Confab puts focus on upcoming switch
The sprawling National Assn. of Broadcasters confab has long had the feel of an auto show, with product demonstrations and a high-tech hucksterism drawing crowds of gearheads eager to test-drive the latest in broadcast and production equipment.This year, the buzz on the NAB floor at the Las Vegas Convention Center is all about the pending transition to all-digital television in February. And everybody at NAB seems to have a product or service designed to capitalize on this transformation coming to the nation’s living rooms. Even the vintage color bar test pattern is not immune to the urge to upgrade. The familiar slate of bright vertical color stripes just won’t cut it for digital TV stations, or so says Dennis McClary, associate member of the technical staff at Princeton, N.J.-based Sarnoff Test Patterns and Bitstreams. “Color bars don’t tell you anything much about your picture anymore,” McClary said. The company, which has its roots at RCA’s research lab (and yes, it’s named for NBC founder David Sarnoff) had a small stand parked in the “DTV Hot Spot” room in the expansive area reserved for post-production and display systems exhibitors. McClary was there to hawk Sarnoff’s new test-pattern system that would allow digital-casters to test the mettle of their video, audio and compression rate, as well as the accuracy of the synching between soundtrack and picture. Onscreen, it looked more like a videogame than a test slate, with plenty of blinking lights, picture-in-picture images and numbers flashing. The equipment goes for about $2,900, but Sarnoff’s larger goal at NAB this year is to interest digital TV equipment manufacturers in licensing the system and making it a built-in part of their hardware, McClary said. To those unfamiliar with the finer points of MPEG compression, bit rates, color grading, storage optimization, systems integration and the crying need for workflow solutions, a stroll through the NAB floor is like a trek through a foreign country. But what also stands out is the vibrant market for small- and medium-sized tech shingles of all stripes. Sure, NAB floor spaces are anchored by big-gun brand names like Sony, Microsoft, Cisco, Philips, Adobe, IBM, Motorola and Canon, but there’s also plenty of action going on in the booths of hundreds of nonhousehold-name companies like PixelPower, Winsted, Iconic, Vizrt, Norpak, Matrox, Barco, Eyeon and Gefen (not to be confused with its more prominent Hollywood-based brand name with the extra “f”). “We need those (smaller) guys,” said Sony Electronics exec Joe Castellano as he strolled through the company’s palatial space. “Sometimes the smaller companies do things better than we do, and we do other things better than they do. We learn from each other. It keeps everyone’s business moving.” Production graphics company Miranda had a good crowd seated in its booth Tuesday morning to watch the demonstration “Anatomy of a Promo” projected onto a bigscreen. A company rep was not talking taglines or target auds but rather the frame-by-frame ingredients of a 30-second blurb and how Miranda tools make them so much simpler and cool-looking. The bigscreen projection demo is a staple of NAB. At the Autodesk booth, a fast-talking young man used his virtual pencil to show off the wonders of 3-D color grading. The prevalence of greenscreen setups for demos gives parts of the floor a downright verdant feel. The entirety of the modest booth for MotionAnalysis was given over to the gyrations of two women dancing in blue and black body suits in front of an eight-foot tall greenscreen. Over in the production music section, the company Killer Tracks pulled out a little showbiz star power in promising that rapper Chuck D would be on hand later Tuesday afternoon for some flesh-pressing. And you never leave the NAB floor without gaining some new insight into the industry. Who knew Google was in the radio hardware biz? The Internet giant’s familiar logo was perched high atop the radio hardware section, and in its wide booth, staffers were talking up the “Google Radio Automation” equipment and service. In a nutshell, as Google Audio marketing specialist Dana Honor cheerfully explained, the hardware helps radio stations manage all of their business data, from playlists to advertising inventory. At the end of each business day, the service even electronically monitors all of the station’s unsold ad inventory and puts it up for auction via the Google AdSense sales service. Google Audio converts include stations owned by Clear Channel, Greater Media and Emmis, Honor said. Radio hardware may not be the fastest-growing part of Google’s formidable biz, but the electronic auctioning of ad inventory is definitely a biz the company would like to expand to — preferably in the bigger leagues of national and local TV.