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NBC Will Gear Up for More HD

HD production gear and advanced compression technology will be top of mind for NBC Universal. The NFL returns to NBC this fall on Sunday nights, and telecasts will be in high-def. Also, by this fall, the Today show will be transmitted in the format. NBC U is taking 50 staffers to Las Vegas this year, 25 from the media giant’s broadcasting and cable side to help shop.

“As we look at transmission going to NAB, bandwidth management is becoming a huge part of our future,” says John Wallace, NBC Universal executive VP of television operations and production services. “We are interested in exploring MPEG-4 compression for more optimization in our bits for distribution, and that includes the NBC television network as well. A project for 2006-07 is to convert Skypath [NBC’s satellite distribution of programs to affiliates] to high-definition MPEG-4. Right now, it’s MPEG-2.”

Based on conversations with transmission vendors, Wallace and his team are hopeful that such equipment will be ready over the next year, although, he says, “we need to do a lot of lab testing.”

NBC is currently completing the rebuild of its network broadcast operations center at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York to convert the entire network operation to HD, a project it undertook to prepare for HD broadcasts of the just concluded Winter Olympics.

Wallace says the second phase of that project is determining where MPEG-4 can be used to conserve bandwidth: “That will be part of our exploration of NAB this year, to get a sense of where the technologies are” in terms of readiness.

Overall, NBC was pleased with how the Olympic high-def effort went, Wallace says, and the network plans to handle its high-def NFL coverage using the same methods, producing the gridiron games in high-definition with a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio and then deriving a downconverted, standard-definition feed in the 4:3 aspect ratio for its analog network.

One new wrinkle: NBC wants to create a New York-based high-def turnaround facility for highlights. So at NAB, it will be exploring clip-playback technologies, such as replay servers from Belgian manufacturer EVS, as well as HD graphics systems.

For the Today conversion, NBC has other challenges. “This is an area where a lot of acquisition technologies are still very raw,” says Wallace. “We’ll be looking at news-gathering technologies and HD microwave and satellite equipment for the conversion of our bureaus and the field equipment. We want to understand where the technology is.”

He thinks that much of the field- acquisition material will remain in the 4:3 aspect ratio for a while. Right now, NBC Universal has an exclusive deal with Sony for its optical-disk XDCAM format, in both standard-definition and high-definition versions, for NBC News and Telemundo. But the XDCAM HD deal does not extend to NBC’s owned and operated stations, which currently use Panasonic’s DVCPRO standard-definition format for field acquisition.

“We are right now evaluating an HD standard going forward and other things for stations,” says Wallace. “We’re looking at technologies for them, as well as obviously anticipating significant investment across the O&Os over the next 18-24 months.”