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A goal-oriented approach

When Kelly Alford, vice president of engineering for Seattle-based Ackerley Group, visits Las Vegas for NAB, he won't be toting a catalog of specs to be met by particular black boxes. He'll be carrying a solid understanding of his operation and an open mind as to what can make it better.

"With our proposed merger with Clear Channel, it's hard to say where we're going to be by NAB, so I'm not looking for particular products this year. But that's nothing new," he points out. "My approach has always been to look for means to an end result, not to go looking for the specific pieces of the puzzle."

This year, that means looking at incremental steps in rounding out his DTV vision, advances in asset management, listening for new solutions to tackle the last mile for centralcasting, and creative directions to take new technology.

"Talking to a manufacturer about how they intend a product being used," says Alford, "will lead me to think about how I might use it to tackle a different need."

Alford's DTV build-out plan is substantially accomplished, which provides the breathing room needed to take a considered approach. But many of the group's DTV-transmission build-outs are on hold, given the possible merger.

"The extensions have allowed us not to be reckless, to follow a strategy," he says. "There's demand for services now, but we don't have to buy with our hair on fire trying to build a skeleton system that may be wildly inefficient and leave us with limited options."

Ackerley's DTV stations will able to meet the minimum requirements in a year, he says, adding that the focus isn't just on reaching the minimum. He plans to use the additional time to follow two tracks toward the future of DTV: investigating new business models and making DTV a profitable one. Those two tracks may run in parallel, according to Alford.

"We have to give people a reason to buy the boxes, and we have to package solutions with the goal of return on investment," he says. "Interactivity will drive adoption. We're really just scratching the surface of what we can do with the channel. I'll be looking for unique business models that will add value for the viewers and add to the return on our investment in DTV."

Of course, the dotcom shakeout could reduce the number of companies offering novel interactive technology. "I'm curious to see what will be at the Sands exhibition center and if there will be the same kind of turnout from the computer technology companies as in past several years."

As for the new technology that will keep other head engineers busy at NAB—centralcasting—Ackerley has been very active over the past year building out a network that the industry uses as a model, and Alford says he's very happy with the way his network is running.

"We've bought the T-shirt," he says. "I will be listening to people who have new ideas, but we're where we need to be right now."

All of this leaves Alford with very few specific needs. He will be shopping for HDTV and DTV encoding and monitoring gear as well as seeking to pick up HD-camera peripherals. "We're just looking to augment what we have for HD and take a look at what's new."

He will also be looking at media and news asset management and software to manage connectivity across the group. "I'm looking for end-to-end systems," he explains. "I don't expect to find everything I need for asset management from one vendor, but I'm hoping someone can show me a system that puts everything I need together."

But that doesn't mean Alford will feel the pressure to buy anything on the floor. "I'll be spending most of my time networking."