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Solutions for future challenges

Not unlike prior years, this year’s NAB Show will redefine “state of the art” in TV and radio broadcasting and production. The previous “Transition to Digital” tutorial covered the logistics of visiting and surviving the convention. This tutorial, as you read it mere days before the show opens, discusses what NAB visitors should watch for.

The purpose of the annual NAB Show from an exhibitor’s perspective is to provide answers. The purpose of the NAB Show from a visitor’s perspective is find answers by asking questions.

As you linger in the baggage claim area at Las Vegas’ McCarran airport awaiting your luggage, you’re likely to see all shapes and sizes of ATA equipment shipping cases sliding down luggage conveyers and being loaded in rental vans by arriving NAB exhibitors. This is the first lesson of NAB: Not every product shown in each exhibit is in its final, ready-to-ship version. Therefore, when you see an interesting product on display and realize it would be a perfect solution for your facility, don’t forget the ultimate question: “When it will be ready for delivery?”

Laws you can’t ignore

Clearly, the broadcast and professional video production industries are merging with the IT industry. This gives us the opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of Moore’s Law more than ever before. Moore’s Law is named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who first described the trend in 1965 by noting that the number of transistors on circuit boards increases by a factor of two each year. Throughout the years Moore’s Law has expanded to include hard drives, processor speeds, memory, network capacities and pixels per dollar. A dozen years ago, the rhetorical engineering question was, “Better? Faster? Cheaper? Pick two.” Today, you don’t have to pick two. Nearly everything is becoming better, faster and relatively less expensive at an accelerating rate. The caveat of Moore’s Law is that obsolescence also increases.

Broadcasters and producers also have to deal with a far more menacing law, Murphy’s Law. Murphy’s Law has roots that date to 1866, even though “Murphy” (not everyone agrees there actually is a Mr. Murphy) didn’t come on the scene until the late 1950s. It states that “whatever can go wrong will go wrong.” Experienced broadcast engineers know to append Murphy’s Law with the phrase, “at the worst possible time.”

Where Murphy and Moore intersect

Moore’s and Murphy’s Laws regularly intersect in broadcast and production facilities and OB vehicles worldwide, and nowhere is it more obvious than at the NAB Show. One example of this that you can count is at least one piece of new equipment failing or operating in an unexpected way during a crowded demonstration. That being said, solutions to the challenges presented by Murphy’s Law abound on the exhibit floor. Broadcasters must plan for all kinds of surprises predicted by Murphy’s and Moore’s Laws at all times, and particularly at the worst possible times.

Superman was bullet-proof, but he still had to deal with Kryptonite. Most broadcast engineers have learned that not only do they need a Plan B, but to overcome disasters of Kryptonic proportions, they also need a Plan C, D and E in place, should Plan B fail. Murphy and experience tells us that multiple failures are not only likely, but probable.

What do Superman, Moore and Murphy have to do with the NAB Show? They are meant to remind you that as you look at bullet-proof, Moore-based solutions for your facility, never lose sight of Superman’s weakness or Murphy’s Law. Consider and explore alternate paths and solutions for emergency situations and build them into your facility. Some products have built-in redundancy and fail-safe features; some have more than others; and some have none.

Let’s say you lose the station router at the beginning of the Super Bowl, and your master control system uses the station router for switching. Let’s also say your router has redundant power supplies, and some quick testing proves that the problem isn’t the power supplies. What is your plan to make the problem invisible to viewers and the sponsors of the next break? There are likely 100 different exhibitors at the NAB Show offering solutions to keep this and similar emergencies from becoming a revenue-threatening catastrophe. Anything can fail, and some day probably will. What’s your plan in a hurry when things go seriously wrong?

At the moment of crisis, you’ll know what you need. The point of the NAB Show is for visitors to recognize and learn how to plan for situations like these, so they’ll know what they need and have it ready before they need it.

No biz like show biz

The business of broadcasting, production and the technology that makes it possible, not unlike so much else in the world these days, is in a state of change. Not only is the technology changing, so are market and business models as well as FCC policies and regulations that many broadcasters believed were carved in granite. From a broadcast engineer’s perspective, one of the greatest changes is another facet of the transition to digital: the migration from legacy, dedicated equipment to IP-based equipment.

The NAB Show has evolved from a cozy little gathering of a few hundred chief engineers huddled around a couple of new behemoths from Ampex, RCA or Gates to what some might call a “big tent.” If you look over this year’s exhibitor list, it looks as much like a computer show as it does a broadcast technology show. The NAB has purposefully grown the show to cater to virtually all professionals and entities involved in nearly every aspect of broadcasting, film and video production, content creation, content storage, transport, testing and measurement, monitoring, distribution, rights management, presentation, display and, of course, RF technology — from wireless to multimegawatt DTV transmitters. Covering all that takes a tent the size of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

It is, after all, Las Vegas

Be aware that in Las Vegas, everything may not quite be as it seems. You’re likely to see some sleight of hand, smoke, mirrors and a bluff or two. You will also see some huge bets. The exhibitors have placed their bets, and many won’t show their cards until the time their hands are called when the exhibit doors open.

By the time exhibits finally close Thursday afternoon and exhibitors shout out the traditional “whoopee” the moment they hear “The 2011 NAB Exhibits are closed” over the convention center PA system, many visitors will be on their way home knowing what the big hits and surprises of the show were. Until then, we can only speculate, read the tea leaves — or in our case, press releases — and closely monitor the grapevine.

For example, one exhibitor is introducing a full-featured, multichannel master control system housed in a single 19in equipment rack. What makes it unique is that nearly everything in the rack is an off-the-shelf IT product. Not only is it better, faster and less expensive, it’s also more compact and easier to maintain.

Camcorders and recorders have migrated from tape to various solid-state storage solutions, rendering expensive and complicated maintenance tools such as tension and eccentricity gauges as obsolete as a capstan pinch roller. And, several industry-leading camera manufacturers are introducing new cameras and camcorders, but few have released significant details.

At the 2006 NAB Show, RED Digital Cinema was virtually unknown. At that show, the company introduced a radical new camera, with a 4520 x 2540 CMOS sensor, called the Mysterium. It was mysterious alright, and it seized the attention and changed the direction of the production industry nearly overnight. Will this year’s version of the RED phenomenon be lurking behind curtains in an obscure, smaller booth, or will it be in a larger, more well-established exhibit?

A huge industry challenge in desperate search of solutions is loudness monitoring. Look for products that help stations comply with the new CALM Act. How does a station control loudness without a live operator riding the gain when the content switches from two people whispering in a quiet intimate soap opera scene to a highly compressed oven cleaner commercial? That’s what engineers need to know, and at least a couple dozen vendors are offering answers. Many of these same vendors are also introducing amazing new solutions for content monitoring, repurposing and rights management.

Also, be on the lookout for OLED video monitors. A few have been shown at previous NAB Shows, and this year, they promise to be bigger, brighter, better and more affordable. There are also promises of new passive 3-D monitors worthy of evaluation and investigation.

Of course, this NAB Show preview wouldn’t be complete without mentioning mobile DTV. Much time, technology and hope is dedicated to the success of mobile DTV, and the technology, at least, is ready for prime time. In this time of desperately needed new revenue streams, mobile DTV may be just the ticket to provide broadcasters their share of the massive mobile broadband technology market.