WRAL’s Pete Sockett, Cordillera’s Andy Suk and Nexstar’s Blake Russell talk about what’s on their minds and wish lists when they arrive at next week’s NAB Show. Among the topics and gear they’re interested in: the upcoming spectrum repack, ATSC 3.0, text-to-speech, master control, 4K and ENPS.
If you are a TV broadcaster, there is no better place to take in the breadth and depth of new technology affecting your professional life than the NAB Show.
According to show organizers, next week’s annual gathering in Las Vegas will have more than 1,700 exhibitors covering more than one million square feet in three exhibit halls.
Given this “Super Walmart” aspect of the NAB Show, it seemed only appropriate to talk to some broadcast techs preparing to go to the show to find out what is on their shopping lists and to discuss some of the technology issues facing the industry.
For this, the first in a series of virtual roundtables, TVNewsCheck Technology Editor Phil Kurz, spoke with Pete Sockett, director of engineering and operations at WRAL Raleigh, N.C.; Blake Russell, senior VP of operations at Nexstar Broadcasting; and Andy Suk, VP of technology at Cordillera Communications.
What follows is an edited version of their conference call.
Andy, are you going to NAB with a shopping list, or at least specific areas of technology in mind, that are of interest to you?
Andy Suk: I have got a minor list going. It’s more of a list of how we go ahead and stay compliant with the FCC than anything else. The big concern up until a day and a half ago was what we were going to do with basically a text-to-speech conversion for emergency crawls.With NAB’s recent petition to the commission [FCC] to try to postpone that by six months [the situation may have changed]. That doesn’t take away the pressure. We are definitely going to be talking to various vendors to find out what they are looking at for solutions.
Besides that, a lot of what we’re going to be doing is business as usual where we are continuing to look at HD conversions in news or upgrading our HD conversions in news. There are obviously concerns that come up with the spectrum repack as well and taking a look at who’s doing what on the transmission side and what options are available. I think those are the biggies.
Blake Russell: There are two items on my list and the first one, not to steal too much of the thunder and I will elaborate a little more, really does revolve around text-to-speech.I think that it’s probably one of the biggest things that is staring us in the face right now. We have had calls with both inside and outside counsel and getting the documents prepared for asking for an extension.
While we certainly are looking forward to that being granted, one of the things we have determine through our investigation is there doesn’t seem to be kind of a one-size-fits-all concept or module related to text-to-speech. Everybody kind of has their own. While we believe that we have identified who our particular provider will be, the biggest challenge on this whole, I call it TTS [text-to-speech], thing is that none of these vendors have been able to specifically provide samples of the product so we can make sure it does everything they say it will do and that it does it on time and correctly.
So initially I looked at us as hitting May 26 [the FCC deadline] when all I would care about is weather. I don’t care about school closings in May. We figured out, however, that even if we placed the order that several vendors were not going to be able to deliver product in enough time for us to hit the deadline.
We decided to stop and just use the show as an opportunity to be able to walk around and make sure we have all of our ducks in a row. Hopefully, a lot of these products, which I just call vaporware at this point, are going to be set up, and we can actually see them working in a practical setting, so we can walk away from NAB saying, “OK, this is the direction that we want to go.”
Hopefully, in the meantime the waiver will get approved. So No. 1 on my list specifically is text to speech.
The second thing on my list would probably be what I call maximizing the one-screen-to-many approach as it relates to newsroom computer systems. We’ve probably got 20% to 25% of the company on ENPS, and the other 75% to 80% on iNews.
What I’m interested in at this point is furthering the dialog specifically over ENPS and getting to the latest version and what it requires as far as a hardware changeout, if it does, to be able to take our system and do social media updating, do CMS updating, control your video -do everything- from the desk in the newsroom, without having to go to three or four or five different places to do that.
Pete, what’s on your shopping list?
Pete Sockett: Dinners, free dinners. Yes, of course I agree with the crawl-to-SAP channel, but we’re a little bit different.
When we built our hub here, we developed our own homegrown system so we’re not having a problem getting the data, but it’s homegrown. I would much rather find a product I could just buy. Beyond that, our biggest shopping item this year is tied to phase three of master control. You know, we’re running 16 channels out of here now, and they’re all disparate silos so to speak.
The way you get the material from Pitch Blue, from traffic to Pitch Blue, from Pitch Blue to the automation system, from the automation system to the servers and yada, yada, yada, we’re actually looking at an overall, for lack of better words, umbrella encompassing system.
We had video servers in the 2015 capital budget already. We started looking at umbrella systems last year and realized that it really needs to be one overall granddaddy system. So that’s what we’re looking at this year. We’re going to be comparing systems and make sure we’re not missing anyone.
Overall, the goal is touching things a lot less. Right now we’re all file-based, but every movement is still a human doing the movement between the systems.We want to leverage BXF, and we really want to leverage the metadata that’s already available and just have it happen. That’s the big one.
After that, definitely paying attention to 4K and not so much 4K as much as HDR [high dynamic range] and what we’re going to be getting as that matures and get the ability to broadcast in ATSC 3.0. Also with ATSC3.0, you know, just kind of dig into it and touch it, feel it, see what’s really for real.
Suk: You didn’t mention drones.
Pete: Big deal. It’s a camera that flies in the air. I don’t mean that to sound rude. You know, we bought one, we put it up, and we played with it. There’s nothing to look at at NAB — and I hope I am not insulting anybody that set it up at NAB. But if you want to learn about drones, go to Best Buy or go to the DJI website. It’s a camera that flies.
Does the spectrum auction and repack play into your thought process when it comes to investing in new technology? I’ll start off with you Pete because you brought up master control. I just wondered if you thought you might be working with less spectrum, if that would change your priority regarding master control.
Sockett: I think it’s the opposite. I think that as there’s a proliferation of, pick your catch phrase, the Internet of things. We’re going to have the ability to create more and more channels.
When we put in our last big purchase of an automation system, we bought a 16-channel system when we knew we needed four. You know, we’re filling those up now. We’re being asked to make more and more product with what we have. We will be given the resources to do it.
After the repack is over, I don’t think there are going to be fewer channels. I don’t think any broadcaster is going to have less frequency. We’re all going to get our 6 MHz still, and we’re going to have more bits in that 6 MHz. Getting there is going to suck, but once we’re there, I don’t see that causing us to take our foot off the pedal at all.
Suk: I would agree with Pete. I think the spectrum repack presents the opportunity for more channels out of a single master control unit whether it’s a consolidation of channels within a market or it’s additional content and additional programs.
ATSC 3.0, boy, we’re really hoping to see more of the flavors and the potential there and hope to see a little bit of press from the industry to push that forward concurrent with the repack.
The idea of doing a repack and then going back in and having to do a 3.0 conversion is … I don’t even want to think about that. You know, let’s do it all at once and get it done and over with.
I want to circle back to 4K. Pete you said you were interested in looking at 4K developments at NAB. Blake, is 4K on your radar screen?
Russell: No it is not, and we’re not building out systems or architecture at this point with 4K in mind.
Suk: You know one of the things that the NAB Show in particular does is provide the industry with a chance to sit on down and take a look at some of the potential technology that’s out there, 4K being one of those potential technologies.
It’s really cool to be able to have all of my chief engineers show up, take a look at it, see it first hand, be able to touch it, smell it, all of those other wonderful things.
Yes, we will be looking at it. I think the real key to all of it is taking a look at 3.0. The push isn’t going to be towards 4K for us. The push is going to be understanding what we as an industry need to do for ATSC 3.0 and trying to get through that transition.
You know, it’s kind of the old before you can run you have to walk and before you can walk you have to be able to crawl. We’re at the crawling stage right now.
ATSC 3.0 is not going to be bound by backwards compatibility. Does that concern you? Are there going to be possible solutions out there that might show up at NAB or anywhere else? What are your thoughts about that?
Sockett: Am I concerned? Of course, yeah. How do you transition to a non-backwards-compatible format? Is there a lot of talk about trying to figure it out in the community? Yeah there is.Do I expect to see any sort of solutions at NAB this year? No I don’t because we don’t even have a candidate standard yet to develop product for, but, you know, there are a number of scenarios being discussed.
I don’t expect to see any product that’s going to show us the transition path this year. I think this year what we’re going to see is what ATSC 3.0 can do for you. I think a lot of people are going to come home from NAB saying, “It’s not as much about 4K as it is about going 10-bit or 12-bit in the color space and everything that the greater bit depth is going to bring us beyond just more pixels.”
Andy, you care to tackle that at all, backwards compatibility?
Suk: I would not expect to see a solution to backwards compatibility at NAB. The solution to backwards compatibility is going to show up at CES at this point.
Getting the broadcasters excited about 3.0 is one thing. Getting the consumer [electronics] guys excited about 3.0 is something else. You know set-top boxes and receiver modules are certainly an easy fix. I mean that’s the simple part of it, if you will, and admittedly that’s saying a lot. But, again, just as Pete is suggesting, 4K may not be the greatest benefactor or may not be the greatest benefit of 3.0. I think there are some other opportunities that come out of 3.0 that are going to be far superior to more pixels on a screen.
Suk: Well, you know, if you take a look at multi-screens, multi-formats being able to finally become competitive in a world outside of MPEG-2.
Yes, and what about mobile? Will ATSC 3.0 give broadcasters another shot?
Suk: Well that’s certainly one of them. What does the consumer want? Consumers want to see what they want to see, where they want to see it and when they want to see it. We’re still fighting that same basic battle.
We’re out on mobile, we’re out on however many screens we have got, and we want to go ahead and stay competitive with every other technology that’s out there. We have the quality content. Let’s provide that quality content to the consumers and give them a no-brainer as far as a solution on whatever platform, wherever they want, whenever they want it.
Sockett: You know, Phil, the notion of mobile vs. fixed is going to become quaint in ATSC3.0. You know, it’s going to start off as a robust layer. The greater the signal-to-noise ratio, the more quality video you’re going to get.
There’s not going to be a mobile version and a high-quality version. There’s going to be if you get this much signal, you get this much picture.
I am way oversimplifying because it’s going to be an LDM [layered division multiplexing] layer, but it’s one of the things to really watch coming out of NAB. There’s not going to be two versions of a broadcast. It’s going to be one broadcast that gets enhanced with more signal strength.
Blake, your thoughts?
Russell: I think that the comment about CES is spot on. I think whatever widget goes between us and the consumers to be able to allow for backwards compatibility is really where all this stuff is going to shake out.
So, again, I say that for us what we’re going out there to do is look and get an update on where things are with ATSC 3.0. But, you know, we are definitely not leading the way with it here, and there’s a whole lot that still has to be worked out.
Early this year, Nexstar made a big move towards IP newsgathering. Are there any things you’re going to be looking at in that regard at NAB, Blake?
Russell: You know, we have an external company right now that we use to be kind of an aggregate provider, if you will. That allows us to push regional content from station to station, and they do it quite well and at a very, very affordable cost.
I will have some meetings with people to see what they’re offering, to see if anybody is taking that thought process to the next level.
Speaking of bonded cellular, or IP newsgathering, one of the things we did — and it’s already been said — is look at this as a series of phases: crawl, walk and run. I think getting into the space was crawling, and now it’s the responsibility of the provider or the providers that we went with to work with us to take it to the next level.
Andy, I reported a few months ago about Cordillera using bonded in place of a traditional ENG truck. I think that was in Bozeman, Mont., and I think it involved Ka-band satellite. Are you going to be looking at that type of setup at NAB?
Suk: We’re always looking at various ways of bringing content back into the newsroom whether it’s on a cable, whether it’s on an IP network, whether it’s on a cellular network, whether it’s on smoke signals.
I think video over IP has definitely presented some interesting opportunities. Directly out of the cameras, we have brought back news stories over Wi-Fi networks out of individual businesses near where we were doing a story. We simply asked to use the business’s wireless network.
I think that one of the areas where we’re going to be spending some time is with the IP satellite guys, and there are some really neat opportunities that are coming up for small markets that will allow them to get into the satellite business out of the back end of the news truck or a news car, not even a big ENG van.
You know, plug your stuff in and push a couple of buttons. Literally, it self-deploys, locks on and when you turn on the power switch it starts the meter running, and you’re bringing back live news basically off an IP satellite. Again, it looks like a cost-effective solution.
Is that Ka or Ku or both?
Suk: Yes. Again, it could be smoke signals. I don’t care.