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The NAB balancing act

At NAB, A.H. Belo Vice President, Engineering, Bob Turner will be monitoring trends that may affect the Dallas-based company's top three tech priorities for 2001: consolidation of station operations, data storage and indexing, and the DTV build-out of the group's last 12 stations by the May 1, 2002, deadline.

"We are in the process of developing our plans for data storage and indexing," Turner says. "We are very well-defined in terms of the DTV products, but we have not committed on the clustering products yet."

The search is on for products that would help centralize Belo station operations. Accordingly, file servers are a big interest, and so is software that can consolidate master-control functions, maybe graphics and certainly sharing of news resources.

The biggest question mark now is how to consolidate master controls. "Hopefully," says Turner, "we will be able to get in at the time when there are mature products ready to do this."

As a first step in asset management, Belo is expecting to make a large investment to convert newsroom-editing operations from tape to disk. Already in use at Belo's TXCN (Texas Cable News), disk-based editing will be rolled out to the "Texas cluster" of stations in the group, which includes WFAA-TV Dallas-Fort Worth, KHOU-TV Houston, KVUE-TV Austin and KENS-TV San Antonio.

Belo is also testing products for asset management. Plans call for a central storage and indexing repository for all news content; stations will be connected through fiber so they can search and retrieve newspaper, broadcast and Internet content.

"We are moving toward a concept of a 'media company' instead of a broadcasting, newspaper or Internet company," Turner adds. "We think those three outlets can repurpose the same material, tailoring it for the preference of the viewer or user."

DTV, meanwhile, is far from a done deal. Even though Belo has the finances, the plan and the commitment to meet the FCC's deadline, it's not clear whether manufacturers and crews will keep up with demand. "Equipment orders are beginning to back up pretty quickly in the factories," Turner says.

Six Belo stations have completed outside RF conversion and can broadcast DTV. All pass through network high-def when available and otherwise run HD tape loops or simply upconvert standard-def products. What's left is 11 stations (perhaps 12, since Belo is in the process of attempting to buy one of its two LMAs).

Belo is using Dielectric for antennas and transmission lines, while Harris is supplying the transmitters and test equipment and Lucent encoders . Currently, the group is looking for "better solutions and cost reductions," according to Turner, implementing a staged switchover in which certain parts of the build-out will be done after stations get on air.

While no Belo stations have built out complete HD production facilities, standard-def 601 conversions have been done at the three largest stations in the group: WFAA , KHOU and KING-TV Seattle. Two of the Belo stations have purchased HDTV studio cameras, and KING-TV , is airing a hybrid HDTV newscast on its digital channel.

Everything on the short list at NAB 2001 must be at least capable of being upgraded to hi-def and wide-aspect ratio, even if there are no immediate plans to use it. "We don't want throwaway products that are limited to standard-definition or analog," Turner explains. "Today, if we buy studio cameras, we consider that a 10- to 15-year purchase."

That could be the biggest dilemma of NAB: balancing time between shopping for the basics and fleshing out the complex, enterprisewide solutions.

"It's not like going to the grocery store and picking out a quart of milk," Turner says. "We need to know the trends, we need to know the status of the products that might allow us to implement those trends, and we need to talk with developers early enough to influence how they shape the final product. All of those things happen at NAB."