Eyes on the alert for savings

Products offering value-added features hold extra appeal to NBC

NBC engineers will arrive at NAB with a full shopping list but no expectations that a digital panacea is waiting for them-particularly since last year's show turned up no major surprises.

"Unlike past NABs, we did not find the 'barn-burner' application or most significant piece of equipment at NAB 2000," says Steven Pair, vice president, NBC television stations engineering.

Nevertheless, the industry's mega-convention remains an opportunity for the broadcaster, which has 13 owned-and-operated stations, to evaluate new technology and review the latest offerings. That is especially important in the DTV arena, because eight of NBC's 13 stations are currently broadcasting on a digital channel and the rest are moving forward to meet the FCC-mandated deadline.

Accordingly, DTV transmitters remain a purchase priority as stations convert to digital broadcasting. (Comark is NBC's DTV transmitter vendor.) Additionally, three of the group's aging NTSC transmitters have been replaced with Larcan units.

Beyond transmitters, Pair and his colleagues have a need to evaluate and purchase both PSIP generators and transport stream analyzers. All vendors and formats will be considered.

Pair is also very interested in server technology, particularly as it relates to large data-storage and asset-management applications. "We see the need for this to evolve on a parallel path with the conversion of our infrastructure to digital," he says. "Servers, software, robotics, data tape are all crucial elements to this evaluation, and we will be looking long and hard at all server-based technologies."

NBC's newsroom operations continue to evolve. For example, nonlinear editors are becoming more fully integrated into the stations and network operations. An NLE vendor will be selected shortly after NAB.

"Nonlinear editors are on our short list for acquisition," Pair says. "We see this nonlinear-editor infrastructure growing and migrating toward the server-based architecture that will be the heart of our operations in the future."

To date, nonlinear editors have been installed where normal edit replacement needs provided the opportunity or, he adds, where parts of the news infrastructure were being upgraded and converting to a digital format made sense.

Both network and station operations have been converted to digital as the opportunity presented itself, mostly via new construction or rebuild. Beyond that, plans are under way to consolidate broadcast functions "where it makes good operational and economic sense," says Pair. The TV stations division has started the process of building master- control hubs to consolidate operations common to every station. Back-room support functions may also be consolidated, including traffic and commercial/syndication ingest and distribution.

But, for now, many of NBC's purchasing needs are likely to be driven by the continuing conversion to a digital infrastructure and the evolution of HDTV broadcasting. For example, full-featured (yet moderately priced) digital audio-mixing consoles are a high priority right now.

Digital test equipment will be on Pair's review list, but he says he does not envision NBC's acquiring a great deal this year. On the other hand, Pair is looking for audio-delay devices (both integral and stand-alone) to accompany the conversion to digital; he will be looking for these tools at NAB. "The ability to slow [or delay] audio is becoming critical as more and more of our broadcast and production operations convert to digital," he explains. "Receiving, routing and distributing the digital bit stream makes synchronization a key element."

That should keep Pair occupied for much of NAB. But don't expect NBC to be buying impulsively now or any time in the near future. "The current economic conditions will cause us to approach all capital acquisition with a keen eye towards savings and value-added incentives," Pair says. "We are moving aggressively to meet the FCC-imposed deadlines for converting all of our stations for digital broadcasting."