Sinclair: Looking for Upgrades

Sinclair Broadcast Group isn't heading to NAB this year with a big shopping list of new products, says VP of Engineering and Operations Del Parks. Instead, Sinclair engineers will be searching for upgrades to equipment that Sinclair stations already own, such as new versions of software, and trying to get a better sense of overall technology trends and vendors' product plans.

“We're not actually shopping for anything,” Parks says. “I've told all my guys, the [key] for this year is to figure out how to make what you have work better and use it to be more efficient.”

Given the economic environment, Sinclair has put high-definition upgrades on hold for 2009. So far, the station group has nine markets where it has installed high-definition master control facilities capable of playing out HD commercials and syndicated fare: Buffalo, N.Y.; Columbus, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Baltimore; Charleston, W.Va.; Asheville, N.C.; Pensacola, Fla.; Nashville, Tenn.; and San Antonio, Texas. Four of those markets—Columbus, Baltimore, Pensacola and Asheville—have also upgraded their studios to produce HD newscasts.

While the nine stations with HD control rooms have the necessary equipment to play out HD content, Parks says there is still a lot of work to do to make the delivery of hi-def commercials and syndicated fare as easy as it is in the standard-definition world. While companies like DG FastChannel and Pathfire (now owned by DG) have long transmitted commercials and syndicated content via satellite as files captured by local cache servers on a store-and-forward basis, receiving the same kind of content in high-definition form has required much more manual intervention.

“The delivery of HD content is stuck, it's back to the future,” Parks says. “A lot of it has just been delivered linearly off satellite.”

Sinclair is handling hi-def syndicated shows like Sony Pictures' Seinfeld and Warner Bros.' Two and a Half Men by recording a scheduled satellite feed directly onto either Omneon Spectrum or Grass Valley K2 HD servers under the control of Sundance automation software. While Pathfire and playout server vendors have made progress on getting their systems to communicate with each other to seamlessly handle HD content, Parks says more work still needs to be done.

“What kind of file format do we need, what kind of flippers do we need, are we going to MPEG-2 or MPEG-4, what is the structure? All of that needs to be resolved,” Parks says.

Sinclair is also interested in advancements in news editing and storage by its current vendor, Avid Technology, as well as new competitors such as BitCentral. Sinclair already has Panasonic P2 HD camcorders in Columbus and Baltimore, and it also has new digital microwave gear in most markets as part of the 2 GHz relocation process. But the company hasn't moved to high-definition newsgathering yet because it still needs to upgrade its editing equipment. For now, it's shooting in 16:9 standard-definition in the field and upconverting the video.

“We have a lot of Avid in SD, and we're ready to make the jump into HD newsgathering [in a few markets],” Parks explains. “So I'm very interested to see where Avid is coming from.”

Sinclair, which has a stake in transmitter manufacturer Acrodyne, has been one of the strongest proponents of using stations' digital spectrum to deliver mobile TV services. It will have a booth at the Advanced Television Systems Committee's “Hot Spot” at NAB to showcase mobile DTV demonstrations that will be supported by its Las Vegas stations. Parks will also look at mobile TV-specific solutions from transmitter manufacturers like Harris, Acrodyne and Rohde & Schwarz as well as from encoder manufacturers such as Harmonic.

“There are a lot of people out there who will be in the mobile space but are not transmitter manufacturers,” he notes.

While predictions are for a downsized NAB this year and many broadcasters like Sinclair say they are going to Vegas more to explore than to buy, Parks believes there may be a hidden benefit in 2009 for technology vendors. “If there's a brighter side to this downturn in the economy, everybody gets a pass for this year,” he says. “We're in suspended animation this year, so all the vendors get a chance to fix what they have, or invent new stuff.”