As the 2016 Nab Show begins, broadcast stations are facing a period of massive change and uncertainty as they grapple with the upcoming spectrum repack and rapid technological changes.
That means B&C’s annual pre-show station shopping list of key tech trends includes some familiar topics as well as a number of newer technologies like ATSC 3.0 and the transition to IP, cloud, IT and software infrastructures that promise to radically change the way local broadcasters operate.
The impact of some of these developments on the broadcast technology sector are difficult to predict. How many companies will end up selling spectrum won’t be finalized for a few months, and a quiet period relating to the spectrum auction prevents executives and engineers from discussing their specific plans for the auction and subsequent repack.
However, other aspects of the rapidly changing technology landscape are likely to come into much clearer focus during NAB. “We have been interested for a number of years in production systems and certain distribution systems over IP,” says Rick Wheeler, Fox Television Stations regional VP of engineering. “We have been after the manufacturers for several years to see more development, and this year at NAB we are going to see and put our hands on a lot of the product we’ve been asking for.”
The April 16-21 show will also see some major tests of the ATSC 3.0 broadcasting systems and a number of other newer technologies, including mesh networks, two-way microwave systems and improved UHD and HDR production systems.
Despite the industry-wide uncertainty, station groups also continue to invest in more traditional equipment for their news operations. This month, Nexstar wrapped up major projects in Lafayette, La.; Huntsville, Ala.; and Las Vegas, while the NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations launched a new facility in San Diego. The NBCU group also is working on major station projects in Austin and McAllen, Texas, and Boston.
Here’s a sampling of senior engineers at five major station groups and their thoughts on the technology trends they will be exploring in Las Vegas:
CBS EYES IP AND ENG
Like a number of top engineers at major station groups, Jeff Birch, CBS Television Stations Group VP of engineering, says he’s watching the transition to IP closely. “The last big migration we went through was from analog to digital, and this is a similarly important migration,” Birch says. “We are very interested in how we can convert to IP, how we can transmit in IP, how we can run IP video around the plant and, very importantly, IP security.”
Birch will also be exploring wireless microphones; two-way microwave systems; studio cameras; virtual reality; high dynamic range (HDR); systems for automating broadcast quality; smaller, lighter ENG cameras; and airborne camera systems for news helicopters.
While cellular bonding systems for delivering video from news cameras back to the station have become a standard part of CBS stations’ operations, Birch sees the newer two-way microwave systems as an important development. “I can have a bidirectional link that ties the truck to the studio with a dedicated link. I’m not beholden to some carrier, and I can do things more efficiently,” he says.
COX: THE YEAR OF ATSC 3.0
With the NAB Show set to offer some notable demonstrations of the emerging ATSC 3.0 next-generation broadcast standard, Dave Siegler, Cox Media Group VP of technical operations, predicts “this will be the year of ATSC 3.0.”
“We have to look at what we need to do to start broadcasting in 3.0, the transition to 3.0 and the opportunities it opens up for HDR, immersive audio, advanced audience measurement and a whole host of functions it will enable,” continues Siegler, a board member of the Advanced Television Systems Committee.
IP, studio cameras, field cameras, newer two-way microwave systems, live trucks with better two-way communications for their news operations, master control technologies and newsroom automation are also on Siegler’s technologies-to-watch list. “I’m a firm believer that IP will be part of our future facilities, and we want to see how it is coming along,” he explains. However he wants to make sure the systems are sufficiently battle-tested. “I don’t want to be the first,” Siegler says. “I want to see a couple of successful implementations before we go down that road.”
FOX: BUILDING FOR MULTIPLE PLATFORMS
Top engineers at the Fox Television Stations Fox have long been bullish on IP-technologies. In 2010, the group launched an IP-based centralized master control for its stations. But Fox’s two top station engineers say this will be a particularly notable year for IP systems.
“We have seen tremendous benefits from our centralized master control, and the fact that it is IP-based makes it so much easier to trade and exchanges files and video streams,” says Tim Redmond, Fox Television Stations regional VP of engineering and operations. “So from a master control perspective, we’ve have seen the benefits and are hoping to apply those same advantages to the production end of our business.”
Beyond that, Wheeler adds Fox will be paying particularly close attention to ATSC 3.0, which will be IP-based, and augmented reality for their news sets. “We’ve been looking at augmented reality for some time,” Wheeler says. “There is still development work to be done, but it has really piqued our interest.”
Other notable technologies of interest to Fox include streaming cameras, drones, mesh networks for improved ENG connectivity, technologies for OTT delivery and systems for merging infrastructures used for broadcast, online and other digital platforms. “The delivery mechanisms are changing rapidly, and we have a number of initiatives to mesh those technologies together,” Redmond says.
NBCU: PLANNING FOR IP
Jeff Morris, NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations senior VP of operations and technology, says their engineers will be divided into four groups covering: newsgathering technologies; digital workflow tools to create a more integrated newsroom for delivery to both TV and alternative platforms; emerging technologies for cloud-and IP-based systems; and studio technologies. Beyond that, NBCU also has an ongoing focus on technologies to improve weather coverage.
“Integrating newsroom technologies for both broadcast and digital has been a major focus for many years and continues to be a challenge with all the new platforms popping up,” Morris says. “We need nimble tools that will help us deliver our products without having to add resources every time there is a new platform.”
Improvements with IP-and cloud-based will help overcome some of those hurdles. “Over the course of the next five years, we hope that we will have less reliance on traditional wired copper infrastructure in our plants,” Morris added.
Several upcoming projects are another major focus. The Boston upgrade, scheduled to be completed by next Jan. 1, “will be the first time we will have both an NBC-owned station, a Telemundo-owned station and a 24 hour regional news network all in one facility,” Morris says.
NEXSTAR: INVESTING IN NEWS
Blake Russell, Nexstar Broadcasting Group senior VP of station operations, will arrive at the NAB Show after a few hectic weeks of launching significant station upgrades and new builds. On April 1 Nexstar launched a new build with a new news operation at KLAF/KADN in Lafayette, La. On April 4, the group lit up operations in a completely renovated building in at WZDX in Huntsville, Ala. Then on April 11, Nexstar unveiled a new news set, graphics, lighting and marketing strategy at its KLAS Las Vegas station.
Looking forward, Russell says Nexstar has additional upgrades in the works. But he stresses that “the No. 1 thing on the table is dealing with how the repack is going to affect us and how the repack will shape out.”
At NAB, Nexstar will also have its eye on playout automation systems to replace their legacy Sundance systems and technologies for streamlining workflows, content distribution, content sharing and improved systems for delivering content to multiple platforms.
Like some of the major consolidators, Nexstar is also grappling with the integration of different vendors from acquired station groups and whether those systems should be standardized. “We are trying to figure out if there is one size that fits all for the consolidated company,” Russell says.