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Tech firms want to be DTV stars

With new storage technology and other products, Sun, IBM, and others are hoping to help broadcasters make the expensive transition from analog to digital TV.

LAS VEGAS--Technology companies such as Sun Microsystems, Real Networks, Skystream, IBM, and others are trying to catch the eye of the digital TV crowd.

Storing content in the nascent digital TV age is becoming paramount for broadcasters. And while the transition from analog to digital is an expensive one, network affiliates of the four major networks--ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox--can save substantial amounts of money just by being able to easily find and reuse material they already own.

Sun, wanting to get in on the ground floor of this rapidly growing need for the storage of digitized film and video, has announced it will provide software that, in essence, provides a common ground for third parties to help broadcasters manage MPEG-2 content.

Currently, many broadcasters use proprietary software and hardware products packaged together by a single vendor to play back and store MPEG-2 based content from archives. Sun wants to crack this market by offering the StorEdge Media Central software, a sort of middle layer of software that glues together a standard Sun server with third-party software components written in Java.

Sun is currently partnering with companies such as Bulldog, which has written software for content management, Tektronix, which makes MPEG-2 broadcast equipment, and others in an effort to sway broadcasters away from their traditional equipment suppliers.

Why? Sun cited figures from market research firm Yankee Group that suggest the market for media storage technology could reach into the "tens of billions of dollars" over the next decade.

Effective storage can reap big sums. An industry consultant estimated that one documentary producer cut its costs of production from $500,000 per hour to $92,000 just by having digital storage management technology in place.

Sun isn't the only company hoping to increase its stature in the broadcaster's eye. Last week, IBM and Sony announced a co-marketing deal to provide digital content management systems to the likes of CNN, the first announced customer.

"One of the aspects of DTV which is crunching the industry, is when you have additional spectrum, where is the content going to come from to fill [that spectrum] up?" asks Bill Moses, global vice president for broadcast, cable, and sports business at IBM. One way broadcasters are going to deal with the issue is to re-purpose content, with a side benefit of digital-asset management being reduced storage cost, he said.

In fact, IBM could conceivably partner with Sun to combine their offerings, Sun executives said, but no deals have been announced yet.

The StorEdge software is expected to be delivered in the third quarter of 1999, Sun executives said.

Broadcasters to be "datacasters?"
Meanwhile, Skystream announced that Harris Corporation, a leading provider of broadcast networking equipment, will resell Skystream's datacasting products. The move could put more broadcasters in the business of becoming datacasters, i.e., similar to an Internet service provider.

Skystream's products allow broadcasters to "inject" data into the little blank spaces in an MPEG-2 data stream that are formed when video content is translated into digital form. In a digital television broadcast, some two to 10 percent of a channel's 19.4-Mbps capacity is lost in, for instance, a broadcast of HDTV content at maximum resolution.

Broadcasters can send Web pages or other data out to PCs equipped with DTV receivers and some additional software, and suddenly enlarge their audience--probably far beyond the initial audience of consumers that can afford $6,000 to $10,000 HDTV sets. (See related story.)

Not only can broadcasters serve consumers, but they can become bandwidth providers to other service providers, notes said Clint Chao, vice president of marketing for Skystream. "Media companies can set up their own portals, which is another huge ecommerce opportunity," he notes.

Another idea being bandied about by Sun, Skystream, and other technology industry executives is that a local broadcast station, such as a network affiliate station, could decide to set up a geographically targeted portal that could help steal back viewers from Internet portals such as Yahoo.