NAB: Broadcasters Explore New Digital Trends

When the NAB Show concluded, much focus was put on the official attendance of 83,842, down from slightly over 100,000 last year. But many exhibitors took the bright-side view that there were fewer "tire kickers" at the show, and that they could spend more time with real decisionmakers in their exhibits.

In looking at what was on the floor at this NAB in contrast to past NABs, it was possible to decipher what's finished and done, what's moving along nicely, and what might be on the horizon.


According to NAB, 83,842 attendees registered for this year's show. In the "finished and done" department, there was little buzz about actual DTV transmission equipment at the show. This is not surprising since the set-in-stone DTV transition date of Feb. 17 has come and gone. That deadline, of course, was extended at the last instant to June 12. However, over 600 stations went ahead and transitioned to digital broadcast only, and any stations that have not yet transitioned have probably at least ordered that gear some time ago.

But in many markets there's a next step with DTV: translators. "About 1,000 translators have filed to convert to digital on June 12," said David Donovan, president of The Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV). "These stations are looking at digital transmitters. In addition, operators of the thousands of translators that are not converting [to digital transmission] were looking at equipment that can convert the main [channel 's] digital signal back into analog."

Judging by the amount of new HD production gear rolled out at this NAB, there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of putting high-definition local programming, primarily news, on the air. However, capital budgets for such equipment aren't what they once were.

"Broadcasters at every level are facing a new set of production and budget realities," said Rob Willox, director of marketing at Sony's Content Creation Group. "But they still need to produce high-quality content."

Snell's vice president of corporate development echoed that observation. "We're seeing the transition to HD at all levels of the market, from national to local," said Joe Zaller. "There are a number of factors/drivers influencing this, ranging from the decrease in price of HD gear [relative to SD] to continued growth in consumer demand for HD images." He noted that in some cases stations are choosing to continue to produce in SD, but upconvert that material to HD for transmission.

As more affordable HDV and AVC (Advance Video Codec) camcorders and recorder/players have hit the market, they have cascaded into demand for more affordable lenses and camera support equipment. New lenses for 1/3-inch imagers and pan/tilt heads for lightweight camcorders were rolled out from their respective exhibitors.

One tried and true way to reduce expenses is to cut headcount, which in the case of TV stations has led them to adopt robotic cameras, where a single individual does the job of several camera operators.

Broadcasters were similarly showing interest in automated studio production systems, which allow them to cut crew size in their studio control rooms. Several new systems were introduced at the show.


Another done-deal, judging by the exhibit halls, is the Sprint Nextel 2GHz Relocation. Though there are months to go until the last market tunes over to the new BAS (Broadcast Auxiliary Service) channels, equipment for that program has been ordered and mostly delivered.

"The Sprint BAS program is certainly winding down," said George Maier, director of product marketing for Vislink News and Entertainment (formerly Microwave Radio Communications). "However, it is not the end of the road for microwave vendors."

Though the Sprint BAS program spent billions to replace 2-gig analog gear with more efficient digital microwave equipment, there are still lots of non-BAS fixed analog links from receive sites back to the studios. Though these analog links stand in the way of bringing HD live shots back to the studios, replacing them with digital in this economy is probably a non-starter in most markets. But there were a number of solutions on the exhibit floor to enable the digital signals acquired at remote receive sites to remain in digital form while they were returned to the studio via an analog path.

One such solution is to encode the HD-SDI into an ASI stream. "A broadcaster can buy equipment to ASI-enable that analog link for 20-percent of the cost of replacing the link with digital radios," said Greg Pine, vice president of sales at Telairity.

Broadcasters looking to replace revenues lost to other methods of content delivery are now exploring their own new method of content delivery: Mobile DTV. The ATSC Mobile DTV system allows the splitting of the 19.4 Mbps capacity the broadcaster has in his 6MHz TV channel into a slice for delivery to current DTV receivers and a slice for Mobile DTV technology that can be received on new Mobile DTV-capable receivers.

According to Colleen Brown, CEO of Fisher Communications, whose Seattle ABC affiliate KOMO is being used as a testbed for mobile DTV research and development, adding ATSC-M/H capability to an existing DTV transmission system will run $50,000-$100,000.


Another revenue enhancer for TV stations was introduced at the show: transmitting digital signage content using another slice of the broadcaster's DTV signal. "Mobile DTV and digital signage are two technologies that form the perfect marriage and create new opportunities for broadcasters in audience reach and advertising," said Jay Adrick, vice president, Broadcast Technology Harris Broadcast Communications. "Put them on a moving bus or light rail system and you have an easily measured and defined audience... stop by stop by stop."

And finally, in the somewhere-out-there category, is 3D. Going back 50 years or more, 3D has made a number of abortive attempts to gain a foothold in motion picture theaters. But proponents of 3D point to a pair of changes that reopen the promise of 3D, and 3DTV.

First, where 3D filmmakers in the past had to rely on their prior experiences and trial-and-error (shooting film, processing it, then viewing it) to achieve a realistic 3D effect, the use of high-resolution video cameras allows them to view and optimize the 3D images prior to shooting.

And second, 3D product is well established in the video game world, which has led set manufacturers to produce 3D-capable televisions. (Several were on display on the exhibit floor.) As the game-players grow up, they may demand their TV be in 3D as well.

No one seems sure that 3D will make it this time around, but there was a smattering of 3D camera and peripheral equipment around the exhibition hall, and other vendors were quietly looking to see where their offerings might fit into the 3D puzzle, if and when.

Whether the smaller attendance is a temporary or more permanent thing for NAB, the show continues to be the largest-by-far international marketplace for the broadcasting and video industry.