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A Model of Success

Everybody comes to the NAB show looking for the future. This year, the
NAB has packed it into one area right off the show floor: a complete, working
HDTV station assembled by volunteers with gear lent by 60 manufacturers.

“This really will be a fully operational TV station,” says NAB
Project Director Nigel Spratling, who came up with the idea last August and
volunteered to pull it together. “I've been known to have some crazy ideas
in the past, and this is about the craziest yet.”

The station will have it all: editing, transmission—even Internet
streaming. Attendees will be encouraged to take a look around the facility,
learning more about the equipment (the exhibit will be sales-pitch free), and
also to watch a variety of panel discussions that will take place on two
talk-show sets (a news-anchor set will also be on-site).

Those discussions will reach more than just the convention-floor
visitors: KVVU, the local Fox affiliate owned by Meredith Broadcasting, will
air them live over its digital signal, and the content will also be available
via satellite to any other TV station nationwide.

Spratling came up with the idea for the model station when he was
looking at the exhibit-floor plan last summer and noticed a 6,000-square-foot
empty space on the top floor of the North Hall at the Las Vegas Convention
Center. The NAB liked the idea of the station and gave him the go-ahead.

He quickly drew up a list of the equipment he would need to build the
station, and then sent out e-mails to exhibitors who had gear on that list.

Not everyone was open to helping out, but in some cases, too many
equipment manufacturers were. Spratling hit on a simple first-come,
first-served approach. “As long as it did the job, we would use it,” he
says of the HD gear that will make up the exhibit, featuring manufacturers from
Avid to Panasonic (see list below).

Seeing is believing. The “station” will give broadcasters a sense of
what it will take to move from an analog or standard-definition digital plant
to a full HDTV plant. Engineers will get a better sense of how they can make
the transition, and management will get a better understanding of the economics
of the move.

Although more than 1,500 TV stations are broadcasting a digital or HDTV
signal, transmission is the only part of a station's facility affected.
Stations still face the daunting (and expensive) challenge of converting such
areas as program ingest, routing and cabling, the newsroom, field operations,
and even commercial playback to high-def. This exhibit gives an idea of what
that leap will be like.


“Converting a station from analog to digital is pretty
straightforward, if you want a digital version of the analog plant,”
Spratling says. “But if you do that, it won't be easily upgradable for
future technologies.”

He learned that lesson the hard way while planning the station. As an
engineer who has been involved in system integration, he approached it with the
old station model in his brain. “But when I started talking to the various
vendors and began looking at the workflow,” he says, “I found the model
wasn't the best way to build it today.”

For the model station, he needed to rely heavily on IT technologies and
management of content as files. That meant fewer tape machines and more video
servers. That is different but, he notes, “assembling a facility based on
those technologies is a hell of a lot easier when it's from scratch, because
you don't have to build around the existing facility.”

Keeping it real

And this facility isn't based on head-in-the-clouds ideals. “One of
our big rules was that whatever gear is used must be available today,
deliverable today and used today,” Spratling says. “This isn't about a
future facility that might or might not exist in reality.”

The result is a facility that is also surprisingly cost-effective. If
all the gear were paid for, Spratling says, it would cost about $1.5 million.
“That's not too far out of line with the costs of building a full TV
station using standard-definition gear,” he adds.

Spratling and Burst Communications, the Denver-based integrator that has
been working hard to assemble the components, will have one of the busiest
pre-NAB schedules of anyone at the show.

The final assembly in Las Vegas has already begun, but a process that
takes a typical station months will be accomplished in days thanks to pre-wired
racks of gear.

And it will come down just as quickly. Says Spratling, “We'll be
tearing it down feverishly on April 21.”