Top Techies Set to Buy for the Future

As networks and broadcast stations prepare for their annual trek to Las Vegas, top technologists at major TV companies report that the 2015 NAB Show will be particularly important for them, given the massive changes in basic broadcast infrastructure.

“We are not going to be building any more big iron facilities,” says Vince Roberts, executive VP of global operations and CTO at the Disney/ABC Television Group, who will be speaking at NAB about the company’s plans to embrace IP- and cloud-based infrastructures. “The cloud and IP-based infrastructures will allow us to quickly respond to new consumer trends.”

Other much discussed newer technologies include 4K, the upcoming ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard and drones, which will have their own pavilion at the show.

But Roberts and other engineers also stress that they will be actively exploring a wide range of more traditional broadcast technologies and that the show, this year from April 11-16 in Las Vegas, continues to offer a vital forum for exchanging ideas. “It is a very important opportunity to get together and discuss industry trends,” says Jeff Morris, senior VP of operations and technology at NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations, which will be holding meetings with its engineers from 28 stations before and during the market.

Here’s what a cross-section of technologists at major network and station groups told B&C about their plans.

DISNEY/ABC: Beyond Big Iron

“Anything with video to IP will be a huge part of this year’s NAB show,” says Roberts at Disney/ABC Television Group, echoing comments from a number of top technologists, particularly at the national networks, about their Vegas plans.

Roberts adds that they are already working on some major IP-based infrastructure projects. “We are moving away from baseband video so that everything we do will be living in that IP space.”

As part of that transition, they will also be focusing on cloud and IT technologies. “The cloud gives us an opportunity to virtualize all of this technology so that we can very quickly spin up and down new networks and services,” he says. “We want to leverage private-hosted cloud infrastructures.”

The company will also be taking a close look at new cameras, lenses and camera technologies for their studios. “As we begin to look at refreshing cameras, I’ll be talking to Sony, Canon and Ikegami,” he says.

They will also be exploring drones and ATSC 3.0. “I want to make sure that anything we do is future-proof, to be able to handle what happens with the new standard,” he says.

FOX: Exploring Virtualized Tech

Richard Friedel, executive VP/GM of Fox Networks Engineering and Operations and his teams will be exploring a wide range of technologies at the show, including systems for more efficiently delivering content to digital platforms, cloud-based technologies to virtualize operations, production tools that will give producers more control over content creation, systems to better automate the assembly of content, and live IP video.

With everyone in the industry putting more emphasis on digital delivery and over-the-top distribution, Friedel says that “we’ll be looking at encoding systems and the like to see how we can take our more traditional linear streaming businesses and prepare them for the future.”

Another key focus will be virtualization. “We have been looking at it for the past few years, but we are even more serious now about computer and storage mechanisms so we can virtually [handle] master control and such,” says Friedel, who adds that their growing interest in cloud-based technologies also means a renewed emphasis on open systems. “One of the key questions we will be asking our traditional vendors is, ‘how are you preparing your products for the cloud future.’ Here again, open API’s will be key for our ability to do that.”

Friedel believes it will be a while before broadcasters move to 4K but he says they will be exploring UHD technologies and that they are already doing a lot of work with their studio in the area of high dynamic range for UHD images.

IP-based technologies will also be important, though Friedel notes that they built the industry’s first IP-based master control in the 1990s and that Game Creek is building an all-IP truck for their sports production. “We are already heavily IP-based,” he says. “What we are trying to figure out is the live component. There is a ton of work going on here and elsewhere in the industry…to try to put some reference architectures in place to ensure interoperability.”

SCRIPPS: Prepping for the Big Build

Technology for a new broadcast operations center will be a major focus for the tech teams at Scripps Networks Interactive, reports John Ajamie, the company’s senior VP of U.S. operations. For this major multiyear project, which is likely to continue into late 2016 or early 2017, “we’ll be recan-vassing broadcast systems,” Ajamie says, including “automation, servers, routers, IP-based infrastructures and all those vendors in the area of broadcast operations.”

The project is being driven by the need to replace aging equipment, but Ajamie stresses that “the new broadcast operations center is an opportunity for us as well to really integrate our broadband operations with our broadcast operations” to streamline the delivery of content to all platforms.

Beyond that, his teams will also be looking at a wide array of production, editing, media workflow management software and studio equipment, including 4K cameras.

Scripps has also been expanding its international operations and will be looking for technologies to help streamline those efforts, adds Mike Donovan, senior VP of international operations and distribution technologies at Scripps Networks Interactive.

Here, they would like to find ways to more closely integrate their regional operations and to deploy technologies that would make it much easier to localize their regional feeds. “A big focus in 2015 is streaming the localization process in audio, subtitles and ads so that we can create more appealing content for those local viewers,” Donovan says.

CBS Stations: Eying Speed to Air

“We will be looking at new and creative ways to get content back to the plant and out to air,” says Jeff Birch, VP of engineering at the CBS Television Stations Group, when asked about his top priorities for NAB. With the upcoming spectrum auctions, he will also be looking at antennas and transmitters to make sure they can deal with whatever channel changes the process entails.

Also high on the list are technologies for improving the news content they produce with better graphics and editing systems as well as software for improving the efficiency of their content delivery to multiple platforms.

With all the talk about moving to IP infrastructures, Birch says that, “we are definitely in the IP camp,” with about 50% of their plant already handling IP video. “That is a trend that will only continue,” he adds, though he believes the transition will take a while.

More immediately, he says they have technology to handle the FCC “audible crawl” rules to provide an audible feed of emergency text crawls by May 26. But he adds that he’d like to find better monitoring equipment so they can “quickly react and correct” problems.

COX: Focusing on News

For the Cox stations, technologies related to their news operations remain top priority, says Dave Siegler, VP of technical operations at the Cox Media Group.

“We are always keeping our radar on the burgeoning technologies in newsgathering and news workflows because we have such a big focus on news at Cox,” he says. Siegler adds that 2015 will be a quieter year in terms of upgrades but that they are planning some major projects for 2016. “We will have a couple of projects involving buildings that could have some major infrastructure build-out,” he says. “IP technologies, routing and core infrastructure will be a big topic for us at this year’s NAB.

While he sees a lot of promise in the transition to all-IP plants, he adds that, “right now I don’t think the technologies are mature enough. Nor do I want to be the first one to adapt them.”

More immediately, “rolling out live HD newsgathering from the field in our medium and smaller market stations remains a focus,” says Siegler. As part of that effort, they are acquiring Panasonic cameras with wireless connectivity. “We are buying a significant amount of cameras this year and one of the features on those cameras that was completely vital was wireless.”

NBCU: Divide and Conquer

NBCU plans to divide engineers from about 28 stations attending the show into teams that will explore developments such as live trucks and transmission technologies. These topics include a wide set of newsgathering products ranging from cameras to lights and microphones; new enhancements in news management platforms and newsroom computer systems; control room and studio technologies; virtual and augmented reality studio systems; new IP-based technologies; and graphics.

“It’s a kind of divide-and-conquer approach,” jokes the group’s top tech leader, Jeff Morris, who believes the confab provides an invaluable opportunity for teams to share ideas to improve their operations.

Some of this work will go into upcoming major projects in San Diego and Philadelphia. “We’re very interested in how our baseband world will fully evolve into an IP world,” he says.

But a lot of the meetings with vendors will revolve around more immediate concerns, such as systems for more easily controlling large numbers of monitors on the set and virtual and augmented reality sets. “We want to look at how augmented and virtual reality could develop into more practical applications,” he says.

NEXSTAR: Streamlining FCC Compliance

Like at a number of other stations, Blake Russell, senior VP of station operations at the Nexstar Broadcasting Group, says that the looming deadline of FCC rules for an “audible crawl” on emergency information will make “text to speech technologies” a top priority.

Russell says the technologies for handling the rules are available and that “we have a solution that will work.” But he worries about the tight deadline, given the fact that “vendors don’t necessarily have prototypes that they can supply to us.”

“There is a big difference between saying a product is ready and being able to ship it to meet the May 26 deadline,” he says. “We know what direction we’re going but I want to get a good look at the equipment during NAB.”

Russell also wants to make certain the products are interoperable with other equipment and don’t require them to buy additional equipment to handle various aspects. “I want one engine to handle it that can receive file transfers from multiple pieces of equipment and not multiple pieces of hardware,” he says.

Beyond the new FCC rules, Russell says, “we have many construction projects, consolidation projects and hub projects in front of us,” and he’ll be exploring playout automation systems and technologies that can greatly streamline multiplatform distribution. “We want to be able to work on one screen and use that to deliver content to many screens,” he says.

Looking For Smoother Operations

With news operations providing stations with the bulk of their revenue, technologies to improve the flow will as usual be some of the most popular topics at this year’s NAB. Here are a few areas that top engineers at major networks and station groups emphasized.

GOING MOBILE: Technologies to allow journalists and producers to send back more video from the field with new Internet-connected cameras, IP-based and cellular-bonded
newsgathering systems and cloud-based production systems for sharing content will be high on many shopping lists. Inside the newsroom, that will also mean greater attention to software systems to manage those IP feeds and to share them with other stations in their group.

MULTIPLATFORM DELIVERY: To get more content to more devices, engineers will be paying increased attention to software systems for managing content, streamlining workflows and automating the reformatting of news clips for mobile devices.

VIRTUAL GRAPHICS: Thanks to rapid advances in computing power, systems for offering virtual or augmented reality sets are becoming a much more affordable and practical alternative, say several engineers.

FCC COMPLIANCE: With rules already in place to require captions for online clips and upcoming rules for audio feeds of emergency text crawls, stations will be exploring ways to automate and monitor compliance.