PBS Confab Now a Tradition


(click thumbnail)One of the most successful events to have sprung up around the NAB industry reunion in Las Vegas each spring is an engineering confab that is about to reach its own milestone. The PBS Technology Conference (Tech.Con.07) is on the verge of turning 30 years old, spanning three of the most revolutionary decades in broadcast history.

When an estimated 700-plus public broadcast engineers, keynote speakers and exhibitors converge on the ultramodern conference facilities of the MGM Grand (the tech conference home since 2004) on April 11-14, they'll tackle an ambitious four-day agenda that traditionally leads up to the NAB convention.


The PBS Technology Conference has always aspired to present cutting-edge, relevant information on current and emerging technologies to the professionals who represent the technical backbone of the Public Broadcasting Service--the local public stations. In the past decade, the rate of change has accelerated as engineering staffs have had to deal with increasingly complex equipment and systems for the transition to DTV, the rise of Internet broadband, and myriad other video content platforms.

What began in the mid-1970s as a small informal gathering of the PBS Engineering Committee in a former Las Vegas school building that had been converted into the studios of pubcaster KLVX-TV, has now grown into what PBS now calls "the most important professional development conference for technology professionals in public television." Few PTV engineers would disagree.

This year, in addition to informative general sessions and targeted presentations, the first and last days of the four-day conference will be devoted to comprehensive tutorials that already have a proven track record of success: Gary Sgrignoli's all-day seminar on 8-VSB technology on Wednesday (and open to those outside public TV, as well). PBS sessions for traffic managers will also be held on Wednesday afternoon. The ENNES/SBE Workshop on "Everything Audio" is slated for Saturday. (NAB exhibits at the LVCC open on Monday.)

"We get a lot of requests for in-depth tutorials at the conference and we always have to weigh what to include and how to keep people up-to-date with new and existing technology," said Lew Zager, director of the DTV Strategic Services Group at PBS.

Zager, former vice president of technology at WETA-TV in Arlington, Va., is overseeing parts of this year's agenda, including the evaluation of technical papers.

"We discovered there was significant demand for solid tutorial presentations on that first Wednesday before our meeting really began, so that's why we have Gary's seminar set to go on the first day," he said.

Zager said 8-VSB continues to develop as a technology.

"It's not a simple or unchanging technology. ATSC standards continue to evolve and there will be new material presented. We will soon be approaching 10 years on-the-air with DTV for some of our stations. Station engineers who have not yet been schooled in the technology will benefit, and others will find Gary's introduction to some new developments advantageous," he said.

(The Wednesday seminar, technically a pre-conference event, has a $50 registration fee to cover the cost of the 800-page tutorial book provided for each attendee; attendance earns one SBE credit toward recertification.)

Thursday and Friday, April 12-13, will be devoted mostly to general and breakout sessions, as well as a joint PBS/NPR session on Friday morning.

(At deadline, keynote speakers and topics were still being arranged.) The traditional Friday night social event this year will feature an evening at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay on the south end of The Strip.


Ann Tucker, PBS director of cable and DBS strategy, said in recent years PBS's annual conference has closely reflected the management of the digital transition.

"Now we face the end of analog transmission in early 2009, along with the rise of all sorts of new consumer electronic devices operating in a cross-platform way," she said. "As systems become more complex and additional business models emerge, we're working to take technology more to the forefront by using digital as an effective strategic asset."

This year, the PBS meeting will complete the merger of IT sessions with broadcast engineering sessions.

Zager observed how the arrangement reflects an operational assimilation.

"With IT expertise and IT topics becoming an integral part of the typical broadcast plant these days, the need for 'IT-only' discussions is no longer needed," Zager said. "But needless to say, several of our discussions will have IT components and IT issues certainly will be covered."

Another change that continues to evolve is the meeting's finale on Saturday. PBS merged its events on this last day with the Society of Broadcast Engineers in 2004, and added the ENNES Workshop (where Zager said attendance has tripled in recent years).

Tucker and Zager believe the meeting's current NAB headquarters at the MGM Grand (there have been several "homes" as it continued to grow) is ideal.

The hotel complex boasts an impressive conference facility with plenty of meeting rooms and ample space for scores of exhibits, which Tucker said has evolved into a major attendee attraction unto itself. Not bad for something that got its modest start only several years ago when a lone exhibitor asked to set up his wares at no charge on a crowded table in the hallway outside the ballroom of a former home, the Alexis Park (one of the very few hotels in Nevada without gambling).

At deadline, many past exhibitors had already re-upped for this year's conference and nearly 20 sponsors--including Sony, Harris, Omneon and Avid--had signed on again for 2007.

Logistically, Tucker said the MGM Grand has its own designated stop on the route of the town's monorail system (most Strip hotels do not). The fully automated monorail also serves the LVCC a few miles away, the home of NAB2007. Also the MGM Grand, the largest hotel in North America, is within walking distance of many other major hotels and restaurants, she added.

True synergy between Tech.Con.07 and the older, larger NAB Broadcast Engineering Conference has also evolved over the years. And as if to underscore both organizations' cooperative efforts, PBS's Zager is this year's chairman of the NAB-BEC Committee which oversees the NAB tech conference.

More information about Tech.Con.07, including registration, can be found at www.pbstechconference.org.