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Beyond digital deadlines

Digital has arrived, and it's hard not to be overwhelmed with the possibilities. Those ahead of the curve in this global retrofit have had the daunting task of making substantial investments in new equipment and infrastructure long before they are proven-and, more important, long before consumers have decided exactly what they want from digital technology.

Never mind the FCC-mandated DTV deadlines: Today's digital broadcasters are looking beyond timetables to leverage the digital foundation and exploit new opportunities in multicasting, data broadcasting and convergence with the Internet. For now, many of these wish lists are the "what if" stuff of tech-heads and corporate water-cooler bull sessions.

More tangible are some of the early deliverables in the digital equipment arena. Broadcast engineers have learned that there are no "magic" solutions. Often, it's not the equipment you buy, but how you put it all together. Toward that end, facilities-design issues become crucial, because the best-integrated systems won't work optimally if the workflow doesn't make sense.

Typical of these newly digital broadcasters is weta in Washington, D.C. The public broadcaster and producer recently built a multichannel television plant to meet the technical requirements of not only SDTV and HDTV but also of its counterpart public radio station.

"That center services our analog public broadcast mission, our new digital mission, and it's also expandable to do multiple channels. In the future, we expect that our digital service will be multichannel as well as HD," says Lewis Zager, weta vice president of technology.

As the following 10 case studies illustrate, building a "future-proof" digital facility requires equal parts innovation, money, conviction, knowledge, and a willingness to keep one's options wide open.