Broadcasters Contemplate a Data-Driven Future

For all the talk, year after year, of improving technology, NAB2003 flashed new tools that made even the most jaded take notice.
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NAB2003: Toward a Digital World

LAS VEGAS

For all the talk, year after year, of improving technology, NAB2003 flashed new tools that made even the most jaded take notice.

Sony's optical disk system and Panasonic's prototype memory card system marked a milestone in the convergence of media into the digital world. Big boxes shrunk in size and price. Tape is becoming an endangered species and formerly high-end broadcast equipment is within the reach of universities, corporations, churches and government agencies.

NAB always shows broadcasters tools they didn't even know they needed, and 2003 upheld the tradition. Some of the technologies, like the long-awaited Sony system and further implementation of MXF (Multi-eXchange Format) promise a revolution in television stations and newsrooms. The technological advances are so profound and coming so fast, some attendees said, that managers will have to decide between investing in new tape-based tools, such as cameras and VCRs, and heading to an all-data IP-based plant-which is where they all may be headed eventually whether they like it or not.

Throw in increased compatibility among editing systems, asset management tools, automation schemes and add wireless Gigabit Ethernet VTRs, and even the nanoseconds needed to get things done for TV are shrinking.

"The concept of being able to move stuff around your plant as data as opposed to moving it as serial digital video-that's a real jolt," said Jim Stanley, a Houston-based chief engineer. "We've got to begin planning, as we do plant expansions, not only for video but for data. Five years from now, [video] may be going down Gigabit Ethernet and it may not be going down coaxial cable."

A NONLINEAR WORLD

Forget reporters running in with videotapes that have to be ingested before nonlinear editors can have at it. With the Sony optical disc system, the reporters are running in with raw footage that's already nonlinear data-if they didn't already send it in as low-resolution proxies at 30 times real time, as the Sony system allows.

"It's completely random access, completely nonlinear from the get-go, so there's no ingest time, there's no waiting around, there's just the editor doing what he's trained to do," Stanley said of the concept. "And that really opens up the power of all these great nonlinear editing packages from [for example] Sony or Avid or Quantel or Thomson."

Sony showed off some high-profile customers, such as CNN Senior Technology VP Gordon Castle, whose news operation is field-testing the units and providing feedback. And NBC will use optical discs in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens.

Attendees were also wowed by the prototype of Panasonic's new solid-state camera system. When available, the camera will record on hot-swappable memory cards with a transfer rate of 640 Mbps, supporting multiple resolutions and architectures, including HD formats. It may not be the death of tape, but linear formats seem likely to figure less prominently in stations' long-term planning.

"We can see that the broadcast business has fundamentally changed," said Katsushiko Yamamoto, VP of AVC Co. of Matsushita Electric Industrial, Panasonic's parent.

Add to the mix tools like Thomson's Grass Valley iVDR (Intelligent Video Digital Recorder) boasting among its features the ability to transfer files among many different applications. It's part of Grass Valley's "M" Series of products, standing for "multiple markets and multiple formats," the company said.

Broadcasters agree that the data-centric approach will have ramifications around stations for years.

"Once it's nonlinear from the beginning of the process to the end, suddenly this is going to be the thing that makes newsroom automation take off," said Stanley.

DEALMAKERS

NAB pegged attendance at about 89,000, compared with 95,000 last year and more than 113,000 in 2001.

Those who went talked it up. Some observers figured that networks and station groups were finally loosening up their checkbooks after holding tight last year.

Attendees were also buoyed by the near certainty, expressed in several panel discussions and in FCC Chairman Michael Powell's annual breakfast chat with Sam Donaldson, that the FCC will loosen several major media ownership rules June 2. That could spur a wave of acquisitions of smaller, marginal stations. And although opinions differ on the overall effect of the rule changes on the quality of broadcasting, many operators see new ownership as the one thing that can save them. Acquisitions could also mean more equipment purchases.

But Powell himself said not to expect a wholesale scrapping of the local and national ownership rules. And keynote speaker Barry Diller, chairman and CEO if USA Interactive, attacked the conventional wisdom that paints consolidation as a panacea. Instead, he said, media mega-companies, in their pursuit of world domination, have lost sight of their public service mandates. He argued against the drive to raise or repeal the 35 percent nationwide ownership cap and other limits.

"I believe having tight program ownership and financial interest rules for the already completely concentrated cable and satellite industry is mandatory," he said.

BREATHING ROOM

Several manufacturers and broadcasters claimed that the apparently reduced crowds allowed better communication-as in 30-minute sit-down meetings without appointments-with one another, allowing buyers to get good looks at the products they were considering.

NAB attributed the reduced turnout to a decline in international visitors, most likely caused by travel fears related to SARS and the war in Iraq. For many manufacturers, that may mean a stronger effort to reach customers.

"There were fewer European and Asian attendees this year, but Network's plans include exhibiting at 10 European and Asian shows within the next six months, IBC among others," said Wiggo Evensen, managing director of sales and marketing for Norway-based Network Electronics.

Dealmaking was fueled by several major operators' digital-era ambitions coming to market. ESPN, for example, must outfit its 125,000-square-foot digital facility in Bristol, Conn., along with everything needed for HD mobile production. BBC Technology, in business in the U.S. only a few years, gained part of that action early, announcing that the sports network would use its Colledia asset management system.

Ed Caleca, PBS senior VP of Technology and Operations, said about 250 PBS-affiliated engineers met with Sony, which announced an HD production and studio package, including cameras and editing equipment, "at a pretty significant discount" for the broadcasters.

He said PBS too is big on the next generation of interconnection systems and a strategy of IP delivery of its programming. And he was impressed by the advances he saw.

"I think we're seeing a period of time when the technologies that were announced maybe a couple of years ago at the NABs-maybe a little bit sooner than they should have been-are starting to get to a place where they're not bleeding-edge technology; they're now adolescent technology that you can actually apply ... and truly acquire the benefits that were being touted," he said. "And for that I take my hat off to these suppliers. They kept listening and they kept fixing the things and I think there's some good stuff out there now."