ABC, CNN in final stages of satellite truck upgrades

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Daisy Whitney

The road to digital conversion may be slow going for TV stations, but it isnít for satellite trucks. That's because the major feed services have finished or are in the final stages of completing upgrades of satellite trucks at their affiliated stations.

ABC NewsOne and CNN Newsource expect to conclude their truck conversions by the end of this year, following the lead of NBC NewsChannel and CBS Newspath, which finished their work a few years ago.

NBC NewsChannel split the cost with their affiliates to digitally outfit about 60 to 65 trucks from 1998 to 2000. The cost was about $40,000 per truck, said Bob Horner, president of NBC NewsChannel in Charlotte, N.C. The conversion was in place before the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in February and made a difference in coverage and flexibility, he said.

"In the old days we would have had a heck of a time coming up with enough inventory for an event like that," he said. The Atlanta Summer Games in 1996 was the last big event that the NewsChannel covered entirely in analog, and it was extremely difficult to procure sufficient satellite time, he said.

More digital paths can fit in the space that one analog signal occupies, requiring less satellite inventory. That makes it easier to provide satellite booking time at precisely the moment affiliates want. "It gives us more flexibility," he said. "We can increase satellite inventory and provide more inventory," he said. Another advantage to affiliates is that a digital satellite truck is more compatible with stations that wish to have all-digital environments, he said.

CNN Newsource is putting the finishing touches on its fleet of trucks. The feed service operates 12 satellite trucks around the country at its bureaus in Atlanta, New York, Washington, Miami, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. CNN began the switch in the mid '90s, and every truck is capable now of at least one digital path, said Frank Barnett, VP CNN Newsbeam, a division of CNN Newsource.

Three of the trucks are capable of two digital paths and one analog path, and within 60 days each of the 12 trucks will be able to handle at least two digital paths, he said. Ten digital video signals occupy one 54 Mhz transponder, which can hold only two analog signals. "What we gain is more efficient use of the transponder," Mr. Barnett said.

Return on investment

The cost for the upgrade is about $40,000 per truck and includes a digital video encoder at about $30,000 and a digital quality upconverter at about $10,000. The return on investment is found in the better use of the transponder. Mr. Barnett said each truck is used an average of four days a week.

ABC NewsOne is working on a two-year project to convert the 100 satellite trucks used by its affiliates. The digital conversion began in 1999 and all but seven trucks have transitioned from analog to digital. The remaining trucks should be switched by the end of the year, said Mike Huitt, director of ABSAT, the satellite news-gathering arm of ABC. Depending on how the truck is already equipped, the cost ranges from $30,000 to $50,000 to upgrade an analog truck to digital, he said.

CBS has finished the digital conversion of its affiliates' 140 trucks and uplinks. The benefit is that CBS has the lowest transponder prices of any feed service, with rates as little as $5 per minute, said John Frazee, senior VP, news services.

While NBC has transitioned a fair number of its operations to digital -- from trucks to fixed uplinks to its NewsMail in-house program that sends broadcast quality video over the Web -- it has yet to fully introduce nonlinear news editing, and NewsChannel still receives most of its feeds on digital tape, Mr. Horner said. "As other units of NBC convert to a tapeless newsroom, we will study that closely," he said.