IBC2005 special: Broadcasters urged to choose their future

At IBC2005, choice was everywhere.

At the recent IBC2005 conference in Amsterdam, choices were everywhere. It was evident in most of the marketing campaigns and multi-format equipment and technology offered by vendors. It was also on the minds of many European broadcasters, the majority of which are at the tipping point of deciding which direction to move forward.

Many broadcasters have developed their digital plans and begun to implement them. Rather than concentrating on high-definition production and transmission, as most U.S. broadcasters are, however, many European media companies are also trying to figure out how to use their digital spectrum for sending additional video services to mobile devices, such as cell phones, and are working on ways to develop two-way interactive and on-demand and business models. Broadband connections are key as well.

International broadcasters are also faced with the decision of how to implement these new services. Most of the HD services now available, such as Premiere-HD in Germany, Euro 1080 in Belgium and BSkyB, in the UK, which will go HD in 2006, are satellite-delivered services, although some cable companies are also getting into the act. While baseband video is still the dominant method for producing and distributing video programs, many (particularly the telcos, which are quickly building IP-based systems to compete with terrestrial stations, cable companies and satellite TV providers) see IP-based technology as an easy way to deploy an infrastructure without laying cables or broadcasting over the air.

At IBC, hundreds of companies displayed technology and systems related to facilitating IPTV distribution in one way or another. Two companies, SkyStream and Teleste, ran a joint contest at the show whereby the winner would receive a compact IP headend for free, just by visiting its “Blue Light District”-themed booth. Teleste is reselling SkyStream’s Mediaplex-20 and iPlex IPTV headends to cable and telco IPTV providers. Many trials are taking place in Europe and in Scandavian countries.

The choice of advanced codecs necessary to fit lots of HD channels in limited spectrum was also on the minds of many, although far differently than last year. In 2004, exhibitors at the IBC conference were fairly split between the MPEG-4 AVC and Microsoft’s VC-1 compression formats.

This year, after talking with many in the industry, it appeared that MPEG-4 H.264 would be the eventual winner and take over the lion’s share of the content delivery market. Some attendees said that after they got a closer look at the specs within VC-1, it was looked to them that currently MPEG-4 can do a better job of providing a high-quality, compressed picture. That is, if and when the appropriate set top boxes become available.

Several companies showed real-time MPEG-4 encoding of HD material (both 720p and 1080i) at about 8-, 10Mb/s. The quality was good to the naked eye, with very little artifacts, even when compressing scenes of fast motion, like sports. Avid announced it is collaborating with Microsoft to deliver native VC-1 support among its editing systems and Digidesign and M-Audio sound production products, so the format is by no means going away any time soon.

As for the other technology displayed on the exhibit floor, many of the products and systems were those shown at the NAB convention in April. Some products were now shipping or had new enhancements. While most equipment manufacturers touted the freedom of choice among their product families, using off-the-shelf IT technology to keep prices down, many understand that these same companies have little choice but to do so. Customers want affordable technologies and systems that can do multiple tasks to reduce the reliance on manpower.

Automation, master control, graphics and server systems are only the beginning. At IBC, makers of intercom systems, remote monitoring software and digital infrastructure products also are now heavily reliant on IT components and users are reaping the benefits.

Indeed, even digital cameras are leveraging more IT than ever before. At the show, Thomson introduced its new Grass Valley Infinity series digital media camcorder, which offers a choice of resolutions (SD and HD, at up to 75 Mb/s); four types of recording media (including a 30-second internal cache memory); and three compression schemes. It records to a 36GB Iomega Rev Pro disk, but also uses a solid-state Compact Flash card.

Panasonic and Sony both displayed their respective non-tape-based product families, which now support everything from 25 HDV to 100Mb/s HD data rates, with a full array of options to fit any type of budget and application. Letting the customers decide, Panasonic’s AJ-HDX200 captures either 720p or 1080i images or 480p SD pictures on solid-state PCMCIA memory cards (P2) or MiniDV videotapes. Sony’s XDCAM HD camera allows users to record multiple data rates on the same disc. Ikegami and JVC also offered a choice of CCD sensors (FIT and IT CCDs or CMOS chips).

IBC said the number of attendees was more than 42,000 — up 5 percent. Many were eager to commit to new technology on the show floor, according to many manufacturers exhibiting. Some broadcasters are still operating analog facilities with small digital islands. Others are making the push into digital with a vengeance. At IBC it was clear that, especially when having to decide a future path through the highly competitive television landscape with its multiple distribution platforms, the options are numerous.

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