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National Association of Broadcasters Exhibition
by Jim Bennett (April 1999)

Business Perspective
People, Products and Digital Ideas

The Scene

The convergence of hardware, software, the newest technologies and along with futuristic Internet ideas are continuing at a feverish pace. The expanded "must see and experience" National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show is continuing to entirely cover the media communications industry.

Advancing technology has always been visible at NAB with it's displays of professional, high-end image acquisition and production hardware packed into the Las Vegas, Sands and Hilton Convention Centers. Now, coupled with the dot com's and Internet forces, they are continuing to exert their influence and seemed to have taken over the entire city.

The convention centers, parking lots, hotels and other venues were packed to overflowing with people, products, conferences and presentations. For example, outside of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) the Harris/PBS DTV Express, 65 foot semi-trailer truck was completing its 16 month, 40 city nationwide tour to inform and educate people about digital television.

Equipment included a Philips high-definition digital camera, new software for Harris high-definition compression management, real-time adaptive video correction controls, a new Panasonic production switcher, a Barco multiscan monitor and high-definition 720 Progressive recording and playback equipment. Tours were conducted for NAB attendees throughout the show on both digital broadcast equipment, in the mobile production studio, and consumer equipment in an adjunct area called "The Living Room Of Tomorrow".

This traveling hands-on educational center had almost 20,000 visitors since mid 1998. Its goal is to inform people in the broadcast industry and related areas, in their own communities, about the real promise of digital television. Unfortunately, its brief introductory run will conclude later this year. At NAB 2000, I will let you know if the center is "on the road again".

Attendee Perspectives

In talking with a wide-range of exhibitors and attendees, it appeared that the animosity between broadcasters and PC groups, noted in previous years, was beginning to subside. The upcoming, government mandated digital deadline, in the year 2006, was clearly on many people's minds. The government will then start recovering analog spectrum, leaving 85 to 90 percent of the country to be covered by the new digital spectrum. Several attendees wondered if the 2006 deadline was realistic for medium and small stations with limited capital budgets, since the cost of digital upgrades can significantly cut into a station's profit margin.

Some broadcasters are clearly concerned because of the huge investments they must make and a general lack of consumer digital awareness. They find that they have to overcome many technical and implementation obstacles as well, in order to achieve seamless delivery to the consumer. New technology, such as multicasting, is on the horizon, while the 2006 deadline is rapidly approaching. There is concern about the low penetration of digital television sets, the lack of programming produced in digital format and as some expressed, "all this Internet stuff".

Other attendees indicated that "no one can possibly keep up with all the tech developments and make any sense of it" and "whatever we buy and install must work and can't crash like those PCs do all the time". They also felt that "hard to use systems are totally unacceptable to our viewing audience" and "to survive and succeed, I guess we will all have to work together to figure out the best solutions for all our customers". Still others felt that they were "here to learn and make knowledgeable, important contacts with groups that I can depend on" and that "no vaporware or fly by night companies will get my attention", but also felt that "it's very hard to determine what's real and isn't".

From the Internet and PC side, it was apparent they felt traditional broadcasters were still having a difficult time understanding their products and services and to see how both sides fit into the digital future. Many thought the broadcasters should attend the multitude of conferences being held at NAB so they could better understand the framework in which technology can be effectively applied. Also, broadcasters could learn some additional insights into the 21st century consumer and find out how they will use the new media approaches to acquire and retain customers.

Some felt that they need to make the effort to understand broadcaster's concerns better, especially reliability and ease of use issues. "Broadcasters still have huge market share and we have to make sure our services are in line with what they want and need. But, consumers are shifting away the traditional broadcast model to the Internet model now." "We need to form alliances and cooperate to use our specialized knowledge, regardless if we come from traditional broadcasting or technology."

Product Overviews

Digital technology and the Internet continue to radically change how images and sound are acquired, produced, distributed and contribute to the bottom line, at the end of the day. This was graphically demonstrated in the products I saw at NAB. HDTV has been the Holy Grail of Broadcasting for many, many years. It is now being joined by a host of new products and strong push of technologies such as broadband, datacasting, videocasting, webcasting and other competing technologies. Here are some of the outstanding products I found.

Defining Digital @ Sony is this year's company show theme, which embraces interlaced and progressive formats. DTV and growing MPEG international acceptance, should lead to much needed integrated solutions on an industry wide basis. Sony plans to be one of the leaders as Howard Stringer, Sony's CEO of American operations, effectively presented in his keynote address .

Sony's 1080/24p production system was a show standout in the hardware sector. The system represents a long needed industry digital production standard. A high definition (HD) master can be produced which meets all ATSC standards. This means the HD master can be easily converted into any number of interlaced or progressive transmission formats, which saves time and money by not having to invest in multiple post production systems to serve other formats. Products like this will help reduce the financial barriers to HDTV equipment and production.

Equipment embraced by this system includes the HDCAM product line, including the HDW-250 HDCAM field recorder that can be battery powered and is usable with many of Sony's HD cameras. The line also includes a telecine, editor, digital effects system, monitors, multiformat converters and VTR's.

Sony's commitment to it's professional Betamax format was underscored by its HDCAM VTR's which will playback Betacam SP, Betacam SX and Digital Betacam tapes dating back to 1983 and on future machines to be introduced beyond 2005. This is a real commitment to this format's stability and is helping broadcasters conserve their limited budgets in the fast changing "throw away" technology age.

In the surveillance area, Sony's CVXV18NS NightShot video camera head is capable of recording at 0 lux light levels. It can be remotely connected to a DSR -V10 video Walkman up to 30 meters away. This sounds like an excellent unit for urban or "Area 51" applications.

Some post show business buzz included Sony's big deal with CBS to provide about $20 million worth of Betacam SX equipment to replace analog equipment at the network's New York operations and selected international news locations. Fox is also committing to the SX equipment and it's news operations will use a Sony NewsBase server to cut production time significantly.

Last year's cool product, from NEC, the DiskCam, has graduated to a full production version. As you may recall, the camcorder uses an optical disk rather than tape for recording video. The unit can record up to 20 minutes of MPEG-2, 4:2:2 of video per disk, which is rewritable and removable. Company representatives said the unit is designed to be durable and fully functional when used in demanding field applications.

As production units become more widely used, we may finally have a viable alternative to tape based systems, which can be troublesome. NEC says that these disks can survive up to 300,000 erase-record cycles. Will a "Prosumer" version of this cool unit available in our future? Let's hope so.

Broadcast networks are pursuing multiple migration paths to achieve high definition. JVC's strategy seems to provide high performance, for reasonable cost, with flexibility and scalability. To pursue its HDTV goal, the company launched its D- 9 HD recording format with 100 Mbps component digital recording in HDTV. Three models were shown, a switchable 1080i/720 P studio VTR, a 720p camcorder and a 1080i camcorder.

JVC officials said the D-9 HD format was the next logical step in its Digital-S format. The company is basing its key design elements on half inch tape, because it allows the recording of vast amounts of data on a system that has proven reliability. The DY- 90 digital camcorder and KY-D29W camera both offer 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios.

The MW S1000 Time Gate non-linear editing system was developed to support Digital S users and is now in its second generation of software. The company said the revised software provides more 2-D and 3-D effects, while improving product functionality. This again reinforces to the high performance/reasonable price strategy, which should appeal to more price conscious users.

The Hughes-JVC Electronic Cinema Theater was one of NAB's most dramatic presentations in several ways. First, it was an historic screening of the Oscar winning Miramax film, Shakespeare in Love, in its full length format, for a selected private/public screening. Secondly, and most importantly, it was projected on a 30 foot wide screen, with high definition video using the ILA-12K projector that uses an Image Light Amplifier (ILOA) device. This liquid crystal light valve, coupled to a CRT with a highly refined optics system, is the key to the 12K's unique ability to meet or exceed 35mm motion picture film quality, in every area, on screens up to 118 feet wide. I felt the images were stunning and very "film-like".

Technically, the lifelike colors and contrast levels exceed 1000:1 which insured a depth and richness of images that was truly remarkable. With over 12,000 lumens of light output and a display resolution of 2000x1280, the crisp, non-pixelized images provided the look and feel of film.

This presentation will stand out in my mind for years to come as one of best of show for NAB 99. Great job.

The operative words are cost-effective high-definition acquisition. Panasonic's DVCPRO camera line included a preview look at some of the early 2000 model year HD camcorders. The AJ-HDC-10 and HDC20 PRO HD camcorders are designed to support 1080i and 1035i HDTV formats.

The company also announced its new Professional Video (PV) series of DVCPRO products for budget conscious users. In the 1080i acquisition grouping, both the AK-HC880 studio version and AK-HC830 portable cameras were also showcased.

Panasonic is said to have sold equipment to Hearst Media and others, but details are not available at this time.

Hitachi's 2.2 million pixel CCD portable camcorders were shown in both field and studio modes as models SK- 3000P and SK-3000S respectively. They are said to deliver 1080i digital output and because they are both modular, 720P and 480P can also be delivered.

These cameras can be used today and in the future, when their owners can afford to upgrade to HDTV. It's great to see real world solutions, based on the realistic daily financial realities of broadcasters.

The higher end Philips LDK-9000 HDTV prototype camera, shown last year, is now available as 1080i and 720p production models. The new LDK-2000 camcorder is a shoulder mounted, 16:9/4:3 format camera that can acquire images in 480i or 480p modes.

Affordable Editing

Pinnacle's strength is hardware design and produces a wide range of products focusing on coupling its I/0 platforms with key software partners. This allows customers a wide array of choices in a complete system and to use what works for them. This year's releases included AladdinPro and Targa products, which is the new brand name for Truevision products. The latter provides turnkey solutions and aggressive marketing to generate end user interest. Some turnkey Pinnacle systems are available for under $10,000, complete with software. Users say these products get the job done, like a higher end systems.

Play Inc.'s compression based non-linear editor, Time Machine, was announced at NAB for $4995. It integrates with the Trinity broadcast studio relying on a Windows NT platform interface. The company hopes to combine the power of both systems into a single system.

A completely redesigned Newtek Video Toaster system has been introduced. The company hopes to capitalize on its ten-year name recognition, especially when customers learn of its improvements. Basically, all the video is converted into uncompressed D1 video format using Windows NT. Video Toaster NT is a hybrid design, using software and a sophisticated I/O card. Hardware is minimized to help achieve a suggested retail price of $2,995 and will be available in May, 1999.

The Media 1000 Power Grade series offers turnkey solutions starting at under $6,000. The company wants to provide end users with non-linear editing systems without the complexities of the Windows NT platform. Ease of use, affordability and reliability are the key product attributes targeted for the educational market, corporate video, governments and independent videographers. Systems with professional workstations start at less than $9,000.

The Road To Broadcasting's New Future?

Many activities are happening at the same time on all fronts, such as the following.

Ted Turner proclaims: "No more channels. We have enough competition already!" Technology is radically changing the television business and perhaps its options. As Snell & Wilcox showed in one of its guides a short time ago, "DTV - Adapt Or Die" with a drawing of a T Rex underneath the headline.

Major traditional broadcast networks and cable carriers, who fight all the time for viewers, are joining together to fight the most recent threat from the high speed Internet. New companies like Yahoo/Broadcast.com, Roadrunner and @Home are just a few of the many positioning themselves to cash in on the "new media" battlefield.

Currently, streaming video programs are limited to about ten minutes, but that will change as the architecture and delivery systems get better in the future. The viewer model where a customers can choose from thousands and thousands of programs, the exact time and location they want to view it, at a very competitive cost (or free) is also on the horizon. Access to desirable consumer demographics and B2C sales and distribution models may be the key to winning this game.

Mark Cuban predicted that within 18 to 24 months, some broadcast stations will have more viewers over the Internet during office hours than over the airwaves. At work, viewing may present a great growth area unless employers change the rules and want their employees to work for their wages.

NBC and Intel have been quietly working on a DTV application of their Intercast technology. It will allow NBC to provide standard broadcast signals that will add text, graphics and some video to consumer's viewing experience. Viewers can interact with these added multimedia elements, using a keyboard or mouse connected to specially equipped computers or televisions. See our article about Intercast.

Closing Comments

Technology and its declining cost characteristics has been knocking on television's door for some time and is getting ready to barge in with a rash of new ideas from production to distribution. The deliverables and results can be sharper images, more channels, greater profitability or they can be lack of stability, consumer turmoil, turf battles between traditional and tech companies. Or something else, totally unexpected. Add cable, satellites, Internet streaming video, huge relational databases, interactive television, questionable programming, divergent business and advertising models which add up to more consumer choice, but will add more confusion for everyone else involved.

Each year NAB plays a visible role in helping the widely varied professionals continue to sort out the marketplace of hardware, software and ideas. Whether it's the conferences, the exhibits or nightly gatherings, many of the attendees are listening carefully to the buzz, referring to their technical information and just trying to keep up. It's easy to be overwhelmed with more than 2,000 exhibits and there just isn't enough time to see everything

One thing is certain, it will continue to be a thrilling ride. Stay tuned for future developments.

Business Perspective

Copyright 1999 Jim Bennett All rights reserved.

   
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