Digital Is Defining The Economics For Systems Integrators

Although the industry's transition to digital television has not gone as quickly as originally planned, don't tell that to Tom Canavan, president of Northvale, NJ-based A.F. Associates (AFA). In 2001, when many businesses were struggling to make ends meet, his company had its best revenue-generating year ever.

And AFA is not alone. Virtually everyone involved in engineering consultation and equipment installation is reporting healthy, albeit frenetic, business. This is due in part, they said, to the FCC's mandate for stations to get on the air by May 1, but also because existing facilities are aging and must be upgraded to maintain their high-quality operations.

In the past 18 months alone, AFA

has been busy building a new digital master control facility in New York for Court Television Network (Court TV); a multi-channel network operations center in Jersey City, NJ, for USA Cable; and a state-of-the-art digital broadcast facility in Sarasota, FL for ABC affiliate WWSB-TV.

"Things are definitely looking up, in terms of new business," Canavan said, adding that the key to AFA's success is being diversified in several markets, not just broadcast. "Our business has always been very broad; we've done a lot of stations, but we also work with cable networks and satellite distributors."

However, added Canavan, with the cost of converting to DTV climbing into the multimillion range, stations are very cautious with their capital budgets and want to get the most out of any upgrade project. In many cases, broadcasters are opting for a "minimum" master control or infrastructure upgrade to digital. This gives them the ability to pass through an HDTV signal from the network while broadcasting an SD signal most of the day.

"In virtually no case are we building end-to-end HDTV facilities, simply because the money is not there," said Canavan. "We may be in an economic recovery, but station capital spending is still lagging."

The tricky part for integrators is upgrading a facility while it's still on the air. This is because there must be a minimal amount of disruption to the station's operations. All integrators understand this and said they have developed phased-in strategies to accommodate such situations.

Another challenge for integrators, according to Edward Hobson, a vice president with Glendale, CA-based National Teleconsultants, Inc. (NTI), is dealing with the changing management structure among broadcast companies that comes as a result of consolidation and a reduction in engineering staff. Hobson said he now deals mostly with company financial officers, not engineers, who are making most of the "final" equipment buying decisions.

"Money managers are only concerned with cost of ownership, whereas engineers look at the efficiencies that a piece of gear will enable," Hobson said. "It makes our job harder because we're having to educate people who are not necessarily interested in how the equipment works."

Hobson said stations looking to upgrade their facilities should plan on it taking at least a year before the work is finished, depending upon the size of the job. Most recently, NTI provided engineering consultation, design, and installation services for the new Kodak Theater in Hollywood, where the Academy Awards are staged each year.

"We have many clients that we've done work for in the past and then we've come back in to upgrade the equipment," Hobson said. "Besides the station engineers themselves, no one knows that facility better than we do. Re-hiring us to continue work we started months or even years ago saves time and money for the customer."

At The Systems Group, in Hoboken, NJ, Scott Griffin, vice president of Engineering and Technology, said, "we've been busy running around, that's for sure. There's a lot more opportunity this year." The integrator is in the middle of a large-scale build for a new, multichannel control room facility for WJLA-TV/NewsChannel 8, the ABC affiliate in Washington, DC. Due to a program-sharing agreement, the new master control room is designed to program the local regional cable news channel for the DC area as well. A large amount of existing equipment has been incorporated into the new design that combines two independent news operations into a single electronic newsgathering department.

Griffin acknowledged that most of the major networks, with their headquarters in New York City, are redesigning their operations to eliminate legacy tape-based environments and moving toward automated video servers and networked newsrooms. "The technology has matured to the point where it is not Ôexperimental' to consider direct playback-to-air of pre-recorded material any more," he said. For AOL Time Warner's 24-hour cable news channel NY1, The Systems Group designed and implemented a completely networked newsroom based around Pinnacle Systems' Vortex editing system. It involves a server-based strategy that facilitates the sharing of digital files, from editing through to a carousel-style play-to-air server. It's based around an Associated Press Electronic News Production System in tandem with an OmniBus Systems automation system.

The Systems Group is implementing a similar infrastructure for the Tribune Broadcasting Company that will allow the group to consolidate new assets among their radio and TV stations and newspapers. Aside from the installation and equipment costsÑwhich could range from $4-6 million for a small market station, to $6-10 million for a large station in a major marketÑGriffin said his biggest challenge lately is satisfying clients who want their projects finished in a quick turnaround time. With stations having to go digital, something that used to take nine months (three years ago) now needs to be completed in four. In general, Griffin said the entire process should take approximately 10 months, from initial design meetings to completion. If you're lucky.

"It seems like we have less and less time to do the work than we used to," he said. "Yet, we also are working with ever more complex technology, so every project is a challenge. We've learned to adapt and meet our customers' demands, but it hasn't been easy."

Some equipment manufacturers also maintain their own systems integration divisions. This helps sell equipment and also endears the company to the client as it follows the project to its completion. Sony's Systems Solutions Division (SSD), based in San Jose, CA, has been busy building an array of digital mobile production trucks for remote live sports and entertainment production. At NAB, the group showed off six serial digital SD and HD rigs recently completed for Action Sports & Entertainment Mobile Television; All Mobile Video; Location Solutions; and SWTV.

The trucks include Sony production equipment, but not exclusively. In fact, Tim Smith, director of Marketing for SSD, said that his team integrates about "Fifty percent Sony gear. We install whatever technology the client wants."

Finding success in diversifying its activities, SSD has also been, according to Smith, "incredibly busy across a wide variety of broadcasting and production projects." This includes the design and build-out of a production facility for Paul Allen's Action Sports Network in Portland, and two streaming media facilities (one in New York and the other in Los Angeles) for Digital Island. It has also built A/V facilities for several corporate clients.

It's clear that with station staff stretched thin, system integrators, with their technical manpower and years of experience, are becoming more important to the transition to DTV. It's also clear that, going forward, extravagant, multimillion-dollar facilities will be the exception, not the rule.

"Improved signal quality is not what's driving digital facility investment today," said AFA's Canavan. "The bottom line is, Ôhow can we distribute our programming at the lowest possible cost?'"

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