NAB Mantra: Better, Faster, Cheaper

Station groups weigh tighter tech budgets, spectrum concerns

As they head to the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas next month, top engineers from station groups are looking for technology that matches the new economic realities of the broadcast business. The days of buying expensive studio cameras and proprietary editing and storage systems are over, they say. As groups consider how to complete upgrades of their news operations from standard- defi nition to high-definition production, they are increasingly looking for IT-based, non-proprietary solutions. Station groups are also looking for efficiencies in graphics and master control. Some now have centralized approaches that hub most functions at one or two stations, and others are thinking about outsourcing master-control operations. Top of mind for everyone is the threat to broadcasters’ spectrum that the FCC’s broadband plan represents. At NAB, several groups will help promote new mobile DTV technology as the most efficient way to deliver video to cellphones and other portable devices. Mobile DTV insiders suggest that several groups could announce business deals with wireless carriers, a crucial step to commercializing the technology.

Gray Television VP of Technology Jim Ocon is heading to NAB “looking for pragmatic solutions” in broadcast technology. “The days are long gone where stations in middle markets are interested in purchasing expensive servers, content storage or acquisition [gear],” Ocon says.

Gray has been successful, for instance, with using compact Sony XDCAM EX camcorders as studio cameras at several stations, and Ocon expects that trend to continue. “Nobody seems to notice the difference between a $100,000 camera and a $10,000 camera,” he says.

That type of cost savings is top of mind to Ocon, who is overseeing the gradual conversion of Gray’s 36 stations from standard definition to high-definition news production. About eight stations are now doing the news in full HD, about five are producing in widescreen standard-definition, and the rest are conventional 4:3 SD.

While Ocon views widescreen SD as merely an interim solution, he says that “if I can switch a station out for under $100,000 to do widescreen, I’ll do it.”

He expects that the majority of Gray stations will be doing either widescreen SD or full HD by the end of the year. Gray is installing Ross OverDrive production-automation systems across the group as part of the HD conversion, and Ocon says that deployment is going well, though he won’t comment directly on any associated layoffs.

Ocon emphasizes that improving the overall quality of Gray’s news was the main driver for buying OverDrive. “You can do a lot more with this setup and make fewer mistakes,” he points out.

As he looks to minimize bandwidth and storage requirements, Ocon is particularly interested in products that employ MPEG- 4 advanced video compression. He would like to create a plant that uses MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 compression all the way through from acquisition to playout, which he says would likely require half the bandwidth of the MPEG-2 systems in place today: “I would like to build a plant that was end-to-end all H.264, and have the acquisition-file size meet the play-to-air size.”

The bandwidth savings in backhauling HD content from the field and storing HD video on servers would make adopting MPEG-4 worthwhile, according to Ocon, even though Gray stations would still have to transcode the MPEG-4 content to MPEG-2 to broadcast it over-the-air, as per the ATSC standard. Of course, new mobile DTV streams that Gray and other stations are launching will actually be transmitted in MPEG-4 as part of ATSC Mobile DTV’s “in-band” transmission scheme. Gray began broadcasting mobile DTV from WOWT, its NBC affiliate in Omaha, last July; the company plans to soon begin broadcasting mobile DTV at its stations in Lincoln, Neb.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Lexington, Ky.; and Wichita and Topeka, Kan. Ocon says he is a “strong advocate” for mobile DTV and will participate in the Open Mobile Video Coalition’s “Mobile DTV Marketplace” exhibit at NAB.

Other technologies Ocon has his eye on are “cloud-computing” solutions, such as online graphics systems, and IP-based video backhaul. The Gray executive would also love to see weather data/graphics suppliers and traditional graphics vendors get together to create a single-box solution that could produce both weather and standard graphics.

“I’d like to find ways to consolidate graphics systems with the weather data coming in the front door, so we don’t have separate boxes,” Ocon says. “Why have additional boxes [for weather graphics] that eat up ports on the routers?”

Belo Corp. saw strong ad performance across its 20 stations in the first quarter of 2010, thanks to a surge in revenue from the Super Bowl, Olympics and the auto sector. The improvement allowed Belo to adjust its fiscal forecast in March, but that doesn’t mean the company will be spending at will at this year’s NAB show.

“We’re no longer in the business of putting $55,000 cameras in the hands of all our photographers,” says Belo VP of Technology Craig Harper. He says this year the company, like most others, will have a pared-down presence at NAB, sending “far fewer [employees] than we did in the past” to the show. Harper, along with a few of his colleagues from the company’s Dallas headquarters, will try to cover for news directors and general managers who won’t be attending.

Belo, an early adopter of HD products, seeks to supplement its production line and will look into HD cameras from Sony’s XDCAM series for solid-state recording. As mobile and cross-platform use become more vital, Harper says the company will be looking into cost-effective HD cameras, including those for videographers and editors shooting content specifically for the Web.

The company is also interested in automation processes. “How can we make our graphics centralization easier and more effi cient?” is a question Harper says he is continually asking. He says he will check out products that enhance encoding; his goal is to be able to send an HD news story that appears on one of Belo’s linear channels to a consumer’s BlackBerry or other mobile device.

With travel budgets still tight, the ABC Owned Television Stations will send a smaller contingent than usual to NAB, less than half of the 60-plus staffers across 10 stations who made the trip in the past. ABC used to have an engineer, an IT staffer and at least one news staffer attend from each station, along with a few general managers, and conduct group meetings. But those days are over.

The ABC engineers who are making the trip to Vegas will be addressing the systemic changes in the broadcast business by searching for information technology-based, non-proprietary systems. “We’re paying attention to how our industry is changing from a baseband audio- and-video world to an IT-like world where you have different core hardware that you need to be managing and making it all work,” says Dave Converse, VP and director of engineering for ABC’s O&Os.

Converse has been focused on ways to cut costs in what he calls the “back room” of station operations, the parts of the plant outside news production that don’t directly impact on-air product.

ABC has already centralized ingest and processing of syndicated content at KFSN Fresno. It has also entertained the idea of outsourcing some master-control functions to a firm like Broadcast Facilities, Inc., which owns the Andrita Media Center in Los Angeles and recently acquired Crawford Communications in Atlanta to bolster its outsourcing capabilities.

Converse will also spend time at NAB checking out remote monitoring systems and “station-in-a-box” products that combine master control, branding and playout server in one device.

On the other hand, Converse is less keen on pursuing centralized solutions on the production side for functions like graphics, where he thinks that having artists with local knowledge helps improve the on-air product. “Typically when we consider centralization, we look at what is the benefit you receive from it and what’s the risk associated with it,” he says. “We shy away from some things that make us less flexible and less local.”

ABC is also continuing to invest in converting news production to HD. Nine of the 10 ABC O&Os produce HD news in their studios, and the lone holdout, WTVG Toledo, should go HD in the next few months. KABC Los Angeles and WPVI Philadelphia also do their newsgathering in HD, and WLS Chicago and WABC New York should be next to make the move. The rest of the stations will continue to acquire field footage in standard-def widescreen and upconvert it.

ABC does have HD camera systems on its helicopters at most stations, and in some cases is moving from the original MPEG- 2 equipment to next-generation MPEG-4 encoders from vendors such as Fujitsu. The group is also exploring the use of MPEG-4 for traditional backhauls from microwave trucks, but is keeping a close eye on signal latency for live shots.

After scaling back its participation in NAB over the past few years due to budget constraints, Scripps is making a renewed commitment to the Las Vegas exhibition in 2010 and will be sending a chief engineer from each of its 10 stations.

“In terms of staying current with technology and new concepts in the business, I felt we needed to increase the presence,” says Scripps VP of Engineering Mike Doback, who is thankful that a slight improvement in the economy made the expense possible. “I do see a liability in not staying current with where technology is going and where the industry is going, if you were to stay away for a protracted period.”

Doback will be assigning different technology segments for Scripps engineers to investigate, and will have a group meeting to discuss fi ndings. The core focus, he says, is “finding better, faster, cheaper solutions to things we do every day.”

Scripps has already made a significant investment in JVC ProHD camcorders for fi eld acquisition and in Apple Final Cut Pro for editing. Last year, it also centralized some core operations, adopting Chyron’s Axis online graphics system, creating a graphics hub in Tampa, and consolidating traffic functions in hubs in Tampa and Phoenix.

With those systems in place, Doback is interested in workflow solutions in areas such as format conversion, master control and weather presentation, a particular segment where he would like to see more competition to the handful of traditional providers.

Scripps is also looking to upgrade its newsgathering with a few new microwave trucks, so Doback will be taking a look at those, as well as new video-over-IP delivery systems. He says that Scripps stations already commonly use Skype’s HQ (High Quality) system to backhaul live video, placing it alongside live video boxes from the field and the studio to create a pleasing overall HD frame.

“It’s a great tool, and it’s surprising to me that some groups are not utilizing the technology,” Doback says. “They’re missing the boat.”