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Quality up, costs down

Joe Snelson, vice president and director of engineering for the Meredith Broadcasting Group, has one thought on his mind for NAB: finding gear that helps get content in and out as easily as possible.

"All of our stations are part of the major networks, so our local product is news, with some syndicated programming," he says. "We need equipment that will let us do our job in a cost-effective way without harming the quality of the product."

Issue number one for Snelson is making progress in the recent trend of getting satellite receivers into the plant.

"Content providers are sending us receivers so they can send us spot and program files from their satellites," he says, "but that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to getting that content into the plant."

Snelson says he has talked with others in the industry about emerging products that allow content to get into a facility without human intervention.

While that would ideally mean having one box rather than four or five receiving the feeds, he's not looking for one dominant player. "I wish there was one provider that had the lion's share of the market to streamline the process, but we need to maintain a competitive environment."

Snelson is also hoping to see advances in traffic systems. They "currently offer only the bare minimum of information. They are powerful systems, but the traffic systems and the servers don't talk to each other. I want to be able to reconcile the traffic system with the information coming from the server system so I can run queries matching the play list to the play log."

Again, it's an issue of delivering quality news and programs as smoothly and as cheaply as possible. "There is too much manual intervention right now. I'm looking for more automation."

So far, Meredith has replaced spot players with file-server technology in five stations, with transition plans for other stations. "We're looking at age and condition of equipment to see when a change is needed," says Snelson.

He will also look to continue transition to digital production.

"Over the past three to five years, our stations have mostly converted field and studio cameras to the DVCPRO format, and some editing is done on [Avid] NewsCutter-type systems. Right now, I'm more interested in playout, tying it all together and keeping the content safe from cradle to grave."

Snelson will also address archival systems at NAB. "There is 20- to 30-year old equipment and content in older formats, and we need to keep it relevant in the short or long term. DVD seems to be emerging as the de facto standard."

A major part of comparing format options is figuring out how to get the archive into a new format. "Stations have hundreds of hours on tape in different formats, and there's the question of how you do that and then how long is the new format going to be around."

Centralcasting is not in the immediate future for Meredith, partly because of the company's geographically diverse station make-up. "It's difficult to find a cost-effective way for us to approach it, but we'll be looking hard at what's out there."

High definition is similarly on the long-distance radar. "We're not looking at HDTV on the production level, and we have no immediate plans for transmission," Snelson says. "It's a matter of cost and economics."

Graphics are a station-by-station decision, he adds. "Each station has its own style when it comes to graphics, based on the expectations of each market and the professionals working with the equipment."

This year's NAB may give Snelson and other attendees the time and space they need to address all of these issues. "The foot traffic at NAB may be one of those good-news/bad-news situations," he says. "With less people, you'll have more of an opportunity to get into the booths and go in depth with the exhibitors than in past years."