Digital Rules

ABC's tech needs are driven by conversion


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ABC thinks it's time for a change. As NAB nears, the network's technical priority is converting its program distribution from analog to digital, a project slugged for completion by summer 2005.

The network will soon announce the vendors responsible for satellite encoding and decoding gear and for building and installing ABC-specified receiving racks at the 216 affiliates and 10 owned-and-operated stations, says Preston Davis, president of ABC Broadcast Operations and Engineering.

It's already upgrading its New York control rooms for program playback and distribution with new digital gear. Plus, it rolls out receiving equipment to affiliates this fall. To keep its chief engineers in the loop, ABC is hosting a meeting for affiliates at NAB 2004 to detail its digital distribution plans.

Slated for 2005: upgrading two production-control rooms. Davis will spend time in Las Vegas looking at video switchers, audio consoles, intercom systems and routers. He'll also be investigating the use of local area networks (LANs) for graphics applications.

Another area of importance for Davis is evaluating new monitoring technology, including flat-panel displays and virtual monitor walls. This became a pressing need after ABC's HDTV production of the State of the Union address last month, its first major news origination in high def (ABC simultaneously provided the standard-definition pool feed for all the major networks). Despite ABC's vast experience producing HDTV sports, news presents unique challenges, says Davis, including dealing with remotes and legacy tape.

"As we start to straddle the fence between HDTV and SDTV, we need a flexible solution," he says. "For example, the State of the Union address aired in HD. But we needed to intermix the monitoring to see both 4:3 and 16:9 pictures. So we're looking for flexibility in configuring the monitors."

Live HDTV news production requires not only flexible monitoring gear but powerful upconversion and downconversion technology, another product Davis will scout at NAB. ABC is also looking for wireless HD transmission solutions, including microwave gear and maybe optical transmission equipment.

"There are very few solutions in the marketplace for the wireless transmission of HD content," says Davis. "That's an issue for sports programming, but it's a much more critical issue for news programming."

While ABC's current SNG gear is able to stuff 10 discrete paths into a 54-MHz Ku-band transponder, Davis isn't aware of "anyone making a multiplexer that can handle HDTV in that way." He concedes that the bandwidth requirements of HDTV would reduce the number of transmission paths, but he says an average bit rate of 7 or 8 Mb/s might provide reasonable HD quality for SNG applications.

Another product preoccupying Davis is new digital storage media for news production and archiving. Though still interested in Sony's optical-based solution, he's also intrigued by the flash memory system being developed by Panasonic.