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Shopping Vegas, Thinking Houston

Fox Networks’ major technology project over the next two years will be building a 150,000-square-foot, high-definition broadcast facility in Houston to serve as a national base for its 15 regional sports networks.

With construction set to begin this month, Fox plans to use the show as a chance to take a “last look” at broadcast gear before placing orders, according to Richard Friedel, executive VP/general manager, Fox Networks engineering and operations.

“That’s the top of our radar for this NAB,” says Friedel, who will be taking 40-50 staffers from the company’s broadcast and cable operations to Las Vegas.

One area in which Friedel is seeking improvement is in the systems the company uses to monitor and process video and audio. Fox currently relies on a number of dedicated control systems from a variety of manufacturers—including Leitch, Evertz and Grass Valley—but he says he would like to find a way to link the systems under a single interface.

“We have made some efforts at making a unified control, and our hope is one control system,” he explains. “We really want to take it to the next level and 'virtually control’ as much as possible.”

In the same way that NBC habitually tests new equipment and processes during its Olympics productions and then brings them back to its permanent operations in New York and Los Angeles, Fox would like to solve the monitoring problem while it creates the Houston facility and then extend that technology to its other facilities.

The new building is slated to open in 2008.

“We could do much of the engineering off the Houston project and then apply it at the network,” says Friedel.

With so much work going into the new Houston facility, Fox is seeking only incremental improvements across the rest of its operations. Among the projects it will be considering are upgrading its editing facilities with new nonlinear systems and increasing server storage for playback.

Fox Sports, for example, has shifted from Grass Valley and Sony linear editors to Avid Nitris and Apple Final Cut Pro nonlinear systems. It is also replacing 11-year-old AMS Neve audio consoles with new Studer Vista 8 units for live production of shows like Fox NFL Sunday.

Producing consistent Dolby Digital 5.1-channel audio mixes for high-def broadcasts continues to be an issue, particularly with live events. Friedel says that it’s difficult to make a compatible Dolby Digital mix that converts well to the stereo sound that is needed for standard-definition broadcasts.

“It really causes challenges, especially in sports, to consistently have the high-quality mix we want,” he says. “In that sense, it’s an art form. We would like to make it more quantifiable, but we’re having difficulties with that. We want a display that will help us in that regard, but a definitive display is not there.”

Viewers will cheer one item on Fox’s agenda. Says Friedel, “We’re working with vendors [including Dolby and Neural Audio] to try to make commercial loudness less of a problem.”