The Scenic Route

There are no must-have items on Meredith’s NAB list

It’s not that Joe Snelson isn’t interested in the cornucopia of products that will be on display at NAB, but the VP/director of engineering for Meredith Broadcast Group will arrive in Las Vegas without an urgent need to shop.

“We always continue to look and see what’s out there in terms of new efficiencies at a station,” says Snelson—and before the show, he’ll talk about the realm of possibilities with engineers representing the group’s 13 stations. But, he admits, “there is nothing really that we’ve got targeted this year to go out and get.”

On the signal-distribution front, Meredith has been steadily upgrading the infrastructure (such as wiring and patchbays) at its stations to fully support HDTV operations. KSMO Kansas City, Mo., is the latest outlet to be outfitted with HD-ready cabling. Most Meredith stations are currently offering HDTV in a network pass-through mode.

Meredith is still curious, however. Snelson says the group is interested in new automation systems that can help transfer files faster than real time from the type of “edge” servers used to capture commercials or syndicated content (such as the units from DG Systems and Pathfire). Ten Meredith stations produce local news, and several of them have recently converted to the Avid iNews production platform. Snelson will look for more developments in newsroom computer systems and nonlinear editors in Vegas. Like everybody else, it seems, he is also keeping an eye on new digital acquisition formats like Panasonic’s P2 solid-state system, which Meredith is already testing in conjunction with Avid editing systems. Meredith currently uses Panasonic DVCPRO tape at its stations.

Snelson looks to the tapeless future, but he is not yet ready to go there. “We’re all looking forward to retiring the mechanics inside of a [tape-based] camera, in terms of both maintenance and speed, and getting content offloaded to a server for editing,” he says. “The price of the P2 cards is a stumbling block compared to the amount of tape media you could acquire [for the same investment]. But as prices fall, it will come to a point where we make the decision that it’s where we should start heading. The cost of storage media is a definite consideration.”

Besides eliminating the maintenance issues associated with tape, says Snelson, the P2 format could substantially improve the workflow of local-news production. Of particular interest are ways to transfer material from the field at faster than real-time speeds back to the station, where it could be stored as a file on a newsroom server for easy editing.

Last month, Nextel reached a deal with the FCC to acquire part of the spectrum that stations currently use for ENG operations and to compensate them for purchasing the new digital equipment necessary to operate in the reduced bandwidth. While Snelson has yet to begin formal talks with Nextel on the conversion process, he has been keeping an eye on the latest COFDM-based digital microwave gear. Meredith has already used some COFDM gear for portable microwave applications, and it has worked well.

However, there will be operational challenges in converting to digital ENG even after all the market-by-market interference issues are worked out. This is because the all-or-nothing characteristics of digital transmission will make setting up ENG feeds harder; they will also require better digital-signal monitoring tools than are currently available.

“In analog, you can look at a picture and see what you’ve got,” says Snelson. “If you see severe ghosting, then you’ve got a plan of attack. But you don’t have that in the digital domain: You either have a picture or you don’t.”

Shopping List:

  • Automation software for commercial ingest
  • Digital acquisition formats
  • Digital microwave gear
  • Digital-signal–monitoring gear
  • Archiving technology