What is CBS's No. 1 engineering project for 2004? Creating a program-origination system in its New York studios and replace aging cart machines with video servers.
After evaluating automation software over the past year, the Tiffany net is close to tapping a vendor to control the servers, says Bob Ross, senior vice president of East Coast Operations. Hardware decisions will come later.
"We can go with whatever hardware we want," says Ross. "These software systems are really hardware-independent. They are focused on our workflow, as custom applications. We don't do the stuff a local station does at the network level."
CBS has narrowed the selection process to two software vendors, he says, and will probably decide in the next few months. At NAB, CBS will be "looking at hardware, at the changes in server technology and the digital glue that goes with that."
The server system that CBS is contemplating will handle both standard-definition and HD content, says Ross. The network has been slowly working toward using a single contribution feed from sports events and live programs to generate both its standard-definition and high-definition distribution feed. He envisions that taped-programming suppliers will provide one version in the future.
"We'd only take in HD and derive SD out of that," he says. "We need to move to a single environment that can generate HD in real time."
While it migrates to a common program-origination system, CBS will continue to distribute separate standard-definition and high-definition satellite feeds. The SD feed runs 24/7; the HD feed is active only when CBS is airing HDTV programming.
On the production side, CBS is looking for wireless HDTV transmission gear that can be coupled with the sort of portable cameras commonly used to rove the sidelines at NFL games or cruise the fairways during golf telecasts. For the Super Bowl, CBS had to rely on standard-definition sideline cameras and microwave gear and then upconverted output for inclusion in the HDTV broadcast.
"They have to be standard-definition at this time, as there is no practical way to get the high-definition back [to production control]," says Ross. If you compress an HD signal to a low enough bit rate to fit a standard microwave channel, he explains, the delay factor makes it usable for a live production.
CBS has seen some promising prototypes for wireless HDTV transmission problem, including a very-wide-bandwidth, uncompressed microwave system that it previewed at the network's NAB engineering breakfast last year. But no prototype is available as a commercial product, says Ross, and some are intended to work at very high frequencies that TV production generally doesn't use.
Another unfulfilled need for HDTV sports production is a true HDTV slow-motion system. Ross hopes to see some very high-frame-rate HDTV cameras unveiled at NAB, perhaps about 90 frames per second, that might serve as a slow-mo solution.