Great Expectations in Vegas For Winning Tech Trends

Thanks to major industry shifts, networks and programmers have circled the NAB Show dates in pen
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Rapid changes in consumer behavior and technological shifts in the industry are lending an even greater degree of anticipation than usual to the 2014 NAB Show, according to many top technologists at major networks and programming groups, who will convene in Las Vegas beginning April 5 for the show.

“A few years ago I wasn’t sure if this conference would survive,” says Dave Kline, senior VP of technology and chief information officer, Viacom. “But this year I’m feeling really jazzed about it.”

“The ability to see all of these smaller companies who have new ideas…and the ability to network with your peers and hear what they have to say is really the beauty of the show,” Kline adds.

As usual, a lot of the emphasis will be on traditional broadcast technologies—automation, cameras, routing, graphics, storage, playout and media asset management tools. But top technologists interviewed by B&C also stress that they will be spending considerable amounts of time on technologies that can help them transform their operations to adapt to rapidly changing consumer behavior. These include IP- or IT-based infrastructures, new software for streamlining workflows, systems that can unify the production and delivery of content to multiple platforms, cloudbased or virtual technologies, UltraHD, new compression systems and even drones in newsgathering.

In the long shopping lists many networks have compiled, IP and IT technologies are increasingly important. Unlike a few years ago, when there were widespread questions about the ability of many traditional broadcast vendors to adapt to those changes, many tech execs praised the progress they’ve made. “We are seeing SDI slowly fading away and the vendors moving more and more to IP,” says Mark Hale, executive VP of operations and CTO at Scripps Networks Interactive.

Here is what top engineers and technologists at eight networks and programming groups have to say about the tech trends their teams will be focusing on at NAB.

DISCOVERY’S FIVE-YEAR PLAN

Discovery Communications’ newly appointed chief technology officer John Honeycutt explains that they have some significant projects outside the U.S., encouraging the company to integrate new acquisitions into their burgeoning international operations. But much of their focus at this year’s NAB will be on technologies to help the company adapt to the rapidly changing TV and technology landscape.

“As a company we are in great shape day to day,” Honeycutt says. “We can do pretty much whatever we need to do, whether it is sending out Nik Walenda crossing the Grand Canyon live to the world or playing out a daily show. What we are really focused on is what we will need five years from now. We are seeing the industry undergoing a sea change toward multiscreen viewing, TV, online and mobile and we really have to figure out how to optimize infrastructure to do it.”

To help find those technologies, Honeycutt and his team will be paying particular attention to smaller startups. “We are really going to be digging into some of those small booths at NAB and talking to those little companies that have great ideas about how we can use smart technologies to make us better,” he says.

On the international front, where Honeycutt has worked in recent years, Discovery has been both expanding the reach of its existing channels and making some major acquisitions. The company has made considerable progress in consolidating and aligning those operations with its domestic facilities, Honeycutt says, but will be working on additional upgrades in 2014.

“With the acquisition of SBS and the pending acquisition of Eurosport…we are going to have to do some consolidation projects of those facilities in London to drive those three facilities together,” he says.

DISNEY/ABC’S MIND ON THE CLOUD

As part of an aggressive push to expand the digital distribution of its content, Disney/ABC has relied heavily on cloud-based workflows in recent years for the launch of its TV Everywhere apps that include Watch ABC and Watch Disney.

“We are continuing to look at how we can leverage cloud architectures and will be talking a lot about that at NAB,” says Vince Roberts, executive VP of global operations and CTO at the Disney/ABC Television Group.

These cloud-based systems have been particularly important in the digital space, where they have allowed Disney/ABC to dramatically expand the delivery of content without building expensive new facilities and infrastructures. But Roberts says they are also looking to leverage cloud-based technology in the broadcast space. “How can we begin to think about origination of broadcast in the cloud?” he asks. “There are multiple vendors that continue to come out with interesting products in that area.”

Roberts’ teams will also be looking at new production tools, including drones. “I think there is so much opportunity for development in that space so we’ll be looking to see how we can leverage that for newsgathering and production support,” he says.

UltraHD is also on the agenda. As a result of last November’s deal between Disney’s Marvel and Netflix, the company has already committed to producing some content in 4K and it will be exploring a wide range of 4K technologies at NAB, ranging from production tools to upconversion of HD library content to 4K.

Even though widespread consumer adoption of UltraHD is probably four or five years away, Roberts notes, “we have to start understanding what the infrastructure requirements are going to be for building facilities and provisioning content. We want to look at the implications of 4K for everything from encoders and routing to cameras. The standalone workflows are pretty well known from a film production side but we need to start thinking about what it will mean in studios and for broadcast stations and networks.”

ESPN: LOOKING FOR THE WOW FACTOR

Designing and building ESPN’s new Digital Center has kept the company’s tech teams busy in recent years at NAB. In May, ESPN’s SportsCenter program is set to go live from the new facility and in September, it will handle the start of ESPN’s football coverage.

With fundamental infrastructures and technologies already having been selected for that facility, much of the tech team’s focus at NAB will be on upgrading existing facilities and exploring new technologies for the future.

That list includes editing platforms, playout servers, 4K and UltraHD, IP-related video technologies, HEVC and compression technologies, encoders and decoders, quality of service tools, troubleshooting equipment, virtual systems, fiber optics, graphics platforms and tools to help better integrate social media into TV and digital content, reports Chuck Pagano, executive VP and CTO at ESPN.

“In general we are always reengineering our other facilities and looking for ways to get things up to a higher level of performance,” Pagano says. As part of that effort ESPN will be exploring advances in servers and playout technologies.

Pagano also notes that they have done some HD replays using 4K cameras for basketball and football but he characterizes their current 4K efforts as “a more of a research effort. There still isn’t much 4K and UltraHD production equipment but we are keeping an eye on it to see where the industry is going.”

Fiber technologies are playing a major role for the new Digital Center, which has been built to handle 1080p at 60 frames per second natively and will have over 5 million feet of fiber.

“When I go out there to the convention, I don’t go in with preconceived agenda items,” Pagano adds. “I go out there to be reinvigorated. I like to just wander around with my eyes open and look for something that jumps out of the aisles and says, ‘Wow.’”

FOX: TECH FOR CREATIVES

Coming off the pressure of the Fox Sports 1 network launch while making some major upgrades to Fox’s broadcast network center last year, 2014 promises to be a more normal year that will find the company focused on regular upgrades, maintenance and ongoing improvements of existing facilities. “I call it my catch-up year,” quips Richard Friedel, executive VP/GM of Fox Networks Engineering and Operations.

Top priorities for his teams at NAB include technologies for automating more of their systems, technologies that give producers more control over the creative process and IP-based infrastructures.

Much of this builds on recent tech strategies that were evident in the launch of Fox Sports 1 last year. Friedel says that the technical infrastructure for that launch and their tech strategies for upcoming upgrades to their operations are designed to automate more processes and provide producers with greater control over content creation.

“We are looking for all kinds of ways to automate more systems, not to lay off people but to find how we can do more with the same number of people and to give production people more power and control,” he says. “One of the things we did with Fox Sports 1 was to give producers much more control on-air because of the electronic systems we’ve been able to put in place.”

Fox is also looking to continue to build out its use of IP and software based infrastructures. “We have been doing a lot of work with SMPTE and other forums to push forward how we migrate to IP-based networks and IP technologies in our plants,” Friedel adds.

Such infrastructures would make it easier to handle different formats, he says.

“Going forward, the idea is to build a formatagnostic plant and we don’t care whether it is 1080p video, 1080i, 720p, 4K or whatever,” he says.

NBCU: FROM IP TO AUTOMATION

Technologies for streamlining operations, IPbased platforms, tools for workflow orchestration and collaboration, advanced production graphics and UltraHD are only some of the items on a long list of technologies that teams from NBCUniversal will be exploring in Las Vegas.

“We have upgrades planned as part of ongoing efforts to modernize control rooms and infrastructures,” reports Keith Jackson, senior VP of engineering, operations and technical services at NBCUniversal. “Hence, a lot of focus on control technologies.”

Technologies for streamlining distribution will be another key priority. “Our philosophy has always been to service as many distribution outlets as possible with a single source of content,” Jackson says. “Any technology that allows us to extend that philosophy is really interesting for us.”

Other notable tech interests include vendor-agnostic control and automation platforms, automation software to maximize control functionality, tools for integrating production control rooms and digital publishing environment, IP-based routing, service-based software solutions for distribution, simplified multiplatform distribution tools, IP-based multicast and unicast viewers, improved monitoring tools for multichannel deliver, TV Everywhere solutions, upcoming signal processing technologies, virtual and cloudbased solutions for VOD and electronic sell-through and compression.

In terms of IP-based technologies Jackson notes that, “we are looking to minimize the need for baseband processing in plants. We have made some good progress in the last year and want to extend that.”

While it is still the early days for 4K, Jackson says they are looking ahead, planning to keep in mind all aspects of the technology needed for UltraHD productions. “We will be looking at the feasibility of building complete UltraHD workflows, and I mean real workflows, not proof of concept developments,” he says. “We want to learn as much as possible about vendor timelines—what they are doing and when it will happen.”

SCRIPPS: PREPPING FOR MAJOR UPGRADES

As the Scripps Networks Interactive tech teams head into NAB, they are preparing for some major upgrades to their international and domestic operations and will be exploring technologies that can help them become more efficient.

“We have a number of operations that are over ten years old, so we have some refresh efforts,” explains Mark Hale, executive VP of operations and CTO at the company. “We will be talking to tech providers and strategic partners about ways that they can help support our vision of driving greater efficiencies and control costs so we can make further investments in programming and deepen the relationship with our audience.”

For the upgrades to their domestic broadcast operations, John Ajamie, senior VP of broadcast operations and engineering at Scripps Networks Interactive explains that they will be closely looking at automation and channel-in-a-box solutions, file servers, monitoring, control systems, routing, media asset management automation, systems for streamlining the delivery of content to multiple platforms and talking to some integrators. “We are fortunate in that most of the broadcast infrastructure is coming to end-of-life simultaneously so we can view it is a great opportunity to improve and consolidate operations.”

They expect to issue request for proposals (RFPs) to select vendors after the show and make equipment decisions in the middle of this year, with the upgraded facilities going live sometime around 2017.

In addition, they will be upgrading their Food Network facility by the end of 2014 and will be looking for replacements for cameras, graphics, routers and other systems.

Internationally, the company is also planning some facilities and operations and will be talking to vendors about editing, storage, tools for managing their content around the globe and other technologies. “I’m particularly looking at some third-party service providers for uplink, playout and some media processing,” says Mike Donovan, senior VP of engineering and satellite distribution technologies.

Beyond that they will also be exploring IP and IT solutions, 4K technologies, multiplatform measurement tools, HEVC and disaster recovery solutions. “We’ll be casting a wide net,” Hale says.

VIACOM: STREAMLINING DIGITAL DELIVERY

After rolling out a number of TV Everywhere apps throughout the last year, Viacom continues to look for technologies that will help streamline the delivery of that content, reports Dave Kline, senior VP of technology and chief information officer at Viacom.

The company has developed a number of in-house solutions to help with that and has made significant progress. The processes to code content for Netflix that took a week only two years ago can now be done automatically in a couple of hours, Kline says. But they will be talking to vendors from both the broadcast and IT or IP worlds to help make further advances as they start to stream linear feeds of their networks.

“To do that, we need a lot of integration with our broadcast world and we’re taking a look at a lot of companies to help enable that, he says.

As part of that effort, Kline will be bringing a slightly larger team to NAB, which will be concentrating on a wide range of areas. These include systems for better measuring cross-platform usage, big data analysis, technologies for improved HD images, better compression, cloud and virtual solutions for storage and many IP-based technologies to better streamline all of their operations.

“The cross-platform work we’ve been doing eventually won’t be called cross-platform—in the future we will just be talking about our platform,” Kline says. “We’re driving ourselves to get there and I think the time is right for it to happen. The hardware has caught up. The software has caught up and the world has started to catch up. So we’re in the execution phase right now.”

WEATHER CHANNEL: ALL ABOUT CONTENT MANAGEMENT

As part of a plan to build an open media platform, Weather Channel has already deployed Sony’s Media Backbone and technologies from Dalet, Harmonic and Aspera. At NAB it will be eying systems for the second phase of that project, which will include an archive platform, reports Philip Grossman, senior director of content acquisition and management at the Weather Co.

Beyond that it will also be looking at transcoding, automated QC, IP technologies, lighting, wireless camera technologies, jibs and developments using less expensive IT equipment in the broadcast infrastructure. “There is going to be more of a merger between IT and broadcast equipment but there is still a bit of a distance between IT truly understanding what broadcast needs are,” he says.

Further down the road, he is also looking at disaster recovery systems, tools to automate closed-captioning, 4K and drones. Grossman expects 4K adoption to be faster than HD because the Internet will provide an immediate outlet for content. He hopes that their infrastructure will be ready to handle 4K content within four years.

On a more personal level, Grossman has been actively experimenting with drones, having already used one to shoot footage in Chernobyl, Russia, where drones are legal. “It will be a big topic of discussion,” he says, pointing to the fact that there will be three panels on the subject and one daylong session on learning aerial photography at this year’s NAB.

Rapid changes in consumer behavior and technological shifts in the industry are lending an even greater degree of anticipation than usual to the 2014 NAB Show, according to many top technologists at major networks and programming groups, who will convene in Las Vegas beginning April 5 for the show.

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