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With competition heating up, stations are “going digital” in a big way.

After years of complacency marked by stations begrudgingly installing digital transmitters to get on the air with a DTV signal, broadcasters now appear ready to spend on new technologies to build out their production systems and signal-distribution plants.

With the Summer Olympic games, a presidential election and a strengthening economy all encouraging factors in 2004, the motto for broadcasters and cable newsgathering organizations going into this year's NAB convention is, undeniably, “Go digital, or get left behind.” In most cases, that also increasingly means the distribution of HDTV-format programs.

Budgets loosening

From the network level to the independent affiliate, from cable production to satellite distribution, real optimism for better times ahead has translated into increased spending on technology. That bodes well for manufacturers looking to sell new production and distribution technologies that facilitate streamlined workflows and, in some cases, create new revenue streams.

Now that most FCC-licensed stations have gone on the air with a DTV signal (about 1200 commercial and public stations at press time), and some are broadcasting HDTV programs on a regular basis, capital budgets have loosened up and technology investments are being made on the gear most critical to daily operations.

“For the last five years, we have been spending significant portions of our capital budget installing DTV transmitters, antennas, transmission line and towers,” said Bob Seidel, CBS vice president of engineering. “Now that the DTV transmission systems are in place, it is time to focus on the transition of the plant infrastructure to high-definition television.”

Indeed, for terrestrial broadcasters, the need to get digital (and transmit HD) is abundantly clear. According to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), there are now, or will soon be, roughly 23 HD channels available on cable and satellite, and approximately nine million homes equipped with HDTV sets. Broadcasters have to convert their plant infrastructure to handle SD/HD digital signals to remain competitive.

Aside from the need to install a serial digital signal routing infrastructure, most production executives agree that centralized, server-based systems are most attractive. They add that videotape is becoming less important as media organizations make the move to digital equipment upgrades in their news departments, satellite ingest areas and playout systems.

ABC optimistic

At the ABC network, all 10 Walt Disney/network-owned stations are broadcasting in digital, although not all pass through the prime-time HDTV schedule transmitted out of New York. Preston Davis, president of broadcast operations and engineering at ABC Television Network, said there's great reason for optimism regarding HDTV among his colleagues, and that this has translated into an increase in sports broadcasts and studio production. Chief among these efforts was the '03-'04 “Monday Night Football” season in 720p HD (with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound).

The network had produced the 1999-2000 season in HD with the help of Panasonic Broadcast, but stopped after consumers showed little interest in buying HD-capable sets. This scenario changed in 2003 with a significant reduction in digital (and HDTV) set prices and the availability of spots and entertainment programming from broadcast and cable networks such as ABC, CBS, HDNet, ESPN, HBO, Discovery, NBC, PBS, Showtime and TNT, to name a few.

In terms of the progress of the DTV transition, Davis said he's optimistic on two fronts: compelling content and digital set sales. “I'm optimistic on the SD business because Disney is a great content company, and all indications are that content is going to be a significant requirement in any broadcast portfolio,” he said. “I'm also bullish about HDTV. I think that if you had asked me a year ago, if I thought we would see as much HDTV programming as we currently do, if I thought that the price of an HDTV set would be as low as it currently is, and if I thought there would be as much cable carriage as there is today, I probably would have said, ‘No.’ So, we're further ahead than I thought we would be a year ago.”

As another encouraging sign, Davis said he has more money to spend this year for technology purchases than he has had the past two years due to a recently improving ad market. “There's been comfortable — I wouldn't say ‘significant’ — growth in the capital money that's available to rebuild the network's facilities.”

The network is in the process of building an HD “integration control room” at its headquarters in New York City, where a variety of shows will be shot and edited with native 720p HD equipment. This will be in addition to the existing control room that the network uses to insert commercials into live remote sports and entertainment broadcasts.

The new control room would accommodate native feeds from HDTV studio cameras and HD graphics systems. “We're trying to figure out a strategy that limits our financial exposure but is still able to service the needs of our sports, news and entertainment departments,” Davis said.

This HD program island will require native 720p switchers, cameras, tape machines, graphics, routers and upconverters, which are all on the network's shopping list for this year's NAB.

The network will also be looking for a broad range of convergence solutions that integrate information technology and traditional broadcast hardware over a wide- or local-area networked infrastructure. Digital newsroom computer systems will also attract the ABC network's attention this year.

McGraw Hill Broadcasting confident

Ron Jennings is director of engineering at San Diego-based McGraw-Hill Broadcasting, whose station group includes WRTV-TV in Indianapolis, KMGH-TV in Denver, KGTV in San Diego, and KERO-TV in Bakersfield, CA. Jennings said his company is in the process of upgrading its newsroom operations with new iNEWS newsroom computer systems from Avid Technology, as well as several nonlinear editing systems, a shared storage system and tapeless playout technology from Thomson Grass Valley. The Grass Valley purchase order alone is worth over $3 million.

“Our capital budgets are larger than last year, and they are sufficient to meet our needs,” he said.

Jennings is confident that must-carry agreements will be sorted out and enable his stations to reach the nearly 80 percent of American consumers who watch their DTV through a local cable TV provider. This past season, McGraw's four ABC affiliate stations broadcast “Monday Night Football” in HD to its viewers to a great response.

“Over-the-air ‘free TV’ is still a good idea,” Jennings said. “I am somewhat encouraged by some of the decisions made (or at least discussions) by the FCC with regards to cable must-carry of DTV, some movement by local cable companies wanting to carry our DTV signal, and the makeup of the TV receivers. Overall, I see a good future for over-the-air TV. [Broadcast TV] is a mature business now. [The era of] increasing our profits by double digits every year is no doubt gone, but it's still a very good business.”

“The goal for my company, and for any station,” Jennings said, “is to consolidate as many common functions as possible, not only at the station level, but across the group. Also, local agreements between news stations for use of helicopter platforms and shared live capabilities, I feel, are inevitable.”

Cable jumps in

On the cable-production side, Gordon Castle, senior vice president of technology at CNN, said media companies have to “Jump in there and get started,” when it comes to upgrading their equipment to digital.

“While it is true that the technology continues to be refined and integration/interoperability issues are improving, this transition takes time and there are many steps of improvement that can be realized now,” he said. “In making these changes, it is important to focus on workflow opportunities and to use this transition as a time to think about the changing business goals for the future.”

With capital budgets in place to support this work, CNN has been at the forefront of new media technology investment for some time. Castle said that 2004 is a significant year in the conversion of CNN to an “integrated production environment” (IPE), which will initially result in the transition of the Atlanta news hub. IPE is the name for a project that is moving the cable news giant away from linear videotape to an integrated, file-based environment leveraged by sophisticated media management.

For the last several years, CNN has been replacing aging videotape machines with playback servers, server-based editing, media-management software and a highly advanced digital archive. With the move to the new facility, the network will have completed the transition to a completely integrated production infrastructure based on a collection of MPEG-based recording, editing, playback and digital archive systems. These systems will use IT-style middleware and metadata that takes advantage of the Material eXchange Format (MXF).

At NAB, Castle said CNN representatives will be looking for cost-effective technology for HD routing, SD switchers and monitoring, stereo and multichannel audio, automation for real-time production, field editing and contribution equipment, and ENG acquisition.

The next steps in its transition will include the integration of laptop editing into the field. “In addition to editing systems, we are also expanding our file-based contribution,” he said, “allowing a journalist in any part of the world to transfer files or provide video streams over a variety of networks.”

Additional areas of focus for technical changes and improvement include control rooms and graphics systems. The goal is to improve quality, start the transition to HD production and simplify production workflows, he said, adding that by the end of 2004, the cable news network will transition many of its wide-area video paths to computer-based networks that leverage scalable video streaming and fast file-transfer protocols.

Turner turns to IT

Media-asset-management (MAM) tools remain near the top of the shopping list at Turner Studios and its separate network operations division. Clyde D. Smith, senior vice president for broadcast engineering research and development, quality assurance, and metrics, said that Turner's new digital facilities have made extensive use of broadcast IT technology to streamline production.

Turner Studios employs a heavy dose of networking and storage systems for its graphics, audio and editorial personnel, who use sophisticated software tools to automatically manage audio libraries and exchange graphics and clips between disparate authoring platforms.

Network operations is moving into an “ingest once for repeated use” environment with the rollout of the broadcast-inventory manager and the application of automated data-storage libraries. The group has also put a lot of effort into monitoring signal quality and control of SNMP-compliant products.

“Years ago, managers and supervisors got feedback from the operators who worked hands-on with the physical media,” Smith said. “Today, in the file-based systems we use, the complexity provides a layer of isolation and the operators have less direct feel for the changes in media volumes, quality and system performance. The only way to assure reliability and quality is to proactively monitor systems.”

High-definition production tools, particularly for sports production, as well as SANs, high-speed data networking and automated data storage libraries, are also key to its HD infrastructure in support of Turner's new TNT HD network.

CBS shows the flag

As part of its normal capital-replacement process, the CBS network has been installing multiformat, dual-mode equipment capable of producing both SD and HD signals. This includes dual-mode cameras, routers, production switchers and tape machines. Seidel said he'll be coming to the NAB2004 convention looking at technologies that support the “broadcast flag” initiative and other vertical-interval (VANC) metadata, such as audio and captioning information.

“Even if you don't use the dual-mode HD capability at the start,” Seidel said, “it is cheap insurance for future-proofing your plant. Plus, it is counter-intuitive to install standard-definition equipment when the industry is clearly going to HD.”

CBS has 175 affiliated stations out of 207 on the air in DTV, covering 97 percent of U.S. DMAs. Many of these stations have been originating their commercials from server-based technology as well as recording syndication programs on servers. At NAB2004, they will be looking at receiving and distributing commercials using similar IT solutions.

There's little doubt that CBS is optimistic about the DTV future. After years as the sole pioneer of HDTV sports broadcasts, the network has been joined by others and is seeing some of the fruits of its labor in positive consumer feedback and nominal yet measurable ratings.

“DTV represents a totally new platform, which gives the broadcasters options to offer traditional content as well as new services,” Seidel said. “The local broadcaster is still the most effective producer and distributor of local and network content. Having the local broadcast stations on the cable and satellite services has and will continue to add value to those distribution chains.”

All together now

CNN's Castle said he too is very optimistic about the outlook for the news business and where the industry in general is headed. “This is a strong industry in the middle of some very exciting changes,” he said. “These changes allow us to improve our systems and at the same time expand our reach. New workflows and technology will allow us to take advantage of new and growing markets more efficiently while still allowing us to maintain our strong brand as a television news and information provider.”

These executives all agree that the underlying issue is that everyone must go digital… and fast.

“The worst thing you can do is wait until the last minute and do a crash project to convert the entire station,” he said. “Any station or network that installs standard-definition equipment is throwing money away. Much of the HDTV equipment has reached the pricing level of SD equipment. Start converting your production facility to HDTV today.”

ABC's Davis concurs. “If your station is analog today, there's no question you should go digital or you are going to miss out on opportunities that others are already taking advantage of or are about to.”

Michael Groticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industry.