The Last Analog NAB

Broadcasters weigh opportunities, turn to mobile video as DTV transition wraps up

For broadcasters and vendors who have been plotting their digital futures for more than a decade at NAB shows, sometime during last week's convention they must have stopped and observed, “Wow. This is the last analog NAB.”

Indeed, except for low-power TV stations that will have a longer time to switch, last week's show was the end of The Beginning. On Feb. 17, 2009, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern, U.S. stations are required to switch off their analog signal and begin broadcasting exclusively in digital.

NAB officials said there was a slight drop in registered attendees—105,259 compared to 111,028 last year—but to many vendors the floor seemed significantly less busy. Layoffs and airline troubles may have limited the crowd. One vendor uses an observational measuring stick: It was easier than usual to get a restaurant reservation, and the taxi lines weren't as long.

Station executives who were there shopped for the remaining upgrades needed to be done on DTV transmission towers for new channel assignments. They wondered aloud in some panel discussions about the logistics of making sure that viewers who receive downconverted digital signals, from either over-the-air converter boxes or cable providers, are able to watch programs in the correct aspect ratio.

If the NAB traffic was a little lighter, this year's NAB was also light in significant product news. Large vendors like Harris, Thomson, Sony and Panasonic announced major sales, but there were few breakthrough products on display. Instead, there were more incremental improvements to existing products, which is a reflection of the increasingly software-based, IT-driven systems. New capabilities can often be achieved by simply reprogramming software, not by starting from scratch.

Harris, for example, was showing a new digital transmission exciter, the Apex M2X, which supports the MPH mobile DTV technology. MPH was developed in partnership with LG Electronics and is promoted as a way for stations to deliver programming to cellphones and other portable devices.

Asked what would happen to the exciter if a competing mobile DTV technology such as A-VSB became standardized instead of MPH, Harris VP Jay Adrick's simple response was: not much. “It's not like you throw the baby out [with the bathwater],” Adrick said. “You just do a little reprogramming on the baby.”

The real buzz was about the type of mobile DTV technology that Harris and others were exhibiting. In both public forums and private discussions, top broadcast executives emphasized the potential of using their digital spectrum to create a unique connection with consumers that cable, satellite and telco competitors won't be able to match.

Roughly 500 broadcasters gathered to get an update from the leadership of the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), a consortium of more than 800 local TV stations that has been working to help the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) create a mobile DTV standard.

The OMVC has been testing mobile DTV systems from LG and Harris; Samsung, Rohde & Schwarz and Nokia; and Thomson in San Francisco and Las Vegas with the goal of proving their real-world viability in urban markets. According to OMVC executives, the field trials have been going well—they gave limo-ride demonstrations to some attendees in Vegas, and purposely drove through an underpass, just to show how the picture wasn't affected. The OMVC is prepared to deliver a report on the trials to the ATSC by mid-May, and wants a mobile DTV standard ready by next February.

Broadcasters say the field trials confirm that stations will be able to deliver mobile DTV signals without interfering with their existing high-definition services; they say it would also be possible to deliver a hi-def stream, standard-definition multicast stream and a mobile stream simultaneously. They also suggest that stations might pool their resources in markets to deliver more bandwidth for mobile DTV.

This is a potentially significant new revenue stream. BIA has estimated that mobile DTV could generate $2 billion in additional advertising revenues by 2012. Some broadcasters say pay-TV services might be even more lucrative. It's changing the television business, for sure, as stations strive to leverage their digital spectrum. Says Cox Broadcasting VP of engineering Sterling Davis. “We're becoming bit managers.”

Sony Makes a 'Survivor' Deal

With the digital transition less than a year away, vendors had a full grab bag of digital equipment from which to choose. High-definition production equipment also gained attention, as more news and entertainment programs shift to the higher-resolution format.

For example, Sony had a slew of high-definition camera sales at NAB to major broadcast and cable customers. Most notable was that the CBS reality show Survivor will use Sony's XDCAM HD optical-disc cameras to shoot the upcoming 17th installment of the reality series in high-definition, airing this fall.

Sony announced that the reality show Cops will use XDCAM HD to shoot all 36 episodes of the show's 21st season, which premieres this fall. Spanish Broadcasting Systems in Miami will also use XDCAM HD to shoot a new miniseries, Manuel.

On the station level, Sony touted a major sale to CBS affiliate and Capitol Broadcasting station WRAL in Raleigh, N.C., which will adopt the new XDCAM HD PDW-700 cameras with 4:2:2 color sampling and two-third-inch imaging sensors to support its 7.5 hours a day of news coverage.

Over the next two years, the station plans to use more than 30 Sony PDW-700 optical camcorders and several PDW-HD1500 decks for news production operations. They will replace Panasonic DVCPRO HD tape-based camcorders that WRAL has been using since 2000, when it became one of the first local stations to launch HD news.

According to Peter Sockett, WRAL director of engineering, the station went with XDCAM HD disc over Panasonic's P2 HD solid-state format because the relatively cheap discs (list price of around $60) can still be treated like tapes, and can be handed off to reporters or editors without worrying about pulling the files off them. “It really came down to the workflow of the XDCAM format,” Sockett says.

And Sony announced a major deal with ESPN for L.A. Live, a new 4-million-square-foot entertainment complex in downtown Los Angeles, scheduled for completion in 2009. It will include two studios outfitted with three Sony MVS-8000G production switchers, 10 HDC-1500 studio cameras, more than 400 Sony LUMA professional LCD monitors and three BVM-L230 monitors, Sony's new LCD display for critical video reference evaluation.

Sony's biggest product introduction was a new solid-state camcorder for its XDCAM EX line, the PMW-EX3. XDCAM EX records in the same compression format as optical disc-based XDCAM HD camcorders, but stores the video on solid-state SxS Pro memory cards. The PMW-EX3, which features an interchangeable lens system, should ship in the third quarter for less than $13,000.

Panasonic Is Good in Gray

Station group Gray Television has selected P2 HD, Panasonic's solid-state camera format, to support newsgathering at 21 of its stations. Under the deal, Atlanta-based Gray is buying Panasonic's AG-HPX500 and AG-HVX200 P2 HD camcorders, AJ-HPM110 P2 Mobile and AG-HPG10 P2 Gear recorders, and AJ-PCD20 P2 card drives. Gray had previously bought P2 gear for several stations before making this broader commitment.

Panasonic used the show to introduce the AG-HPX170, a fully solid-state, low-cost P2 HD handheld camcorder with an HD-SDI interface for connection to baseband production and distribution infrastructure. The camera, which weighs 4.2 pounds, features one-third-inch imaging sensors and a 13X Leica Dicomar zoom lens with a 28mm wide-angle setting. The company says that's the widest in its class.

With two P2 card slots, users can record up to 64 minutes of high-definition DVCPRO HD video using currently available 32GB P2 cards, and record times will double with the release of Panasonic's 64GB P2 card in the fall. The AG-HPX170 camera will ship this fall with a price that will probably fall under $6,000, says Panasonic marketing chief Bob Harris.

Omneon Is Olympics-bound

Video server and storage supplier Omneon won a large deal from NBC to create an IP-based transport and storage solution to deliver both high- and low-resolution video from the 2008 Beijing Olympics back to the U.S.

The system, which will use Omneon's MediaDeck servers, MediaGrid active storage systems and ProCast CDN transport engines, will be used to support NBC's extensive broadband coverage on, as well as distribution on video-on-demand and mobile platforms.

“Covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics requires us to capture every moment of every competition at every venue in China,” said Dave Mazza, senior VP, engineering, NBC Olympics, in a statement. “With this huge increase in new-media requirements, we needed a way to produce all of that content differently than we had ever attempted before. The solution involves a long-distance file-based workflow that the Omneon MediaDecks, the MediaGrids, and the new WAN [wide area network] technology are all a key part of.”

The NBC Olympics system is described by Omneon VP of worldwide marketing Geoff Stedman as “a really long distance file-based workflow” that will let NBC produce content from Beijing remotely using production staff in the U.S. NBC has done that before, but the Games will be a huge undertaking—more than 3,600 hours of coverage, including broadcast, cable and Web distribution.

NBC will use 20 MediaDeck servers located in China to digitize and ingest both standard-definition and high-definition feeds, and each MediaDeck will have high-resolution and low-resolution codecs to simultaneously create both full-resolution IMX (high-quality SD) and XDCAM HD files, as well as low-resolution proxy files of all recordings. Both versions of the files are then actively transferred to a large MediaGrid server in Beijing. Then, using Omneon's ProCast CDN transport technology, the proxies are transferred more than 6,000 miles from Beijing to a second MediaGrid in the U.S, where NBC producers will use BlueOrder's MediaArchive DAM solution to search, browse, view and edit the files.

Avid Unveils New Editors

Nonlinear editing supplier Avid Technology, which wasn't exhibiting on the NAB show floor but was demonstrating its products at a nearby hotel, introduced a new line of nonlinear editors aimed at the broadcast and professional market that promise better performance and, more important, better compatibility with file-based camera formats like Sony's XDCAM HD and Panasonic's P2 HD.

The new lineup includes next-generation versions of Avid's Media Composer, NewsCutter (version 7.0) and Symphony (version 3.0) software, as well as new hardware configurations, Mojo DX and Nitris DX, that offer improved processing of video and effects that should speed the editing process.

“It's an improvement in our underlying processing and effects architecture,” says Patrick McLean, Avid director of product marketing.

Avid's hardware is using new multi-core processors and a new graphics card from Nvidia, and has improved the speed of its PCI Express bus interface from 400 megabits per second to 10 gigabits per second. The goal is to eliminate the lag time in responsiveness that users often experience when editing high-definition material. The new editors offer real-time output of all major SD and HD formats; this eliminates the need for rendering with the Avid DNxHD codec, which has data rates of 145 megabits or 220 megabits per second.

The new editors offer improved codec and file-based format support, addressing a complaint from many broadcast customers that Avid wasn't supporting a full file-based workflow with new HD acquisition formats. Avid says they will deliver native support for Thin Raster formats (i.e., less than full 1920 x 1080 resolution), including DVCPRO HD and XDCAM HD and native editing support for AVC-1 with real-time output with multiple streams of HD. Avid will also support Sony's XDCAM-EX format, and was showing beta software at NAB that supports Sony's new 50 Mbps 4:2:2 XDCAM HD camcorders. Avid says the new editors will also support JVC's 23.976p and 25p HDV codecs. The new HD editing systems are expected to be available in the second quarter of 2008. The options include Media Composer software for $2,495; the hardware-based Media Composer Mojo DX system for $9,995; the full-featured Media Composer Nitris DX for $14,995 and the high-end Symphony Nitris DX for $35,995.

Of particular interest to broadcasters, there are three configurations of NewsCutter news editing software: a software-only option for $4,995; the hardware-based NewsCutter Mojo DX, which offers real-time multi-format playback and effects, standard digital SD and HD I/O (input/output) and an eight-core HP xw8600 workstation, for $19,995; and the full-featured NewsCutter Nitris DX, with Avid DNxHD encode and decode, which is priced at $24,995.

Avid has lost market share in the news editing segment in recent years to Apple's Final Cut Pro and Thomson's Edius.

New Avid CEO Gary Greenfield and Executive VP/General Manager Kirk Arnold conducted a whirlwind tour of customer meetings in the weeks heading into NAB. They say they have received positive feedback on the new product line, but acknowledge that continued improvement in product development and customer support is needed. Says Arnold, “We do appreciate that this is a marathon and not a sprint.”

Thomson Aids Multi-Platform

Thomson Grass Valley's big NAB news was MediaFuse, a software add-on to its Ignite automated production system that will allow broadcast stations to quickly repurpose their newscasts for Web distribution. The company also announced that it has teamed with Internet video publishing specialist WorldNow, which operates Websites for more than 350 stations, to integrate the new product with WorldNow's software.

Last year, Thomson said that it was working on a way for Ignite, a system that uses software to automate many functions of a newscast, to quickly take news segments and turn them around for Web distribution, usually a lengthy process. Alex Holtz, general manager for the Ignite product line, says that MediaFuse delivers on its promise by letting stations automatically segment, encode and process news video for the Web. “This is a recipe for additional broadcast revenue and additional brand awareness,” Holtz says.

The system will let stations turn around a news segment for Web on-demand distribution within minutes, he says, and could even let stations that choose to stream their newscast live insert different commercials in the Web streams. A significant piece of the MediaFuse system is FuseProduce, an ActiveX software plug-in that acts as a “preproduction interface” with newsroom computer systems such as ENPS and iNews. It lets producers working on their newsroom computer system scroll through a newscast's rundown, either before or after the newscast airs, and designate individual segments for Web distribution.

Since so many stations use WorldNow to produce their Websites, Thomson has developed a custom interface between Ignite and WorldNow's software that lets the Ignite system automatically “hand off” video to WorldNow. “It's a strategic agreement to increase the value and decrease the cost of repurposing content,” says WorldNow strategy advisor Tom Guzik. “It provides us with additional ability to do it much better, and much faster.”

JVC Broadens ProHD Line

JVC Professional introduced a new addition to its ProHD camera line, which has found favor with station groups like Scripps Howard and Raycom. The new GY-HD200UB ProHD camcorder offers full-frame 1280 x 720 progressive imaging and 720p recording, and can output either 720p or 1080i high-definition signals through its FireWire (IEEE 1394) connection, which can be recorded on JVC's ProHD DR-HD100 Hard Disk Recorder.

Available now at a suggested list price of $5,995, it includes a 16:1 Fujinon lens and Anton-Bauer battery system, and is being positioned as a lower-cost cousin to JVC's flagship HD250 camera, which sells for $10,995.

The company also unveiled a new camera-mounted solid-state recorder, the MR-HD200U, which attaches directly to any of the ProHD 200 Series camcorders. The new camera records on non-proprietary Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC) solid-state memory, in a compact unit that can be permanently attached to the ProHD cameras. A single 16GB SDHC memory card can store 1.6 hours in the 720p mode and approximately 1.2 hours in 1080i mode. The unit also features a built-in hard disk drive (HDD) for extended recording times of up to 10 hours, and records natively in a choice of QuickTime (.mov) format or as MPEG2 transport stream files (.m2t).

JVC, which used to sell only through dealers, has created a new broadcast sales rep program to target broadcast networks and group station owners. The reps will offer several products not available through dealers, such as the Libre dockable camera-mounted microwave system, which combines an HD250 camcorder with a wireless transmitter from Broadcast Microwave Services.

JVC Assistant VP of marketing Dave Walton says JVC was already closing deals on the show floor, which is a rarity in a business that usually requires several rounds of follow-up after an NAB visit. Says Walton, “This is the first show in 20 years where we're going back to getting orders at the show.”