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IBC2007 light on new technology

This year’s IBC convention, while attracting its biggest crowd ever, with 46,964 attendees, was light on new innovation and heavy on announcements of ongoing HD and other digital technology deployments. As has been the case in years past, many of the major equipment vendors, while announcing a stream of major sales wins, introduced few new products but a slew of enhancements to established platforms.

Perhaps not surprising, the majority of new sales are from heretofore under-served television markets like The Middle East, Eastern Europe and China. The latter has spurned a rash of HDTV facility and mobile trucks orders (both in China and abroad), set to be in place in time for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Of all the Middle Eastern countries, companies like Thomson Grass Valley, Harris and Snell & Wilcox have found multimillion dollar success in Saudi Arabia.

In addition to HD production, worldwide satellite operators delivering HD programming are now deploying MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 compression equipment from Harmonic, TANDBERG Television and Thomson in large numbers. Sky in the UK, Foxtel in Australia and DIRECTV in the United States are leading the charge. MPEG-4 (H.264) compression allows these operators to deliver more HD channels in the same bandwidth they’re using for MPEG-2 SD services.

In the United States, DIRECTV has begun its rollout of an additional 80 HD channels by the end of the year. The goal is an astounding 150 channels, all delivered in the 1080i HD format (or some approximation thereof). All of these companies were touting the benefits of 1080 progressive signals (better quality after MPEG-4 compression) for sports and movies, but the prevalence of interlaced set-top boxes in the marketplace could prove a challenge for operators.

On the acquisition side, support for Panasonic’s AVC Intro compression format, which enables more data to be written to P2 cards, continues to grow. At IBC2007, the company announced that Omneon servers and Quantel edit systems could now handle native HD files compressed with the format. Panasonic did not exhibit at the convention, but instead held a press conference at which it stated that it would continue its nonIBC strategy. A spokesman said, “Our products don’t fit into exhibition dynamics.” Avid was also noticably absent form this year’s exhibition floor.

Despite the aforementioned deals, many vendors reported relatively soft sales numbers earlier this year, but increases in the second and third quarters. Video servers, storage systems and encoding products appeared to have had the toughest time. Conversely, other categories claimed record quarters in recent months, with Quantel reporting it sold $30 million in new orders for its eQ and iQ systems in the past four months, at a rate of about one order per week.

Sony said that after 25 years of offering HD products, its revenue for the broadcast division was 1 billion euros and that HD purchases were now significantly outpacing SD sales for the first time.

Jeff Rosica, senior vice president of Thomson’s Broadcast and Professional Solutions business unit, said with cost comparison relatively similar between SD and HD equipment, customers were only interested in HD-capable technology that without sacrificing functionality. He said Grass Valley is “doing in HD what we’ve already done in SD.” With its new Xensium CMOS imaging chip, the much-anticipated Grass Valley infinity HD camera was said to be in the hands of beta users in the United States and would ship to a large preorder list by the end of the year. NASA used the camera to cover it latest space shuttle launch last month and the IBC TV news channel used it at the show.

Tim Thorsteinson, president of Harris Broadcast Communications, said all of the equipment categories it serves are up, except for automation, where its increasingly sophisticated software platforms are proving difficult and expensive to service and maintain over the long term.

Sales for the HDV (25Mb/s) format also appeared to be slowing down (although both Canon and JVC said business was improving), while tapelss formats, such as Panasonic’s solid-state P2 and Sony’s optical disc XDCAM HD, are up. Sony introduced its own solid-state camcorder called XDCAM EX. Sony claimed that 23,000 units of its XDCAM (SD and HD combined) had been sold thus far.