NAB 2008: What Stations Want at NAB

Different sizes, different agendas, same deadline: Feb. 17, 2009

Among the throngs at the National Association of Broadcasters convention April 11-17 in Las Vegas will be the top engineers for major broadcast groups. All come with slightly different agendas and some with radically different timetables. All of them, however, will have their minds on one date for certain: Feb. 17, 2009, the last day broadcasters will be allowed to transmit an analog signal. Here’s a look at how six of the major broadcast groups will spend their time on the NAB floor making final plans for the digital transition. (For complete coverage of the 2008 NAB Show, click here.)

Fox Television Stations

When you’re buying for 26 stations…

With Fox’s 26 markets just beginning to implement high-definition newscasts, Earl Arbuckle, the Fox Television Stations’ VP of engineering, is looking for equipment in almost every possible category.

“We have three stations broadcasting local, in-studio newscasts in high-definition right now, and we are working on another half-dozen,” Arbuckle says. “It’s going to take us about three years to migrate the entire group.”

Across the board, the group is going with Panasonic P2 cameras, which it is using to shoot high-quality standard-definition video and then upconvert it. “We feel that P2 is the most compelling solution out there with respect to no moving parts and reduced maintenance costs,” Arbuckle says. (For a video Q&A with Earl Arbuckle, click here.)

In its studios, Fox is getting ready to make a serious investment in cameras. Arbuckle expects to purchase Sony HDC 1400 and 1500 cameras, with the HDC-1400 retailing at $65,000 each, plus $8,000 for the viewfinder, and the Sony HDC-1500 retailing at $90,000. “We will be buying a fairly substantial number of studio cameras in the next couple of years,” he says.

While Fox is sticking with upconverting SD from the field for now, it wants get all its news helicopters transmitting in high-definition as soon as possible. “We had the first HD helicopter in New York with SkyFox HD,” Arbuckle says. “That is a compelling application because the panoramic views you get from the helicopter really take advantage of the HD detail.”

Fox needs to upgrades its monitors, but is weighing options. “Our monitor situation is in a state of flux,” he says.

The departure of CRTs has left Fox in a conundrum because the group finds that the alternatives don’t do as good a job of color imaging as CRTs did. “Our lab in Los Angeles has looked at these things, and unfortunately they all have some compromises compared to CRTs,” Arbuckle explains. “We’ve looked at the solutions out there, and we feel that [flat-screen, rear-projection] D-ILA probably offers the best picture [for accurate color imaging] at this point in time. Still, LCDs are destined to be the mainstay of control room monitors, and we’ll probably be considering those for all of our new control rooms.”

Fox also will be switching to new storage systems in the next few years. “For the next several years, HD-based storage is going to be the sweet spot,” Arbuckle says. “We are basically looking for reliability and cost-effectiveness in all of our storage solutions.

“We also are looking at what some people would term near-line archive storage. For that, we are inclined toward spinning-disk storage as opposed to tape-based. For long-term archiving, we’ll stick with LTO [linear-tape open] storage. LTO tape has so much capacity and recording density that with relatively few LTO tapes, you can back up an awful lot of material. It’s expensive but not as expensive as spinning-disk storage.”

Arbuckle wants to integrate digital asset management into his Avid iNews-based newsrooms. “Metadata is still in its infancy. In years past, metadata largely consisted of what people wrote down on the tape with a Sharpie. It’s true that things you’d like to find go unfound because of the lack of metadata. These days, metadata has taken its rightful place—it can be stored within the content files themselves so search engines can delve into those files and pick out keywords.”

Fox also is hunting for a look. “Graphics are an important element of news production, and we want a high bling factor with ours. Standardization has benefits in terms of procurement, operator training, maintenance—it’s helpful all up and down the line. We would like to have the same types of platforms at all of our stations that do news. We are actively investigating what is out there and looking forward to any breakthrough graphics technologies that might present themselves at NAB.” —P.A.

Media General

Going slow, going mobile

Ardell Hill, Media General’s senior VP of broadcast operations, has his eye on high-definition and mobile TV at this year’s NAB.

“NAB is usually an opportunity to see and touch technologies. It gives us hands-on opportunities to see all the new technology that’s being brought to market, and the chance to stay in step with industry developments,” says Hill, who will be accompanied by a small contingent of engineers at this year’s show.

Media General is converting its stations to hi-def newscasts on varying timetables, although all of its 23 stations are broadcasting in digital.

“We have taken a pretty measured approach to making the digital transition,” Hill says. “We still have a number of stations that we will have to make changes once the analog shuts down, and we still have significant expenses related to completing the transition.”

Those costs include moving all of Media General’s stations into the core broadcast spectrum between channels 2 and 51, and shuffling antennas on towers to maximize stations’ digital transmissions. While getting the technology right is important to Media General, none of it will matter if consumers are caught off guard, according to Hill.

“Our primary focus is making sure we’re in compliance and done all the things required to achieve the necessary milestones,” he says.

Meanwhile, Media General is taking a measured approach to high-definition, rolling it out in five markets with two or three more in the planning stages.

“The rollout of high-definition in each market is an individual decision, driven by things such as the age of existing equipment and the activities of our local competitors,” Hill says. “If our competitor decides to beat us over the head with hi-def and we haven’t gone yet, we’re not going to concede that to him. But we’re not going to go HD just to beat the other guy.”

Media General’s stations are continuing to acquire standard-definition from the field, using Panasonic’s P2 cameras and upconverting the video for now.

With technology prices falling and equipment aging, Hill thinks the transition to hi-def in all of Media General’s markets will happen sooner rather than later. Still, the group is not in a hurry: “It’s our intent to move all of our stations to HD. The gory details are really in the timing, and that’s hard to define right now.”

Besides high-definition, Media General is enthusiastic about the prospect of a new mobile video standard that will allow broadcasters’ signals to be received on cellphones, portable media devices and other mobile video players.

The industry is pushing hard for the new standard to be ready by the end of the year, so new products can be on the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show by next January and in consumers’ hands in a year or so.

“It really depends on how fast the folks on the device side can get gadgets into the hands of consumers,” Hill says.

“We really expect to see that market grow quickly as consumers get used to having the ability to watch free over-the-air TV on their phones, GPS units or displays on the back of their car seats. We think those opportunities are really exciting.” —P.A.


Broadcast Group sprints toward hi-def

Sinclair Broadcast Group is investing heavily in high-definition in 2008, both to upgrade master control operations to play out HD commercials and syndicated programming, and to launch HD newscasts in several markets.

“This is a pivotal year for us,” says Del Parks, Sinclair VP of engineering and operations, who oversees technology investment and provides sales services to Sinclair’s 58 stations.While Parks has made decisions on HD master-control gear for eight markets and HD news gear for four, he will head to NAB with an open mind.

“We’re in the throes of a major HD build-out, and we’re always looking at ways to do that better, less expensively and more efficiently,” Parks says.

By May, Parks expects to convert master-control operations to HD in eight markets representing 17 stations (reflecting duopolies and/or LMAs): Buffalo, N.Y; Charleston, W.Va; Columbus, Ohio; Baltimore; Pensacola; Asheville, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; and San Antonio. By early third quarter, Sinclair plans to launch local HD news in Columbus, Baltimore, Asheville and Pensacola.

Upgrading master control means not only installing an HD master-control switcher and playout server, but also revamping routing infrastructure to support 1.5 gigabit-per-second uncompressed HD signals, sometimes replacing analog gear that is more than 20 years old. “You throw out the old and bring in the new,” Parks says. “Obviously, there is very little in the existing plant that’s HD-capable. It’s a huge undertaking.”

Sinclair is leaning on Miranda Technologies equipment including its PresStation switching and branding panel, Imagestore HDTV branding processor, Kaleido-X multi-image display processor, and “digital glue” products such as upconverters and digital-to-analog converters. Hi-def playout will be handled by Omneon Spectrum servers, under the control of Sundance Digital automation.

On the news side, Sinclair has purchased 12 Panasonic HD studio cameras and four Panasonic HD “box” cameras for remote shots and installed new sets from Devlin Design Group. Production control rooms have been outfitted with Snell & Wilcox Kahuna switchers and Miranda Kaledio-X multi-image display systems for monitoring. Sinclair has also purchased Avid Pinnacle Deko 3000 and Thunder HD graphics systems, as well as HD weather graphics systems from Weather Central including its ESP:LIVE storm tracking product, which it is installing across all of its news-producing stations to replace AccuWeather graphics systems. Parks likes Weather Central’s touch-screen presentation technology.

Sinclair has standardized on Panasonic’s P2 solid-state standard-def camcorders, and will continue to capture field footage in standard-definition for some time. Parks is in no rush to replace the standard-def Avid NewsCutter nonlinear editing and ISIS (Infinitely Scalable Intelligent Storage) server-based storage systems that stations currently use, and even if he were, Avid doesn’t yet have a cost-effective solution for HD. Parks is looking closely at BitCentral’s Precis server and Oasis storage products, which he views as more affordable than comparable HD systems from Avid. Raycom and several other groups already successfully use BitCentral.

“I saw the product in the field, and it works really well,” Parks says. “It’s something we’re going to consider.”

Sinclair still has work to do to complete its DTV conversion; it wants to maximize transmission power in a few markets and switch three VHF assignments for DTV to UHF channels if possible. So it will be looking at transmission equipment such as filters and antennas.

Parks is interested in seeing file-based solutions for delivering syndicated content in HD, a challenge that delivery service Pathfire and various server and automation vendors have been working to address. “That’s really important to us,” Parks says. “We want to get as much program content as we can in HD.”—G.D.


Seeking interoperability, better service

As he considers new equipment purchases, Hearst-Argyle VP of engineering Marty Faubell has a problem. He says the interoperability and troubleshooting capabilities of broadcast equipment vendors lags behind other industries.

In particular, interoperability solutions between file-based camcorders, nonlinear editing systems and servers is lacking, despite industry efforts to make it easier to pass files between different vendors’ gear with the Material Exchange Format (MXF).

“The industry right now is problematic,” Faubell says. “There are too many codecs, too many [file] wrappers. What happened to the premise of MXF? Where is it? That doesn’t work.”

Faubell wants vendors to back up the IP-based equipment they sell. “We have to have diagnostics as smart as the tools embedded in the system from vendors,” he says. “I’ll push every vendor in this direction. Why don’t they have an online NOC [network operating center] to monitor the performance of the equipment that they sold me? I pay huge annual warranties, and they won’t tell me when it’s about to fail?”

Four of Hearst-Argyle’s 28 stations have launched local newscasts in HD, and two more will go by this summer. As he considers smaller-market HD launches, Faubell is looking to economize. “Now as we get down to the meat of the group, I don’t want to write the same checks as I did in the big markets,” he says.

HD news stations are shooting field footage in widescreen standard-definition, but Faubell is considering whether stations need to produce field footage in HD. Besides the cost of new cameras, editors and microwave links necessary to do true HD ENG, Hearst-Argyle also does a lot of satellite newsgathering, which presents a bandwidth challenge.

At NAB, Faubell is looking for equipment with Active Format Descriptor (AFD) technology to automatically deal with ingesting content in a mix of 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios. Hearst-Argyle plans to upgrade its weather and traffic graphics to hi-def, and in master control, to have HD channel branding ready to go for all stations by the Feb. 17, 2009, analog turnoff; Faubell says the group is close to picking a vendor.

He is also searching for an HD play-to-air server to replace the Avid Pinnacle MediaStream servers that two-thirds of Hearst-Argyle stations currently use to play out commercials and syndicated content.

Avid has discontinued the MediaStream line, removing a major vendor from the traditional broadcast server market. While stations certainly are buying HD servers today, Faubell isn’t sure existing products meet all of his requirements for closed-captioning, multichannel playback, storage, file-based ingest and transcoding of syndicated content.

“Right about the time we need the most solutions for the industry, we have the least choice,” Faubell says. “I’m most frustrated about it.”—G.D.