Making it all fit together

Sterling Davis, vice president and director of engineering for Cox Broadcasting, is taking the economical path to digital: a slow, steady migration as each piece of equipment reaches the end of its life cycle. And, as in years past, Davis won't be going to NAB looking to replace analog systems wholesale.

"We never go to NAB with a shopping list," he says. Instead, he'll look for smart ways to integrate digital technology into analog environments.

According to Davis, NAB is not a time for buying but a time for browsing for new solutions. Though in the market for testing and monitoring equipment, he says he'll "spend most of my time on the floor visiting larger vendors to see what they have and make sure we understand where they're going. I'll also visit smaller vendors to find devices that will help us in our migration strategy."

His long-term, piece-by-piece strategy hinges on the ability to link new equipment into existing environments, which is not necessarily the easiest way to go, or the cheapest. "It's easy to do if you've got a lot of money," he points out, adding, "but we're going to find the cost-effective way."

Cox's studios are 15% to 20% digital, and Davis doesn't expect to finish that transition in the near future. It will be five to seven years before the last of the group's analog gear will need to be replaced.

He has already seen the fruits of his patience, with digital costs falling significantly over the past several years. He has already seen a dramatic drop in prices of such equipment as encoders, multiplexers and upconverters for digital transmission, and he expects that trend to continue.

"It's also considerably cheaper to build a digital studio now than when we started," he observes. "We're paying 15% to 20% of what it cost to put our first digital studios together."

Davis's strategy for this NAB is to find digital equipment that will easily integrate into the existing studios, along with hardware or software that will add to overall efficiency by reducing time and equipment redundancy.

Handling media in the newsroom and in on-air presentation are two specific areas where manual tasks could be reduced or boxes could perform multiple functions. "In both environments, we have to take the feed, copy it, timecode it, check quality," he explains. "We'll look for equipment that will help us streamline our operation by helping people avoid doing repetitive tasks."

Centralcasting is not part of Davis's plans for NAB next month. Cox currently has a feasibility study under way by integrator Digital System Technology. It should be finished by July.

"We're certainly looking at centralcasting, but I'm not sure if it's an NAB issue. There's no hardware for centralcasting," Davis points out, adding that "it's something we're studying for now."

Similarly, HDTV is not on his agenda for Las Vegas. "It is not a priority, and we don't know when or if it will ever be."

Among areas in which Davis plans to be checking out what's new for 2002: graphics, switchers and digital transmission. Graphics and switchers, he notes, are bought on a station-by-station basis.

With the final eight of 15 stations due to go on-air with digital in May, the RF side is almost complete. The goal then will be to find a way to make the move to digital provide an economic benefit.

According to Davis, that won't be found on the transmission side. "There's no return on investment in transmission. The digital plant is where we're looking for return, which means finding the right interfaces that make it easy to put digital equipment in an analog environment and, as we get more and more digital, to find ways to make our analog equipment retain its usefulness in a digital world."