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The switcher bread box

As television production becomes increasing elaborate, broadcasters are constantly looking for ways of getting more efficiency from their production tools. Over the years, the production switcher has gone from being a simple machine to switch from camera A to camera B to a full-featured production system.

This year at NAB, manufacturers will be demonstrating increased functionality of these versatile machines. The introduction of Grass Valley Group's Kalypso video-production center in August 1999 set a new paradigm for production switchers. It was one of the first systems designed to put live-video production, graphics and effects tools in a single unit. Today, the Kalypso has become a popular system for mobile production.

"We worked closely with the mobile and broadcast communities, as well as other high-quality content providers, to design a system that leapfrogged other switchers in terms of production capabilities and overall value, while addressing space, weight and power concerns," says Tim Thorsteinson, president of Grass Valley Group.

Last year at NAB, Pittsburgh-based NEP Supershooters exhibited the first mobile version of the Kalypso system in its new Supershooters SS20 mobile unit, and Trio Video, of Chicago, announced that is was installing a Kalypso in a new mobile teleproduction truck.

This year, Crosscreek Television Productions, a remote television production company in Alabaster, Ala., ordered its second Kalypso Video Production Center in six months. The company uses the system in its Voyager IV truck primarily for coverage of National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) racing. Last August, the mobile company installed a Kalypso Video Production Center system in Voyager VI, a new, 53-foot digital production truck commissioned by CBS Sports.

Responding to demand for this level of productivity in the mid-markets, Pinnacle Systems has introduced its new PDS 9000 switcher for live production. According to Paul Turner, business manager for new product development, it's the first product with this high level of functionality specifically developed for broadcast news and local-interest programming.

"The switcher has just taken another monumental stride as a production tool, and it really is in direct response to the needs of the users," says Turner. "We're taking tools that would normally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and putting them inside the switcher. Now a mid-market broadcaster can afford to put together a very high-end look that before only the networks could afford."

Building on its expertise as a DVE manufacturer, Pinnacle's switcher provides internal video processing for squeeze backs, page turns, and over-the-shoulder graphics.

"It really simplifies things from a bunch of perspectives, especially cabling and controlling DVE," says Turner. "By putting the DVE inside the switcher, all of that goes away—no external cabling, no programming of two separate devices. It's all just one entity that just dramatically improves workflow and the general engineering of the studio."

Turner also sees another trend affecting Pinnacle's target market—the need for increased graphics-processing power. For most mid-market broadcasters, adding a graphics machine to do the increasingly popular bug on the lower right side of the screen is not feasible. "They would be hard-pressed to justify the cost of graphics box or a character generator," Turner says.

So Pinnacle has put graphics tools inside the switcher. "Modern TV is very graphics oriented, and to have the ability to play back the graphics from within the switcher is a huge improvement," Turner says.

Its new switcher has 19 frame stores, each capable of storing and playing back one of four images. "So you have 76 frames of video for immediate use at all times," he says. "Once you have that power, it's very hard to go back. It's an enabling technology."

Sony is also looking to meet the demand for switchers that do more than switch. Jay Gravina, general manager, production and editing systems for Sony, says that the MVS (multi-format video switcher) will have up to eight channels of digital effects, both video and key, built in. "And regarding stills, more than 200 standard-def stills can be output from any one of the eight on-board frame memories," he adds. "Those memories are also animation capable."

As for a character generator, Sony's plan for integrating CG is to allow the user to choose the software package they prefer. "This CG application can be interfaced directly into the switcher using an application plug-in like Deko."

A slow move to HD

Although a few very small broadcast operations are still buying analog switchers, for most it's no longer an option to go digital.

"It seems the political climate this year is suggesting broadcasters will, in fact, have to be digital-ready on schedule," says Mark Everett, vice president of advanced technologies at Videotek. "This is the year that decisions really have to made by broadcasters. And with this year's stock market, it's not the best year to be spending money. They have to invest wisely where it is going to give them the best and give the most bang for the buck."

And while broadcasters seem to be readily adopting digital production technology, manufacturers report that the demand for high-definition products remains low.

"They're not looking for HD," says Jeff Moore, marketing manager for Ross Video. "We've seen almost no demand for it in broadcast circles."

David Ross, president of Ross Video, adds, "They want to transmit in HD, but they don't want to spend the money on an HD switcher, so the HD audience sees ugly black bars."

Turner says it's no mystery why the adoption of HD is so slow. "Everybody is still very concerned about making a mistake until consumers buy into HDTV, so they are taking something of a wait-and-see attitude," he remarks. "Going to HD is even more frightening than going to digital. Frankly, it's out of reach for most mid-market stations."

That's why Pinnacle's switcher is designed to handle both the 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios.

Having the ability to work in both aspect ratios is something that Ross Video feels very strongly about, as well. "This is one of our big soapboxes—to discuss this issue and to build awareness among broadcasters," says Moore.

"When broadcasters go to their archive, material is in 4:3, and, when they go to the satellite, it's 4:3. How do we handle it?," he asks. "We've built in an aspect-ratio converter."

Ross Video calls this feature the Aspectizer. "You can create dual-aspect-ratio production on the fly, so you can turn a 16:9 source to 4:3 or a 4:3 source to 16:9, and you do it in a way that respects the format that it comes in," Moore explains.

When it comes to true HD production gear, Panasonic believes it knows what broadcasters are seeking. "Keep it small, keep it flexible, keep it simple," says Stuart English, vice president of marketing for Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems Co. "The HD arena is still something that's a little uncertain. There is some demand, but it's not great and it's not large scale."

According to English, high-definition switchers are slowly finding their way into HD mobile production trucks and small studio installations. Broadcasters are buying HD switchers on a limited scale for promotion insertion and simple editing of a short program.