Tribune Tries Video Squeeze Play

By Glen Dickson By Stewart Schley

Moving digital video files to its TV stations more efficiently will top the technology wish list for Tribune Broadcasting Co. at the NAB.

Chief Technology Officer Ira Goldstone would like to take advantage of the power of new video-compression technologies.

Behind the quest is the bandwidth-hungry beast of high-definition video, which threatens to tax Tribune’s mix of satellite and optical-fiber networks that feed digital video files to Tribune’s 26 stations.

Goldstone says new techniques for compressing digital video—known as advanced video codec, or AVC—promise to squeeze more video through Tribune’s existing pipelines. Among the advanced codecs that could help are MPEG-4, a successor to the industry’s prevailing MPEG-2 digital-video standard, or VC-1, an alternative video-compression specification created by Microsoft Corp. (also known as Windows Media Video). But he’s still studying all options.

He’s not sure what he’s going to find at NAB. Goldstone says new servers from Thomson and others are still built around the prevailing MPEG-2 specification, and he doesn’t expect to see many ready-for-market MPEG-4 of VC-1 servers yet. “I don’t think at NAB they’ll quite be there,” he says. “I think they’ll still be in the lab.”

Goldstone is looking at new ways of distributing news, including to mobile telephones. He figures that, in markets like Los Angeles, where Tribune owns KTLA, local traffic and news reports may prove to be more valuable to on-the-go viewers than news from national networks like CNN.

But first, Tribune needs to acquire tagging and metadata-coding tools to repurpose content. “We have the basic content as a result of our news operations,” he says. “What we don’t have is an automated tool set to properly format it for the small screen.” He’s talking with editing-systems providers Avid Technology Inc. and Grass Valley about that.

Tribune is also looking at increasingly easy-to-use, relatively inexpensive HD cameras and editing and transmission systems that can produce ready-to-air news reports from mobile locations. Goldstone wonders how good they are: “Does an HDV camera give us what we need? If it doesn’t, what’s it missing? If it does, how do we enhance it? Are the various laptop solutions out there today adequate? Can we equip a Ford Explorer to be a point of live origination?” He’ll be looking at mobile COFDM systems from NuComm Inc., Microwave Radio Communications and others that sling video from ENG vehicles without the need for “tall-mast” antenna facilities.

Finally, Goldstone will be watching for signs of cross-pollination of professional broadcasting equipment with the consumer-electronics realm. Apple Computer Inc.’s Final Cut Pro, available as part of a studio editing-software suite for as little as $1,299, represents one example of how volume and scale on the consumer side have translated into affordability on the professional side. He points out that the price gap between standard-definition camera lenses and HD lenses has narrowed. Says Goldstone, “There are manufacturers who typically had a consumer line and a broadcast line—like Canon and JVC—where those lines are kind of blurring now.”