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Broadcasters Forge the IT Path at NAB

Buyers keep an eye on new tools for the digital migration

WASHINGTON

The next phase of digital television implementation and the need for streamlined tools will be shaping equipment purchasing decisions at NAB 2003.

Although equipment for digital buildouts is still high on station groups' and networks' priority lists, many are seeking products to enhance digital operations such as tapeless solutions, storage systems and automation software. Engineering directors say they are seeking products that will allow them to operate more efficiently, improve their on-air offerings and save their companies money.

The anticipated purchases are positive news for many exhibitors trying to bounce back from last year's slow sales following the world's largest broadcasting convention.

Traditionally a time for many chief engineers to scout out new product options, make contact with vendors and get ideas for equipment implementation, engineers at this year's NAB will be on a serious scouting mission that will likely lead to sales later this year.

Here is a sampling of what broadcast groups and networks are looking for at this year's show.

MCGRAW-HILL BROADCASTING

Newsroom computers are at the top of the shopping list for McGraw-Hill's four stations, according to the station group's Engineering VP Ron Jennings. The publishing giant's broadcast arm is taking a phase-in approach to replacing equipment to digitize and automate its newsrooms.

After last year's purchase of the ParkerVision PVTV for each station, Jennings said he is now focused on establishing the infrastructure. Equipped with a budget of $1.5 million per station, he and his chief engineers plan to research computer options at the show for purchase later in the year.

Jennings is also considering whether to upgrade microwave equipment for live news and replace outdated video and audio DAs and routing equipment.

At the show, he will seek out product ideas for its next stage of equipment acquisition, which will most likely include new nonlinear editors, browsers and archive systems.

Jennings, who is based in Bakersfield, Calif., hopes that NAB will help his team create a schedule for the integration of new equipment.

The need for a clear plan is more critical than ever, he said, with the justification for capital purchases now required by McGraw Hill's leadership following last year's Wall Street scandals. Purchase requests are accompanied by analyses on lease vs. purchase, saving of resources and the depreciation cycle on the equipment.

"It's a little tougher now to get invoices paid," Jennings explained. "They've tightened up on what is considered capital and what is an expense."

Though the company generally approves the engineering budget, it requires more explanation than before. The management approves requests if the equipment offers a payback within a five-year period. The budget was $5.6 million last year and a $6 million the year before, amounts that fell within 5 percent of what Jennings originally requested.

At McGraw-Hill, the players in the decision process have changed as well. Though engineers are still the main advisers for new broadcast equipment, Jennings said the stations' IT staff have been getting more involved and are attending NAB for the first time this year. After attending NAB alone last year because of budget cuts, Jennings will travel to Las Vegas with general managers and news directors, also attending RTNDA.

PAPPAS TELECASTING

With about a dozen chief engineers from Pappas Telecasting Co.'s 23 owned-and-operated stations in tow, Engineering VP Dale Scherbring plans to research options for replacing or retrofitting the station group's studio-transmitter links (STLs)."We have to change out most of the microwave systems that supply the digital signal from the studio to the transmitter," he explained.

When researching products, the Omaha, Neb.-based engineer follows one rule of thumb: "If we're buying something new for the long-term, we're going to buy equipment that fits into the digital path."

Pappas' stations are at varied stages of the transition and have different equipment needs, Schurbring said, adding all but six stations are currently broadcasting digital signals.

Like many attendees at NAB, he expects to do more research than buying and make purchase decisions within a month following the show. In the long-term, Pappas will also be looking at new video storage systems, networking solutions and new ways to cable its stations.

Though he did not specify a figure, Scherbring said Pappas' 2003 capital expenditures budget is equivalent or perhaps slightly higher than last year's budget, which also allowed for several large DTV purchases. He believes the buying process is different for engineers now than during more prosperous times-stations have to buy digital equipment while at the same time, they don't want to sacrifice their "bread and butter," analog television.

In order to take all Pappas' chief engineers to NAB, Schurbring said he had to make budget cuts. The effort, he believes, is worth it because it not only allows engineers, who have always recommended product choices for the company, to make educated decisions about products for Pappas stations, but the experience provides corporate guidance about the best technical approach to take for the coming year.

PAXSON COMMUNICATIONS

Nearing the end of its capital expenditures for DTV, Paxson is putting the final pieces in place to multicast digital signals at the company's 65 full-power stations.

According to Engineering VP Dave Glenn, Paxson is "about three-to-one toward digital," with a budget this year in the mid-$20 million range, slightly less than in years past because of the smaller number of equipment purchases. During the year, the company plans to acquire new digital transmission equipment, antennas, encoders, video storage products, PSIP generators and multicasting processing tools.

With about 30 stations still yet to be fully transitioned, Paxson has already geared up for the work ahead by pre-purchasing some equipment before NAB, Glenn said. The company has set up strategic agreements with several major manufacturers including Harris, Dielectric, Harmonic, Tektronix, Grass Valley and Videotek.

During the show, Glenn and his eight regional engineering directors, who represent Paxson stations in geographic areas of the country, will explore equipment options for next year's equipment purchases. "We're not locked into any manufacturers," Glenn explained. "You really need to see what's out there and where manufacturers are heading."

With so many stations on its list, Glenn said he and the managers plan to hold meetings with manufacturers at NAB to tell product delevopers what type of equipment Paxson stations want.

To cover the extensive exhibit space, Glenn divides his team of engineers into teams to evaluate manufacturer's wares. In the month following NAB, the engineering team holds a conference call to debrief one another on the equipment and Glenn typically makes the final recommendation on purchases to corporate leaders.

As in past years, Paxson will try to negotiate group deals for purchases, Glenn said, adding that orders are usually placed at varied times and deliveries are spread out throughout the year.

TRIBUNE BROADCASTING

Its major DTV equipment purchasing decisions already made, Tribune engineers are now focused on purchasing equipment that will transition its 26 stations from a tape-based system to an Internet Protocol environment. The company, according to Ira Goldstone, Tribune broadcast's, VP and chief technical officer, and technical coordinator for Tribune Co. is planning to invest in new storage systems, IP backbone equipment including switchers and routers and new traffic management systems.

The station group, Goldstone said, is seeking an overall solution that will allow its stations to operate on an on-air server, where users can create, edit and air material seamlessly.

In the next 12 to 18 months, Tribune will also be looking for products for nonlinear editing, news acquisition and conversion from tape to digital files.

Goldstone said he'll also be keeping an eye on the latest technology in cameras, switchers and monitor walls.

"We're looking for systems to optimize work flow, improve our content and lower costs."

Like other stations, Tribune's budget in recent years has focused on digital transition equipment and capital expenditures will likely be at the same level as last year, said Goldstone, who declined to give a specific figure. After major cutbacks last year, Tribune is resuming its practice of holding a national meeting during NAB this year, bringing together the station's chief engineers.

Accompanied by the station news directors who will be attending RTNDA, Tribune's chief engineers will also tour the NAB exhibit area together and make recommendations to the rest of their station staffs following the show.

For capital commitments, any decisions the staff makes "will have to have bottom-line payback," Goldstone said adding that he doesn't expect to make purchasing decisions during the show but soon after.

"NAB is not necessarily a pivotal time for us in terms of making commitments," he said. "I've always looked at NAB as a way to make contacts, get ideas and confirm how something is implemented."