Our distinguished panel of experts from broadcasting, video production, the video magazines, the audio industry and equipment consulting had a lot to say about the last NAB:
The TV station engineers seem to have spent a lot of time looking at hardware to upgrade to HDTV. Ross Kauffmann (VP of Operations at WCVB-TV) and Bob Hess (VP of Operations at WBZ-TV) not only have to decide how to upgrade their transmitters and antennas, they also need to plan an upgrade path to HDTV which may include merely going to 16:9 or making the complete step to HDTV right away.
A lot of the HDTV transmission equipment still seems to be in the vaporware stage. The stuff that's available today is pretty pricey: Ross Kauffman, priced out a Grand Alliance encoder for (I believe) $500,000! There was lots of discussion about how expensive all this upgrading is going to be and how difficult it's going to be for small stations, particularly non-affiliated UHF's. Bob Hess thinks some of them may close down.
Mark Manuelian from WBZ Radio, also wondered at how expensive this is going to be for the public. He mentioned that he used to be able to afford pretty much any piece of audio/video gear he wanted when he was single, now he’s not only worried about how much some of the new sets are going to cost, he's also concerned about what this means for his kids’ collection of Walt Disney tapes...
Bob Poulsen, the equipment consultant, minced no words excoriating Reed Hundt, the head of the FCC, who is catching a lot of the heat for forcing this move to HDTV: "There is no way his pronouncements can come about in the time frame he expects", he said. Someone pointed out that there are a very limited uumber of people in the nation with the expertise and accreditation to install transmission antennas, and that it takes quite a while to train them. With something like 1500 TV stations in the nation to be retooled over to HDTV in the next few years, they thought the mandated timeframe was very unrealistic.
The general impression that broadcasters seem to have come away with is that their questions haven't been answered yet.
Bob Doyle, Contributing Editor to New Media Magazine, came back from the show all lathered up about DV. CBS announced that they were going to equip all their stations with DVC-PRO newsgathering equipment, he feels that this is just one more indication that DV and its derivatives are going to be the standard for field production and newsgathering in the future.
It isn't just the quality he likes (component video, close to Betacam in quality), it's the economy, compactness and ease-of-use. He's showed off the small JVC pocketbook camcorder that he owns, it's only a little bigger than a paperback book, Bob keeps it in his pocket. He showed excerpts from a test tape he made of various camcorders he's evaluating for an article in New Media Magazine, the pictures looked pretty decent.
Bob Lamm, who works for CYNC Video, the equipment dealership, chimed in: He thought a big trend at the show was how good the cheap stuff is getting. He mentioned the DPS Spark, a DV-based Premiere solution that costs less than $1000/for the card including software. He reported that he played with it at the show and that it appears to work as advertised.
Wilson Chao, Owner of Cambridge Television Productions, commented that he's been spending more and more time buying things like drives and other generic off-the-shelf pieces of computer equipment. He felt that the the move from proprietary hardware/software to open-systems has been a major reason for the dramatic drop in hardware pricing we’ve been seeing for the past few years.
Bob Lamm commented that the high end is rapidly coalescing around high-speed computer networks and file-servers that centralize all storage in a central location that everyone in the facility can access. This makes production workflow much smoother and eliminates a lot of dumping to tape and sneakernetting.
Several panelists commented very admiringly about the new Mercury (Chelmsford MA), server, which was being shown in many exhibitors' booths and was one of the hottest products at the show. (Come to the May 28 meeting and hear Mercury describe the system they're building for MTV.)
Another open-system company that came up for considerable discussion was D-Vision: Their NT-based nonlinear system came out a year or two later than projected, but it turned out to be one of the nicest surprises at the show: It really exploits the hardware capability of the Truevision Targa 2000RTX to its fullest: It can put run up to 11 simultaneous realtime effects concurrently if you choose the right combination! One of its underappreciated strengths is that it digitizes directly to AVI file format, so the media is immediately accessible to other applications such as animation programs, image-processing applications and commercial playback programs.
With file interchangeability comes the ability to use some very powerful, specialized tools on this media. An example was the Automedia Automasker, which uses sophisticated edge-detection techniques to trace objects (such as a person) on a moving video and generate a matte. Other new open-system tools include a commercial playback application, Adobe AfterEffects for NT, and a totally unique digital switcher from Echolab in Burlington:
The Echolab CCIR-601 digital air swicher has the additional capablity of playing back from a computer server, thus opening the postproduction- and commercial playback- centric server model to live production. The switcher was singled out as a pick hit by the show magazine as well as our panel.
(Most of these products will be shown at our next meeting on May 28 at Mercury Computer systems.)
Avid came up for considerable discussion too: Bob Turner, columnist for Videography Magazine, commented that their highest-end systems were unbeatable for functionality, power and ease-of-use. He also commented that Avid tech support, previously a source of lots of complaints, has gotten pretty good.
The general consensus was that Avid has the resources to do pretty much whatever it wants, but needs to change to accomodate the shifting environment. This appears to be happening: They've introduced an NT-product (MCXpress for Windows NT), sold a 6-7% stake in the company to Intel, and they've have moved to make their products more accessible to prospective buyers by setting up a dealer network.
That's what Wilson Chao asked: He pointed out that the computer industry is starting to envelope the video production arena and that a lot of production and distribution technology is becoming accessible to the general public. This train of thought elicited some interesting responses: Bob Hess commented that WBZ had established a web site and had found it to be a nice complement to their current broadcast service rather than a competitor. He mentioned that simulcasting WBZ-radio on the internet so programmers could hear it on their desktops was just an expansion of WBZ's longtime mandate to reach as many listeners as possible. The consensus was that broadcasters are more than mere transmission vehicles, but also serve as a place where people know they can find good programming.
The tools may change, the tasks remain the same...
Until next NAB: Same time, same channel.
Posted: 20 May, 1997
Robert Lamm, SMPTE/New England Newsletter/Web Page Editor