The complexities of tackling DTV

With 62 owned-and-operated stations, Sinclair Broadcast Group, based in Hunt Valley, Md., has had its plate full with the massive conversion to digital transmission. In addition to that, it recently finished complete rebuilds to CCIR 601 digital at three stations, two of which program another station in the market. Typical cost per market was $4 million, according to Del Parks, vice president of engineering and operations.

In Columbus, Ohio, the WSYX building was remodeled from top to bottom. The ABC affiliate also programs Fox affiliate WTTE . A new building was involved at the conversion of WLOS Asheville, N.C., an ABC affiliate that programs WSBC , the WB affiliate in the market. A new building also was involved for WTTA Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla. Synergistics Inc., Pittsburgh, was systems integrator for the projects, which all utilize Philips' Cobra, Saturn and DD35 switchers.

Also prescribed were Pinnacle Mediastream servers and Encoda station automation systems. The group has Columbine (now Encoda) systems in seven markets.

"Our main effort is getting our stations on digital transmission," Parks notes, "and we're currently working on 24 stations. The speed with which we get stations on the air is directly proportionate to the amount of tower space available. Of course, getting building and zoning permits is always an issue." While agreements for tower space vary and sometimes include other non-operated stations in the market, the largest chunk of the business-in nine markets-is being done with American Tower, often involving a programmed station, as well as the main one.

Parks says that the move to digital is taking up 90% of the group's engineering energies, with the other 10% going toward improving efficiency at the station level.

"We've bought a lot of nonlinear editors, and we've tried to shore up and support sales with local production," he adds.

Acrodyne Quantum transmitters are being bought for all of the digital transmission projects. Parks says there is a continuing evaluation of digital encoders, with four being bought so far from Tandberg.

"We've also looked at the Agilevision box, a stream splicer and logo inserter," he adds. "When it comes time to splice streams, it's a very elegant solution." Also acquired has been a "boatload" of Dielectric antennas, with more to come.

With 20 stations programming news, the group continues to buy ENG trucks and Panasonic DVCPRO equipment.

Of course, given Sinclair's leadership role in the battle to add COFDM as an approved alternative modulation scheme for DTV transmission, there is no reason to expect that Sinclair won't be looking for improvements in 8-VSB. And that is probably even more likely given that 8-VSB has been crowned as the lone DTV modulation scheme here in the U.S. "We hope to see some improvements in 8-VSB equipment," the engineering executive notes, "and we'll be at NAB looking for the latest generation of 8-VSB receivers, if there are any."

So how does one shop for equipment for 62 stations? "Where it is prudent to make an investment in the local infrastructure, we've made that investment. and we look at ways to improve a process."

Centralcasting is something that Parks has looked into for five years now, and he believes the economic model works only if the cost of the bandwidth comes down.

"Since we're already a fairly lean operation, the return on investment on the cost of the bandwidth has to improve in order to make centralcasting viable," he explains. "You can pick where you're going to locate your hub, but the problem is what do we do in Peoria?"

Another wrinkle is that Sinclair has affiliates across the map, not just with one network. "It's a different set of issues for us because we have yours, mine and ours with networks."