A new COMARK in the air

The senior management team at Thomson Broadcast U.S. has completed a successful management buyout and renamed the company COMARK Communications, LLC, effective immediately. No financial details were available, but the deal was financed internally and brings the COMARK name back under the control of the Fiore family (and his associates), where it started some 40 years ago.

“We’re pretty excited about it here,” Richard “Dick” Fiore, the new company’s president and CEO, said.

Fiore has seen it all when it comes to RF transmission in the U.S. His father, Richard Sr. — a decorated electrical engineer and RF systems pioneer — started the company in 1972, which was then then called COMARK Industries, Inc. The younger Fiore began working for his father’s company as a young adult, selling RF transmission components, such as elbows, diplexers, harmonic filters and other OTA transmission products to the broadcast and military industries.

In 1978, Fiore Sr. began selling transmitters through a new company called COMARK Communications, Inc., which built its first full-power (120kW, UHF band) klystron tube-based system for WCLF-TV (channel 22), a Christian Broadcasting Network television station in Tarpon Springs, FL. A good friend, David Smith, current president/CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group, was one of the co-founders of COMARK Communications as well. Nat Ostroff, current vice president/new technology at Sinclair since 1996, Ray Kiesel and another mechanical engineer were hired (from competitor Acrodyne Industries) to develop a new RF exciter system. They formed a small engineering firm called COMARK Engineering Services, located in Quakertown, PA, that designed new RF systems for the parent COMARK company.

By 1983, COMARK Industries and COMARK Communications were merged into a single transmission technology company, serving the U.S. and overseas TV broadcast customers. Ostroff eventually became president of the entire company when Fiore Sr. sold the company to Thomson.

In 1986, COMARK was sold to Thomson Multimedia. Later on, Thomson changed its transmission division to Thales Broadcast. Then Thales sold the company to Grass Valley/Thomson (in 2005). Then, in 2011, Grass Valley, which was then owned by Technicolor (with Thomson as the overall parent), sold the division to a private equity firm called PARTER Capital Group (managed by F4 Holdings). It wasn’t a month after that sale that the Frankfurt, Germany-based PARTER acknowledged that the U.S. was “unfamiliar territory” and was looking to sell out.

In April of this year, PARTER Capital Group purchased the assets and resources of Grass Valley’s systems integration team based in Weiterstadt, Germany. The group consists of system engineers and specialists that design and build outside broadcast (OB) vehicles, as well as production and broadcast facilities across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Entering a new era

(Photo Credit: Mike Fitzpatrick, NECRAT) “When I was first approached [by PARTER], I was immediately interested, for a number of reasons,” Fiore Jr. said, suggesting that working under Thomson Broadcast was limiting its effectiveness with U.S. and overseas TV stations.

This allows us to break away from a non-broadcast focus and enter into a new era‚” said Perry Priestley, the new vice president of sales and marketing. “We are no longer under the dictate of another company. COMARK plans to bring to the market a whole new range of products that deliver quality and performance at competitive prices. We believe that a USA manufacturer can once again be a world leader in transmitter manufacturing.”

All of the people that worked for Thomson Broadcast U.S. now work for the new COMARK. This also includes: Henry Fries, vice president of operations; Bill Onyski, director of Customer Service; and Joe Turbolski, director of sales and marketing operations. The new company will not have any affiliation with Thomson Broadcast in Paris, France. Sales channels will be established eventually, but in the near term, the company will sell direct to customers via its existing sales force.

The question on a lot of people’s minds is how Fiore and the new COMARK expects to grow a company that makes over-the-air (OTA) transmitters in a time when IP-based delivery platforms are emerging at a dizzying rate. Fiore said he’s aware of the state of the industry yet continues to see opportunity in OTA technology.

“We’re a small organization (54 employees, $20 million in sales), but we have the experience to compete,” Fiore said. “We recognize that other companies (Acrodyne Industries) have gone out of business, while others (Axcera, in bankruptcy, and, to a lesser extent, Harris) have struggled to make a profit.”

Harris Broadcast, including its transmission business, is currently up for sale. It has sold more transmitters than any other company to date.

“We think there’s an opportunity for a transmitter manufacturer based in the U.S. to service TV stations that still believe in over-the-air broadcasting,” he said, citing broadcast groups like Sinclair that continue to buy new stations. “After so many years in the business, we know what we’re doing and we plan to be successful.”

Ripe for an upgrade

A veteran transmitter salesman, Fiore assessed the U.S. market as ripe for an upgrade. He recounted how while many digital TV transmission systems were sold to stations in 1996; the sales wave peaked in the early 2000s and ended in 2007.

“A transmitter system’s useful life is about 14 to 20 years, depending upon on how it was maintained,” Fiore said. “So, we think the replacement cycle is set to start soon. We plan to be ready when it happens. There are also still large unserved markets in emerging countries internationally that we plan to address as well. So, there’s opportunity there. We just have to work hard and help stations everywhere get on the air.”

There’s also a perceived need for new exciters systems once the FCC repacks the TV broadcast spectrum to make room for upcoming auctions in 2014.

“I’m a firm believer that OTA transmission, even if it isn't going to be very high power, is still going to be used by TV stations for many years to come,” Fiore said. “I think the fear of terrestrial TV stations going out of business is highly overrated.”

And while many are talking about an IP-based delivery infrastructure for the future of TV stations, Fiore said terrestrial transmission from a single large stick is still the most cost-effective way to reach a large number of people. The cost to deliver a one-to-one signal (IP), he said, is “about 100 times” that of doing so with a single ATSC broadcast antenna and radiating across a market.

There’s also a number of technology changes happening in the RF arena, whereby transmitters are getting much more efficient to operate, which should make them more attractive to perspective buyers. These days a mid-power transmitter can do the job a full-power system once did, Fiore said. He mentioned new technology like the energy-efficient CEA tube, made by L-3 Communications.

“These new transmitters we're providing are twice as efficient as the vast majority of IOT systems in the market today,” he said. “There are also huge advances in solid-state technology that have many people excited about the possibilities. So, if you have a transmitter system that has been amortized and has basically paid for itself, there’s real good reasos to be looking at the newer generation of systems.”

In addition, he said, when there’s a major natural disaster or other community emergency, OTA broadcast television and radio has shown its value, while an Internet connection can be problematic to maintain.

“The real value of RF transmission becomes quite apparent in times of emergency,” Priestley said, adding that — due to the economy and other factors — many pay-TV subscribers are shutting off their series in favor of a rooftop antenna. 

New compression algorithms

Fiore said that new compression algorithms have made it possible for a station to deliver 10 1080p signals at 4Mb/s each in the same 6MHz of spectrum TV stations now use for one HD channel. And, he noted, OTA signal quality is much better than the compressed signal that you would get from cable or satellite.

Fiore said he’s committed to building transmitters in Southwick, MA. The company currently offers its DCX Paragon IOT tube-based UHF transmitter, a constant efficiency amplifier, a new ATSC-complaint exciter system, as well as the MPTV-8000 medium power solid-state product line (introduced at NAB this year). The new COMARK will also develop a new series of transmitters, as well as encoding systems, for mobile television. And they’ll make small transmitters for those that might consider a single frequency network (SFN) surrounding a particular market. (The “sweet spot,” according to Fiore is systems outputting from 1Kw to Kw, and that’s the type of technology the new COMARK will continue to develop.)

With about 2500 COMARK transmitters installed worldwide, the company has a lot of “friends.” In fact, when word got out that the COMARK name was back, Fiore and Priestley were inundated with a lot of positive email welcoming the COMARK brand back to the fold.

Fiore is now busy rounding up new capital funding.

“Right now, we internally funded this management buyout ourselves, because we believe in it,” Fiore said. “We are solvent financially, and we do not have any debt. We are looking to get in debt in order to finance what I think are the things we need to do over the next 12 months to secure a great future.”