Technology developed by Champaign firm enables live broadcasts

Technology developed by Champaign firm enables live broadcasts

CHAMPAIGN — Pick a major live TV broadcast — the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the Grammys, the U.S. Open — and there's a good chance technology developed by Champaign-based Cobalt Digital helped make it possible.

Cobalt Digital, which recently moved into new quarters at 2506 Galen Drive, C, has been in Champaign-Urbana about 15 years.

But the broadcast technology company picked up steam, in terms of employment, in the last few years.

Company founder and President Gene J. Zimmerman Jr. said Cobalt Digital employs about 40 — double the number it had three or four years ago.

The company got its start by making converters that enabled digital signals to be viewed on traditional analog monitors.

But as TV technologies multiplied — think high-definition TV, closed captioning, video programming guides, digital audio encoding, color correction, signal compression, set-top boxes — the need for new software and circuit boards grew.

Today Cobalt Digital's products are used not only by broadcast networks, but also by local TV stations, cable channels, motion picture studios, major theme parks and military and aerospace contractors.

Cobalt Digital's equipment is used in the studios of "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart and "The Colbert Report" featuring Stephen Colbert.

The company has customers not only domestically, but also in India, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Australia and other countries. Zimmerman figures 20 percent to 25 percent of sales come from overseas.

Zimmerman is often on the road to meet with clients, having made jaunts to New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas in recent weeks.

But Champaign-Urbana is the company's base.

"This is home to me. It made sense," Zimmerman said of his decision to incorporate the company here in 1997.

Zimmerman grew up on a farm near Rochelle in north central Illinois.

"On the farm, you do everything," he said, recalling how he enjoyed taking apart equipment and fixing an electron tube radio so he could listen to Chicago's WLS.

Later he fixed TV sets and aircraft radios and worked at WICD-TV in Champaign as a technician.

But he had formal, as well as practical, education, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1986 and 1988, respectively, after having attended Parkland College.

After college, Zimmerman took an electrical engineering job in California working on a flight simulator project.

But he began doing TV consulting work on the side, partly as an outgrowth of his exposure to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

Things really began to change after he had a chance to work in broadcast operations at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Soon Zimmerman began two years of consulting for the Fox News Channel in New York.

In 1997, when devices were needed to bridge the analog and digital worlds, he came up with a design for a converter that ended up launching Cobalt Digital.

The first order was for 200 units and later for 1,400. In the beginning, the parts were stocked on an enclosed back porch.

But the company soon moved to 2406 E. University Ave., U — just west of the Beringer Commons subdivision.

In recent years, Zimmerman has expanded the company's sales and engineering staffs.

Today the company employs about 18 in engineering and seven in sales, with the remainder in quality assurance, shipping and receiving and the front office.

Cobalt Digital has hired electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and computer science majors, including several from the UI.

Nick Jungels, Cobalt's director of engineering, was hired after coming to Champaign-Urbana to work at Finisar.

"It's very difficult to recruit to Champaign," Zimmerman said, noting that much of the broadcast engineering community is clustered in California.

In fact, Cobalt Digital uses West Coast contractors to do some of its bulk manufacturing.

To accommodate the growth in employees, Cobalt Digital purchased the building on Galen Drive late last year and moved into the second floor and part of the basement.

Coldwell Banker Honig-Bell, which occupies the first floor, is expected to relocate by year's end, Zimmerman said, and Cobalt Digital will move the rest of its operations from Urbana at that point.

As a private company, Cobalt Digital does not disclose its annual sales, but Zimmerman said it's "north of $10 million and south of $20 million."

It's among "a ton of small companies" in broadcast technology, in a field dominated by Canadian firm Evertz Microsystems and by Miranda Technologies, which was acquired last year by Belden Inc.

Chris Shaw, Cobalt Digital's executive vice president for sales and marketing, said Cobalt has a reputation for strong customer support, troubleshooting problems that may not be related to its products.

In dealing with live broadcasts, networks and stations must know immediately what's causing problems and how to correct them.

Many of Cobalt Digital's products are used in mobile production units dispatched to cover live events.

At the Super Bowl, for instance, there may be 18 different mobile units — essentially broadcast control rooms inside custom-built semitrailers — to produce the broadcast.

At smaller events, such as a UI football game, there may be only one to three such units, Zimmerman said.

The company has won 15 awards for its products, many of them given by TV Technology, TV Technology Europe and Broadcast Engineering for superior technology.

Its product mix includes loudness-measurement products that help stations monitor the volume of their audio to make sure the loudness of programs and commercials don't vary much.

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