off on buying HD newsgathering equipment. Last spring, the network bought about 40 Sony XDCAM PDW-510 standard-definition camcorders for its Washington, New York and London bureaus to replace aging Betacam analog systems.
While ABC News does use some HD cameras from Panasonic, JVC and Sony to capture live shots in Washington and New York and do documentary work, the network has passed on an option to switch out its standard-def XDCAM units to high-end 4:2:2 XDCAM HD models for everyday newsgathering. Instead, it plans to begin producing in widescreen SD and upconverting the pictures in the next few weeks, much as its local stations have done.
“I think we're going to stay in that mode for the foreseeable future for newsgathering,” says Davis, citing both the operational challenges of backhauling bandwidth-intensive HD feeds from the field and the extra cost of upgrading its Avid editing systems to HD to support full-time HD newsgathering.