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Shopping for Efficiencies - Broadcasting & Cable

Shopping for Efficiencies

Seven TV station groups, large and small, discuss their tech plans for NAB
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After cutting back on attendance to the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual convention in 2009 and 2010 at the height of the recession, a number of station groups are reporting that they plan to bring slightly larger contingents to the 2011 NAB Show April 9-14 in Las Vegas, and that their shopping lists may also be a little longer.

Even with the improved economy, however, finding ways to do more with less remains a key theme, with stations continuing to look at technologies that can directly boost their bottom lines, either by curbing operating expenditures or by creating new revenue.

Here’s what a cross-section of top technologists and engineers at seven broadcast groups had to say about their NAB shopping lists for file-based work " ows, editing systems, mobile digital TV, the move to less costly IT-based technologies, lower-cost HD cameras, lowercost HD upgrades, automation, compliance devices for new FCC regulations and more.

ABC: Multi-platform Work Flows

A key focus for the ABC owned and operated stations at this year’s show will be technologies to help them deliver more content to more devices without significantly expanding their operating expenses and head counts.

“We are positioning ourselves so we can play a significant role in the future consumption of media,” notes Dave Converse, VP and director of engineering at the ABC Owned Television Stations division. “We are looking at how can we create more content and make that content available on a number of platforms without having to have a separate workforce to support the various platforms. What that really boils down to is better ! le-based work " ows, as opposed to traditional legacy work streams.”

As much as possible, the stations would like to automate and streamline that process “so we take a piece of content as a file and make it available to consumers on all the ways they want to consume it, without someone having to manually make decisions about how it will be processed and delivered,” Converse adds.

The ABC stations are also exploring ways to build lesscostly IT equipment deeper into their broadcast infrastructure. “We have a pilot investigating IT equipment as a replacement for traditional channel-servers, switching hardware and graphics hardware,” Converse says.

On the news side, the ABC group continues to explore technologies for bringing content back to the stations. “We are trying to take advantage of 3G or 4G for mobile or remote capability for ENG, but we are not looking at it as a replacement technology,” for microwave and satellite trucks, Converse stresses. “We see it as another tool that might allow you to cover a story you couldn’t otherwise cover given the cost of rolling a truck. Having these other tools means you might be able to afford to cover things that you might not otherwise invest in.”

Cox: All Things Digital

One of Cox Media Group’s big efforts this year will be its ongoing work to upgrade tape-based systems to file-based systems, notes Dave Siegler, vice president of technical operations at the company. At NAB, “we will be looking at better ways of manipulating files, converting files and the best formats for on-air servers,” he explains.

The station group will also be closely eyeing technologies to upgrade its digital infrastructure, deploy new on-air graphic systems and roll out mobile DTV offerings, he adds.

All of this is part of a major push by Cox to invest heavily in its digital platforms at its TV, radio and newspaper operations. To expand those digital efforts, the stations are working to “convert all of our plants to digital,” and are about 70% to 75% through the process, Siegler says.

As Cox shifts to digital, the stations have also been deploying more IT technology and developing a work force that understands both IT and traditional broadcast gear, a move that will translate into a larger Cox contingent at NAB this year.

In addition to sending “our directors of engineering, we are also sending one representative from IT,” Siegler explains. “We want to create a more hybrid work force, with our IT people getting more video-centric and the broadcast video folks getting more IT-centric.”

Siegler stresses, however, that Cox has a “very cautious approach to IT technologies. While the goal is to get everything digital and IT technologies are becoming more central, they are not a panacea. They are still very different animals, but we are looking at ways to combine and bring together” those technologies, he says.

As part of the company’s push to make its content available on more digital platforms, Cox has moved quickly to deploy mobile DTV. “We currently have five stations on the air with mobile, and we are looking to put another four on the air this year, with more in the future,” Siegler says. “It’s a little like paving the road before the cars come off the assembly line. We want to get the infrastructure in place in anticipation of the mobile rollout [even though there are few consumer mobile DTV-capable devices available]. We see mobile as key to our future. It meshes really well with our investments in digital, and what we see as the future of media in general.”

Last year, Cox centralized its Dayton, Ohio, TV, radio and newspaper operations into one facility to more closely integrate newsgathering efforts, and the company is now looking to do the same with operations in other markets. “We are learning a lot from Dayton, and we are exploring how that can help us make our digital platforms and our operations more effective,” Siegler says.

Scripps: “A Lot on Our Plate”

While Scripps Media will be bringing about the same number of people to NAB as last year, the station group has a “lot on our plate” and will be taking a look at a wide variety of technologies in Las Vegas, reports Michael Doback, VP of engineering at the company.

Items of particular interest include enhancements to Scripps’ file-based newsgathering, lower-cost editing solutions, mobile DTV, long-term archival solutions, better monitoring solutions, automation, and solutions for centralizing master control operations.

Scripps has already centralized its graphics operations using Chyron and has taken a look at centralized master control systems in the past, Doback notes.

“When we looked at it before, the connectivity cost for an asset distribution architecture just didn’t make sense from a business perspective,” he says. “But now there are other approaches,” including “using some off-the-shelf IT equipment that might make the idea more compelling.”

As part of a push to improve its newsgathering efforts, Scripps will be taking a look at some less expensive editing systems and computers for editing in the field. While Scripps standardizes on Final Cut Pro and Mac computers, “there may be other products out there that may have less functionality but would cost less to implement and would play well with our existing infrastructure,” Doback notes.

Like several other top engineers at station groups, Doback admits that debates over reclaiming broadcast spectrum have been disconcerting. But he stresses that Scripps remains committed to over-the-air broadcasting and is bullish on mobile DTV. So far the company has rolled out mobile DTV signals in two markets and plans to add two other stations by the end of the year.

“Spectrum debates haven’t been a determining factor in our mobile rollouts, but it is certainly the elephant in the room,” that has to be watched carefully in their longterm planning, he says.

CBS: Compliance and Compression

High on CBS’ shopping list at the NAB Show will be compliance devices to deal with FCC regulations, particularly the new rules for using common alert protocol (CAP) in Emergency Alert Systems (EAS).

“We want to make sure that we have the tools to make sure the stations are in full compliance with the rules,” notes Jeff Birch, VP of engineering at CBS Television Stations, which will be bringing a slightly larger contingent to this year’s NAB.

Another big area of interest will be the variety of newer technologies for electronic newsgathering. These include smaller HD cameras and recording devices, 3G and 4G systems for transmitting content back to stations and better compression for HD files.

“We want to make sure we take advantage of some of these technologies so we can deploy the maximum amount of resources on the street and get the maximum amount of news content to our viewers,” Birch says.

While CBS has standardized around the Sony XDCAM format, Birch says, “we are talking to many vendors about smaller cameras, with different types of memory that could be used by people who are a little less technical.”

CBS has also been actively testing new technologies for bringing back more content from the field, and has been deploying or testing better microwave technologies and 3G and 4G transmission systems.

As part of that effort, CBS has been looking at better compression technologies for HD files. “We have been experimenting with H.264 in a lot of mobile newsgathering applications, and we are using MPEG-4 in two helicopters,” Birch says. “It gives us quite an advantage, because we can take the helicopter quite a distance from the station and still bring back an HD picture.”

Cordillera: More HD Upgrades

Much of the NAB focus for the 12 stations operated by Cordillera Communications will be improving their existing infrastructure and continuing their HD upgrades, says Andrew Suk, VP of engineering and operations at the station group, which will be bringing a slightly larger contingent to the show than last year.

The broadcaster, which operates stations in smaller and mid-size markets, has already gone HD for news in its three largest markets and is looking to upgrade four others this year.

“There are some one-time-only federal tax incentives for capital investments this year that we are going to take advantage of,” notes Suk, which will provide the group with a nice budget for upgrades.

Meanwhile, the cost of HD upgrades has fallen significantly, making the process less capital-intensive. “The cost of cameras has gone down, and we’ve built out our infrastructure in such a way that making the final conversion for HD really doesn’t involve much more than a switcher and HD cameras in the studio,” Suk says. “In many cases we’ve already installed the studio cameras, so it is just the switcher.”

Beyond those upgrades, Suk is also looking at rebuilding their EAS and is looking at centralizing their program and system information protocol (PSIP) infrastructure.

The group is, however, taking a cautious approach to mobile DTV. “We are waiting for a business model to develop,” Suk says.

Although Cordillera has no immediate plans for mobile broadcasts, it is trying to make sure that all of its new equipment will be mobile-capable. “We are going to replace some ATSC encoders and are taking a look at exciters that have mobile capacity,” Suk notes. “Like the HD build-out, it is a lot less expensive if you prepare for it in advance.”

Gray Television: New Work Flows

In the last two years, the Gray Television Group has been aggressively revamping its operations by combining master control and newsroom systems and extending automated file-based work " ows deep into its operations, notes Jim Ocon, the company’s VP of technology, who will be receiving a Technology Leadership Award at NAB for some of those efforts.

As part of this drive to make their operations more efficient and free up resources to improve their news divisions, Gray will continue to look at technologies that meld broadcast and IT solutions and will be taking a close look at a number of other technologies, including IP routing, cameras that would streamline the way video can be sent back to studios and better newsgathering technologies.

Mobile DTV will be another priority. “We were an early adopter, and want to do everything we can to encourage consumer manufacturers to get devices onto store shelves,” Ocon notes. “But I feel like the nervous bride going to the altar and wondering if the groom will show up. I would like to see the different groups work together. I don’t want to see any division on our side.”

New Vision Television: Looking at Upgrades

Upgrades at several TV stations, including a new facility in Savanna, Ga., for WJCL and WTGS, will be the most immediate concern for New Vision Television at NAB, notes Lynn Rowe, the company’s chief technology consultant.

Rowe hopes to have placed orders for routing, switching and master control for the new Savanna facility by the time NAB begins. But as part of that project, which Rowe hopes to complete by the end of the summer, New Vision will also be building new studios and a new automated news control room; they are actively looking for other technologies to improve their newsgathering capabilities.

“We have a couple of old ENG vehicles and are investigating other possibilities,” including systems that use 3G and 4G to send material back to the stations, Rowe notes.

In the new facilities and in all of its upgrades, New Vision is also looking to radically revamp the way its stations produce and distribute their content, Rowe adds.

As part of that effort, he will also be looking for better systems for managing metadata and file-based work " ows, IT enterprise technologies, newer browser-based group editing systems, automation, and solutions that could make it easier to share resources between stations or outsource some operations.

E-mail comments to gpwin@oregoncoast.com

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