Mark Siegel, president of Advanced Broadcast Solutions, went to the NAB Show with a critical eye on the exhibitors and their offerings. He recaps the big trends (multiplatform distribution, cloud processing and centralcasting) as well as traffic replacing master control as the heart of TV stations, rapid developments in lighting, IP for ENG and his surprise at the lack of enthusiasm by stations for virtual news sets.
What Was Hot, Not At This Year’s NAB
For the past two decades, SeaTac, Wash.-based Advanced Broadcast Solutions has been assisting TV stations and networks with designing and assembling production and distribution facilities. So, it had a team of professionals at the sprawling NAB exhibition in Las Vegas last week sniffing out the latest trends and identifying those products that will enable their clients to save money or give them a competitive edge.
To learn what they learned, TVNewsCheck debriefed ABS President Mark Siegel yesterday.
Seigel says the big trends at the upbeat show were multiplatform distribution, cloud processing and centralcasting, not all of which he is enthusiastic over. He also talks about traffic replacing master control as the heart (brain?) of TV stations, rapid developments in lighting and IP for ENG. And he confesses that he can’t figure out why stations aren’t as enthralled by virtual sets as he is.
An edited transcript:
So how was the NAB? What was the mood like out there?
I would like to say hopeful. For the past two years, people were walking around kind of mopey. The industry was taking obviously an economic hit. There was not a lot of money, not a lot of large projects being done. But this year people seemed to be a little bit more optimistic and business transactions are starting to happen. People are starting to add additional revenue streams and they’re starting to look at delivering content to other methods of distribution — mobile, Web, tablets, those types of platforms.
That was a major trend?
Absolutely. It’s one of the bigger trends. There are a number of players in that space, which provide some very cool tools to make that easier for the broadcasters. People like Telestream, Elemental Technologies, Digital Rapids have encoding technology that can do multiple bitrates, multiple streams concurrently and deliver that content to the Web.
The question is, is there a business model in broadcasting to support those methods of distribution. If you’re only producing news, those platforms are not that compelling. I am not going to sit by my iPhone and watch a half-hour newscast. It just isn’t going to happen. So I think broadcasters have to start repackaging their content with a thought about how these devices are being used.
What were some of the other trends at the show?
The buzz word of the show this year was “cloud,” but, as I say, clouds are made of vapor. It’s vaporware. The idea that we can start storing and processing content in the cloud is an interesting concept because it’s a leased model, but it’s very, very expensive. People can go out and buy their own servers or server farms much cheaper than utilizing cloud-based services.
You sound skeptical.
Oh. I am. Our business is all about bandwidth, right? And in order to get these large files in real-times, it takes big pipes. That’s the problem with moving around these very large files and working in a virtual space. Getting pipes that can carry that type of bandwidth is very, very expensive. I am not saying never; I am just saying people can do this stuff fiber-based or in-house much cheaper.
Is that it for major trends?
Something that was not a trend is we didn’t see any new formats arrive as far as acquisition formats. The major players — Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Hitachi, Ikegami — are really settling in and supporting the existing formats.
By the way, people are still using tape and it is going to be very difficult to get it these days. Due to the tragedy in Japan, a lot of these plants were destroyed and very little tape is being produced in the United States.
Do think this will accelerate the move of TV stations to solid state media?
I think it will. But don’t think that P2 and SD cards haven’t been hurt by some of the things that have happened over there. We’re seeing a slowdown in availability of those recording media, too.
What about centralcasting and its variations? What was the level of interest in them at the NAB?
We as a company were involved with some of the very early models — the Ackerly model, the New York Times model. We deployed them. So we have been building the Advanced Broadcast Solutions centralcast models for almost 20 years. As we find newer compression technologies and IT technologies to be able to transport the content, it’s becoming more justifiable to deploy these types of systems. The key is lowering the bitrate. The cheaper the pipes, the greater the ROI.
And the vendors are there to support all this?
Day by day, it’s getting there. We saw a lot of new encoding platforms this year from Harris, Harmonic and Ericsson, and I will add Evertz as well. It’s a new player into the encoding space. The statistical multiplexing is getting more efficient. The encoding processes are getting better. We’re starting to see really good HD MPEG-4 in the six-to-eight megabit range where before it was in the 12-to-20 megabits.
Are the automation systems ready for centralcasting?
Yes. They have been ready for years. I don’t think there’s been any major seachange in broadcast automation. We still have a lot of the same players — Avid, Harris, Crispin, Pebble Beach, Florical.
So, the key is compression. If we can tighten up the signals, the cost of connectivity drops and economics of centralcasting work better.
Right, and obviously having good traffic systems and having good people in traffic to run those systems are crucial. The traffic departments are really the people that should be running the TV station programming and timing and all that. Master control used to be where the on-air stuff was handled, but master control has shifted to focusing on the ingest, making sure that all that content is coming in properly and packaged properly so traffic can run the playout. So the integration between traffic and automation is critical these days.
Well, what about that? There’s this BXF interface between traffic and master control. Are the big traffic systems, OSI and Wide Orbit, able to talk to all the automation systems now?
They are. I would say there needs to be more development in that area. That platform has really not been distributed that well. I would say that a lot of people, probably for the last three years in our industry, have not significantly invested in automation.
What about news production automation? It’s pretty competitive now with Grass Valley Ignite, Ross Overdrive and Sony ELC (Enhanced Live-production Control System).
We have probably deployed more Ignite systems than any other integrator in the country. We started very early when it was Parkervision and transitioned into Ignite. We are currently deploying two Overdrive systems and we are going to deploy our first Sony within the next four months. We’ll see how that goes.
It this sort of standard equipment at new and upgraded stations now?
Well, it depends. Automation in certain environments is still very difficult to deploy. It depends on how those tasks are assigned in the control room, especially when we’re dealing with union houses. That’s a big issue because there’s a tremendous amount of overlap in job functions and that has to be considered when deploying those types of technologies.
Looking at the broader area of news production, what’s new?
We’re still searching for more ways for dealing with metadata and adding metadata. True metadata — descriptive metadata other than timestamp and what format it is — still requires human beings to identify what this content is and log it because if it isn’t identifiable searchable and monetizable, it isn’t an asset. We have got to develop easier tools, perhaps using voice recognition and other things, to get that data into that metadata field.
You don’t think these tools exist today?
They do, but they are clunky, and people are not going to invest in people to sit down and do that.
I know that there have been big changes in studio lighting over the past few years. What was the latest at NAB?
Well, obviously, a major shift hit lighting within the last two years. A number of years ago, we had a shift from incandescent to fluorescent. Now we’re having a pretty significant shift to LED. LED is tremendously consistent in its light output, has long life, produces even less heat than fluorescent and is more efficient than fluorescent. So there’s opportunity for stations that are producing a tremendous amount of heat. Everything is very much about being green and aware and sustainable and trying to reduce energy costs. You know, you can go to your local power company and sit down and talk about how you can reduce power consumption. Some electric companies will even assist in paying for pulling our incandescent lighting and putting in either LED or fluorescent.
Anything at this particular show that caught your eye?
Yes. What they are doing is they are starting to take the LED technology and starting to put it into the form factor of traditional incandescent lights. We saw a lot of Fresnel-style LED lights. We saw focusable LED lights.
Keeping on ENG, we have noticed that there has been more and more experimentation with using IP for getting stories back to the station. What’s happening on that front?
One of the really cool technologies is the cascading of cellular technology, using G3 of G4 cellular to transport content back to a station, eliminating the need for ENG and sometimes SNG solutions.
Are you sold on that technology?
I think it works with certain applications, absolutely. I mean, for an ENG van out, you’re looking at a $150,000 to $350,000 as a capital expense. You can use these other technologies for $2,500 a month under an operating expense. In news, people are willing to accept the quality differential. If the story is compelling enough, they will forget the quality. If the story is not worth a crap, then they will always focus on the quality.
Are people still buying trucks in the same numbers as they used to?
They are, but they’re being more conservative in how much horsepower they put into these trucks. We used to put in a couple of decks and a production switcher and an audio mixer and blah blah blah — all this stuff. Well, now you put in an [Grass Valley] Edius or [Apple] Final Cut Pro laptop with an I/O. The trucks are nowhere near as outfitted as they used to be.
What was new in the world of graphics?
Nothing major in the graphics area — just more players, more competition, more offerings. All the graphic companies are focusing on 3D, but how many broadcasters are going to deal with 3D? True stereoscopic 3D really doesn’t play a role in broadcast yet these days.
You have a pretty good war going on between Vizrt, Orad, Pixel Power, Vertigo from Miranda. Those are the big hitters these days. It’s just all about preferences. Chyron is really trying to push this cloud-based work flow.
Is the virtual studio ready for prime time?
It should be. I don’t know why U.S.-based television stations will not accept virtual sets. They look good and broadcasters could save a tremendous amount of money over the long haul. In Europe, in Asia, they’re very popular.
Here, people are still going out and spending $275,000 to $500,000 on a hard, fixed set that they’re going to use for two years. They like to do a lot of on-set monitoring where they actually have physical monitors. People will go out and spend $100,000 dollars on a 105-inch plasma or they will go out and they will buy big rear-screen projectors. Well, you can do this within the virtual set environment. You can create entire virtual walls of video.
Who has the virtual sets?
Well, obviously, I would look at Orad. They have probably been the leader for years. I think For-A has got a virtual set technology. Vizrt has one as well.
Any final thoughts?
The broadcast market is still a viable space. It’s still a good business. It still can be very profitable if managed well and systems are managed well and proper tools are given to human beings. I keep on bringing up human beings. We cannot continue to strip talent and minds out of our industry. We are just not a suck-and-spit organization. We’re an industry. Just sucking content down and spitting it back out doesn’t do it. They have to start creating more content besides news, something else more entertaining, more compelling to get people to watch.