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FOX: Listening Up at NAB

Fox's all-digital plant in Los Angeles is less than six years old, so the network has no major need to upgrade its broadcast infrastructure. Nonetheless, it will send 15 members of its engineering team to NAB, primarily for the "face-to-face meetings" with vendors that it considers important, says Richard Friedel, executive vice president and general manager of Fox Digital, the network's operation and engineering arm.

"There is no substitute for going there, getting people on floor, meeting guys, touching the boxes, and talking first-hand with engineers and designers," says Friedel, who admits that the sheer size of NAB keeps him to a fairly regimented schedule. Even so, Fox makes sure the several members of its technology team "don't have a fixed agenda, so they have time to stumble on the little guys."

Fox's priority is converting its program distribution to support "surround sound," or Dolby 5.1-channel digital audio, which requires new Dolby E processing, switching and monitoring gear at affiliates. Fox's goal is to offer Dolby audio for all of its NASCAR coverage, and the network experimented with Dolby 5.1 during coverage of last week's qualifying for Daytona. This past weekend's Daytona 500 was scheduled to be the network's first official Dolby 5.1 broadcast, and Fox hopes to begin offering Dolby in prime time this spring.

"We're crawling on that, not running," says Friedel, explaining that, after working out some technical bugs, the next big step is for affiliates to install the Dolby E gear necessary to support it. So far, roughly a dozen affiliates have made the move, ranging from top-10 markets to smaller markets like Fort Myers, Fla.

Fox isn't doing much buying on the DTV front. The network currently offers 60%-70% of its schedule in widescreen 480p, including NASCAR and its top NFL games.

Though using servers for program and commercial playout and digital data tape for archiving, the network isn't in the market for asset-management software to track all that nonlinear content. It did undertake a large project to evaluate asset-management software two years ago but decided to wait for better economic conditions before making the investment.

In the interim, 30 of the 40 vendors that Fox considered have folded or merged with other players, says Friedel. "People are enamored with the idea, and it's a compelling idea, to know where everything is at any moment. But, when you recognize the actual cost, it's very difficult to get a good ROI on a large-scale project."

One area that Fox is looking to upgrade is master-control automation software. "NAB is a great place to research it, as all the vendors are there, and you can look at and touch it all. They all work technically, so what you're really looking for are features."

On the post-production front, Fox is looking for new audio consoles and graphics systems. Another hot item is a desktop review and approval system that would allow an editor to create content and e-mail it to colleagues for approval instead of making a tape.