At NAB 2008, technology advances despite industry concerns

Although the sun was shining in Las Vegas, a cloud of uncertainty hung over the NAB convention last week, due to a series of industry layoffs and an economic downturn that is plaguing the United States. Attendance was lower than last year (officially, 105,259 versus 108,232 in 2007) and it was evident in the exhibit floor aisles. All of the networks and station groups sent less people than usual.

However, while expressing concern over impending financial hard times, most equipment vendor and service providers on the exhibit show floor reported strong sales ending with the first quarter of 2008 and a willingness to help customers get through the challenges with unique incentive programs and nontraditional financing agreements.

The approaching DTV deadline was clearly not an issue at the show, although banners and collateral material were everywhere in and around the convention center. All of the station personnel we spoke to said they had already gone digital and were now focused on developing facilities to broadcast HD (if they hadn’t done so already). Many executives at the show acknowledged that broadcasting in HDTV, including local news, is a competitive advantage in many markets. At present, about 100 stations — out of the 750 that do news — are now on the air with their newscasts in HDTV.

The 3Gb/s dream becomes reality
That being said, many of the most promising technologies of 2007 continued to mature (and were in evidence on the exhibit floor), helping stations to become what Thomson (in its NAB press conference) called “broadercasters.”

The various pieces needed to build an all-digital facility infrastructure based on 3Gb/s signal distribution are now clearly available. Harris introduced its NEXIO AMP advanced media platform as one of the first video servers in the industry to offer support for 1080p. A number of cameras that support the format are now offered, with Ikegami’s HL-79 having a complete 1080p/60 signal path from its CMOS sensor. Ross Video, Sony and Thomson all showed video production switchers that can handle 1080p signals.

Most vendors at the show said that while not many (if any) customers are asking for the technology at the moment, acquiring images at 1080p/60 resolution allows a user to extract all the various formats of HD with a single step. This is ideal for mobile production companies that must invest in equipment that supports a variety of clients.

Networked news production
Digital (SD and HD combined) news production systems are becoming even more networked, enabling multiple editors to share storage and content while getting news segments to air faster. The notion of numerous standalone edit systems within a station news department is now considered a counter-productive way of working. Harris showed its new NewsForce system, with a tight integration of Apple’s Final Cut Pro HD edit system combined with the Harris NEXIO server.

Thomson Grass Valley showed its Aurora news-editing environment, which now includes long-form craft editing features heretofore not found on its fast-paced news editing systems. OmniBus Systems exhibited its new iTX News application for its modular platform and brings new efficiencies to file-based workflows, while Quantel introduced new features for its Jo desktop edit system and Ed craft editor. Both can be tightly integrated into any newsroom computer system.

New entries included a company called Maximum Throughput and veteran audio console maker Solid State Logic. The former showed its MaxEdit product that allows smaller stations to implement a multiuser edit environment in which one seat license is installed on a server, and everyone on standard Mac workstations shares the tools over a network. SSL is broadening the company’s product focus with its Gravity News editor. The proxy-based Gravity system was created by the same team that designed the original Montage Picture Processor and Pinnacle Vortex systems.

Bringing it all together
Integrated production was another key theme this year, with all of the major vendors showing tighter connections between the routing switcher and the multiviewer monitoring systems, the production switcher and the automations system, and virtually every piece along the content creation chain communicating with each other in new and innovative ways made possible with file-based workflows.

High-powered HD graphics systems from Chyron, Pixel Power, Harris and Vizrt showed continued progress from last year, with the ability to efficiently and in many cases automatically create graphics for TV, the Internet and mobile phones. And broadcasters can now do all of this simultaneously for their SD and HD channels.

Following its recent acquisition of a Web-based graphic production called AXIS, Chyron at the show launched a new service called AXISNews, in collaboration with the Associated Press. The service gives stations access to AP’s updated content via the Internet. The idea is that stations can build their graphics with images from The AP without the need for artists or dedicated graphics systems. Chyron also announced its new Content Creative Service, whereby the company will create graphics packages for a subscriber. The monthly fee is based on the station’s market size.

Doing more with less
Vendors are eager to help stations reduce cost while increasing efficiency by allowing one or two people to run an entire newscast or any type of multicamera video production. Broadcast Pix exhibited its Slate integrated production system, Thomson showed an enhanced version of its Grass Valley Ignite automated production system, Ross Video continues to improve its OverDrive production operations system with its new Vision Quattro series production switchers, and Snell & Wilcox’s Kahuna switcher now offers new capabilities to handle more sources.

Finally, the decision by Apple and Avid Technology not to exhibit at this year’s show was really a nonfactor to other manufactures that did. In fact, some said it might have spread the floor traffic out a bit more.

The only company to publicly acknowledge their absence was Quantel. During its press conference, company CEO Ray Cross said that exhibiting at the show gave the 100 Quantel employees in attendance an invaluable way to meet and greet customers across the 2000 meetings they had set up for the weeklong convention.