conomy be damned! Broadcast networks, cable channels and TV stations are ready to spend some serious money at the April National Association of Broadcasters’ convention in Las Vegas and beyond.
Broadcasters’ budget loosening in tricky economic times comes as several factors converge. The transition to digital television is nearly complete. Nearly 15 percent of U.S. households have HDTV sets, according to Nielsen Media Research, while HD penetration has reached almost 40 percent, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. And it’s finally become cost-efficient to replace aging equipment with their high-definition equivalents.
“As equipment comes up to be replaced, it will be replaced with high-definition or compatible equipment,” said Ardell Hill, Media General’s senior vice president of broadcast operations. “It used to be that the cost differential between high definition and standard definition was significant, and it wasn’t a marginal difference, it was an order of magnitude different. Today the differences are darn near insignificant.”
The broadcast networks, which have been on the air in HD in one way or another for nearly a decade, are overhauling their HD production facilities and master control rooms.
Preston Davis, president of broadcast operations and engineering for the ABC Television Network, is overseeing the four-year revamping of ABC’s New York production facilities, which will include a high-def master control room and three or four studios.
“The bottom line is that high definition is the current generation of television, and it’s time to accelerate things and move through the transition and get it done,” he said. “We are looking at a fairly significant investment in infrastructure equipment, including master control equipment, signal distribution equipment, master control switchers, multichannel servers and recording devices with a focus on solid state storage and servers. Other examples of things we are shopping for include large routing systems, various types of digital terminal equipment, and cross-converters. We are living in a world where we’re straddling the fence between legacy footage and high-definition production.”
Likewise, Fox Broadcasting is overhauling its network production center and master control room in Los Angeles, said Jim Hopkins, senior vice president of engineering for Fox Broadcasting, Fox Sports Net cable networks, Fox Sports International and the Fox Entertainment Cable Networks, which include FX and the Speed Channel.
“We’re going to be upgrading the whole infrastructure, including routers and switches, and changing the workflow in the room,” he said. “It will go from a room that handles both high definition and standard definition to a room that’s primarily doing high definition and then downconverting to SD as needed.”
Fox also is building a new high-definition production facility for the Speed Channel in Charlotte, N.C., that will include at least two studios, several ENG vehicles, and be big enough to drive a truck into.
“We’re starting that shortly and it’s due to be done by the end of the year,” Hopkins said.
Fox also just completed a high-definition production facility for the Big Ten Network in Chicago, and is upgrading studios in all 11 cities where the regional Fox Sports Networks are based.
NBC is just completing a revamp of its New York production facilities at 30 Rockefeller Center, which impacted four studios and three control rooms, said Darren Feher, NBC Universal’s chief technology officer. The company is still is deciding on what cameras to purchase.
“We’re looking at two things related to cameras: 1080p60 cameras [such as the Sony HDC-1500] and low-cost solid-state cameras for the field,” Feher said. “There’s a lot of innovation there.”
Feher even is looking at cameras designed for the prosumer market because those cameras “are moving up the chain to the ENG space very rapidly. The quality is coming up fast and we want to keep costs down, so we might go with high-end prosumer cameras in local markets.”
NBC has a lot on its plate in 2008. Beyond its station and studio upgrades, the company is preparing for the Summer Olympics in Beijing this July, which will include streaming some 2,600 hours of live video.
And Hulu.comâ€”the on-demand video site NBC Universal is creating in partnership with News Corp.â€”is preparing to enter public beta. Similarly, the cable networks are launching HD simulcasts, improving the ones they have, and producing and acquiring as much of their programming in native HD as possible.
Turner Entertainment Networks is working furiously to offer HD feeds of all of its networks. TNT HD has been on the air for three years, with most of its content now in native HD, said Ron Tarasoff, Turner Entertainment Networks vice president of broadcast technology and engineering. TBS HD just launched last September and still is upconverting much of its content.
In January, Turner announced a deal with the National Basketball Association to move all production, distribution and marketing to Atlanta, including high-definition production.
Besides those three networks, Turner-owned CNN and Cartoon Network’s HD channels also are distributed through Turner Entertainment. With all that happening, Turner’s NAB shopping list is long, and includes the latest in MPEG-4 AVC encoders, electronic media file checking, equipment that automatically syncs audio and video, the newest and cheapest forms of storage, video-on-demand production equipment, transcoders and of course, cameras and monitors, Tarasoff said.
Some common denominators that Tarasoff and his team are keeping in mind as they shop are open standards and green specs.
“We want to look at equipment coming out that can replace a lot of our current gear, but use less space, less power and require less cooling,” he said.
Tarasoff also is interested in the latest, greatest technology, such as Sony’s new cardboard-thin flat-screen organic LED monitors.
“They are expensive right now, but eventually they won’t be,” he said. “Their contrast ratio is 1 million to one, which is much higher than any other TV screen or panel or plasma display that’s out there right now.”
Scripps is simulcasting two of its cable networks in HDâ€”HGTV and the Food Network--and it’s currently converting the Food Network’s New York studio to all high-def. When Scripps makes the switch, 20 percent to 25 percent of both networks’ programming will be in native HD, with the rest upconverted.
That change requires a lot of equipment, including switches, editing systems, test equipment, character generators, graphics systems, cameras and monitors.
“Monitors are important for us,” said Mike Hale, Scripps executive vice president of corporate technology operations. “We are looking for display devices that allow us to manipulate more than one image. And we’re always interested in seeing advances in display technology, going from CRT to LCD screens for quality-control monitoring. That will make a big difference, and this might be the year that we finally see the tipping point.” Scripps also runs a vibrant broadband business that will be top of mind at NAB.
“That’s a prevailing theme for us. What tools and applications will help us online and on broadband?” Hale said. Scripps has no plans today to convert its other three cable networks--DIY, Fine Living and Great American Country--to HD, “but long-term, we’ll need to come up with a conversion strategy for them as well.”
CONSIDERING THE END
TV station groups are working toward all HD newscasts in top markets, while making sure everything is ready to go on Feb. 17, 2009, when the FCC mandates they flip the switch.
“We have been working on a measured approach to making the transition, and we still have a number of stations that have changes to make,” says Media General’s Hill. “Our primary focus is to make sure we’re in compliance and to do everything we need to achieve those milestones.”
A few larger market Media General stations are broadcasting in HD; Hill expects the rest of the group’s stations to make the switch in the two to four years. The Scripps Broadcast Station group long ago converted its 10 stations to digital transmission, and Michael Doback, the group’s vice president of engineering, expects each station to be broadcasting in high-def by the end of the year.
Helping substantially with that process has been Scripps’ groupwide purchase of JVC’s GY-HD250 cameras, which run around $10,000 each.
“The quality of that camera is second to none you can buy at any price,” Doback said. “It’s superb in the studio. We’ve had it on the street for our news operations for a year and we’ve had absolutely no failures.”
The JVC cameras simplify transmitting HD ENG content back to the studio, but Scripps is waiting for the Sprint Nextel 2 GHz migration to be completed before converting to full HD ENG.
“JVC’s 19.3 Mbps ASI stream doesn’t require encoders, so we can just plug into the front of a digital microwave, decode, and we’re ready to go,” he said.
Scripps also is looking at solutions that would allow it to distribute HD content via broadband, a solution the group already uses for standard definition and widescreen, Doback said.
“We at Scripps are blessed with an engineering group that loves new challenges,” he said. “It’s a group of very talented guys who really enjoy the hunt.”
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