HD Means Profits

Comcast's remodeled facility drawing attention from big producers
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For Comcast Corp., high-definition television isn't just a product sold to millions of cable customers. In suburban Denver, where the company owns a digital media technology facility, it's now a calling card designed to drum up business from national TV production firms.

Comcast Media Center in October completed the renovation of its largest production studio to support HDTV production in the 720p, 1080i and 1080p/24 formats. The multi-format capability so far has drawn new contracts from the likes of Scripps Networks and Big Green Co., producer of the PBS-televised pre-school series Big Green Rabbit.

Comcast's 6,400-square-foot facility is outfitted with four Sony HDC-1500 cameras sporting Canon lenses, plus a control room rigged with Sony HDCAM tape decks, a Sony MVS-8000A switcher, Chyron HyperX character generators, and a monitor wall bedecked with 57-inch LCD and plasma screens with Miranda K2 multi-image processors.

Bruce Marshall, production manager, says Comcast made the leap to multi-format HD capability after determining that its incumbent production facilities were in danger of becoming obsolete—or at least being viewed by customers as behind television's digital times.

BRIDGING THE CHASM

“We were dealing with an infrastructure that was about 13 years old, and 13 years is a chasm in the production business that is gigantic,” Marshall says. At the same time, declining prices for standard-definition TV production equipment had cost Comcast Media Center some business. Comcast officials found it significant, for example, that a large corporate account, the Colorado-based real estate brokerage firm Re/Max International, discontinued work with the Media Center in favor of building its own SD production studio.

Comcast hasn't entirely abandoned the world of standard-definition production. The Media Center maintains an SD production facility that's housed in a smaller room. But the Media Center's migration to HD capability is meant to accommodate producers who increasingly are choosing to shoot material in HD no matter how it may end up playing on the television screen.

Federal rules prescribing the change to all-digital TV broadcasting on Feb. 18, 2009, have ignited demand for digital production in general, Marshall says. “Because of the FCC rules for 2009, people are thinking about things from a DTV mindset, as opposed to shooting in analog format or on digital beta,” he explains. “They're now thinking, 'Why would I even bother with that, because I can downconvert and it will look a lot better if I shoot native HD.'”

Marshall credits a relatively smooth installation and upgrade to advance planning that helped accelerate vendor selections late last year, when budget considerations required that Comcast expend available capital.

“My advice is: Do your homework,” Marshall says. “The technology shifts happen at a pace that is so much quicker than they've ever been in history. Making an ill-informed leap to a particular switcher or major piece of infrastructure can be the kiss of death.”

So can sticking for too long with legacy production gear. When Media Center officials reviewed options for upgrading their mainstay studio two years ago, one scenario they reviewed was making modest equipment upgrades to “mitigate” the influence of HD and its impact on a changing production marketplace.

But they quickly abandoned that approach after reviewing unmistakable trend lines that showed rising adoption of consumer HD equipment, coupled with growing interest from TV program producers. Marshall says it's impossible to quantify the revenue flow surrounding HD production, but he maintains that the demand for HD facilities is obvious. “You can't put metrics against the market opportunities,” he says. “But if you look at the network level, nobody's producing in SD anymore.”

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