Switching for the 21st Century

As the digital television transition moves forward in the U.S., more manufacturers than ever are offering affordable HD master control switching solutions. The ability to handle HD, however, is not the only selling point for today's switchers. The latest models from Leitch, PESA, Quartz, and Thomson can handle multichannel operations with great ease, have extensive DVE capabilities, and interoperate with a station's automation system without any hassle.

Multichannel Management

As more station groups consolidate, the reality of today's broadcast environment is that operators will often need to handle more than two channels at a time. Many of the switcher companies offer products that allow for this. For example, Leitch's Opus comprises two basic elements, a remote control panel and an electronics range. Users need at least one panel, and then they can add one or more of the frames. Each frame handles one channel. If then, a user wanted to operate a two-channel system, he would have to choose two electronics frames--for the video and audio.

PESA's MCLite allows up to eight channels to be controlled from one panel or through multiple combinations of panels and processors. One QMC switcher from Quartz Electronics can handle one channel. If the user wants to add more channels, he can plug in another electronics card, adding two more independent channels. Adding the company's new Twin Channel option allows each card to handle two channels, but sacrifices the "look-ahead" preview capability found in a normal channel. "The theory behind the Twin Channel option is, if there isn't an operator there to look at the preview monitor you're better off having two independent channels than you are a preview that no one can look at anyway," said Pete Challinger, vice president, marketing, for Quartz. Using the Twin Channel option also limits the QMC to two key layers instead of four.

Thomson's M-2100 and Saturn master control switchers can be expanded for multichannel operation. "When we talk about multichannel [operations], we're really talking about one control panel being able to quickly access the various electronics boxes," said Mark Hilton, director of product management for routing and master control at Thomson. For example, with the M-2100, users are able to preconfigure the channels that they want a particular panel to access. From the panel, they can access the channel they want active. "The M-2100 works in terms of being able to quickly access--directly on the panel you can have eight channels assigned to it--so with a single button press you can go to one of eight channels. Or you can, using a menu structure, go through multiple channels and reassign a new channel to one of the eight buttons," said Hilton.

DVE Capability

Most modern master control switchers have an extensive array of DVE capabilities. Users of Leitch's Opus can purchase what the company calls the "effect option" as a single channel, for over-the-shoulder "squeeze" types of effects, or a dual channel, which can depict more than two screens at the same time. For example, a dual-channel solution might be used when a news show is broadcasting a live interview taking place between New York and Los Angeles. The interviewer in New York can be shown at the same time as the interviewee in Los Angeles. In addition, in the background, there can be another screen showing something else. The dual-channel option is available for both of the Opus models--the MCS-SD16 (a standard definition switcher) and the MCS-HD16 (a high definition switcher).

PESA's MCLite offers typical squeezeback capabilities.

Users of Quartz's QMC will find most of the DVE capabilities typical of modern master control switchers. The switcher also allows users to control edge softness and the border width a little more smoothly than typically found with a 2D DVE.

Automation Access

All of the major master control switchers on the market today can interconnect with a station's automation system. Some companies, however, have integrated extra automation flexibility and features into their switchers. Leitch's Opus, for example, has a "hold" button that temporarily disconnects the automation system from the Opus in order to accommodate a breaking news item. The actual automation port is left open, however, so that the "as-run" log in the automation system will still reflect what the operator is doing.

Quartz's QMC can connect to any major automation system through an industry standard protocol. However, the company has defined enhancements to the protocol to control a number of different elements that did not traditionally exist in master control switchers. For example, the extended protocol allows the QMC to have internal logo store capability. "Say you might have 30 or 40 different bugs stored inside the switcher," said Quartz's Challinger. "It's convenient for the automation system to be able to specify which one of those bugs it actually wants to key. In the past, master control switchers didn't have internal storage, there was never a command to be able to do it."

HD Handling

In line with recent trends, many modern master control switchers are capable of handling HD. As previously mentioned, Leitch manufactures two versions of the Opus master control switcher, the MCS-SD16 and the MCS-HD16, with both models having the same control panel. Users that aren't quite ready to make the leap to high definition can buy the SD version and upgrade with an HD kit the company provides when the time is right. "I think what we're probably seeing most in the market [right now] is that people start out with an SD channel -- they're not necessarily going to be converting right away to HD. They'll probably add the HD channel [later]," said Kathy Bienz, Opus product manager for Leitch.

"What's great about Opus is that when [the broadcaster] decides to do more HD transmission than SD, then at that point they can actually convert their SD Opus to HD with a card swap-out kit we offer."

Quartz has integrated high definition capabilities into its QMC switcher. "In terms of the HD channel, the most important thing for us is that it integrates with the rest of the system," said Quartz's Challinger. "Let's say you have a multichannel system with 20 or 30 channels. Some number of those channels can be SD and some of them can be HD and you can mix and match them all and you can control them independently or you can gang the controls so that when the operator does something from the control panel, it's driving both an SD and an HD channel at the same time."

More Cool Stuff...

As manufacturers continue to innovate, expect to see more new features integrated into master control switchers. For example, both Quartz's QMC and Thomson's M-2100 can support embedded audio. Robert Petrilak, project manager, master control for PESA, says the future will bring more integration of features that typically required external devices in the past. "I'm starting to see needs for internal character generators, for [a master control switcher to] do its own station clocks and EAS crawls. People are also asking for internal clip storage. The MCLite currently does not integrate that, but we're looking at that in the future."

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Sarah Stanfield is the managing editor. She can be reached at sstanfield@uemedia.com.