This year’s major technology’s stories included growing acceptance of channel-in-a-box systems, slow progress in mobile DTV, work on the next-generation digital television broadcast standard, finally getting rules from the FCC on loudness, a potential cure for stations’ lip sync problems, growing use of Skype by station newsgathering operations and cautious use of the cloud. In addition, the move to high def continued, but hundreds of stations still haven’t made that upgrade.
If you like today’s DTV broadcasting standard, you’ll love the next-generation DTV standard.
So promised the Advanced Television Systems Committee as it began the work of sifting through the latest technology in an attempt to come up with a new standard that would put broadcasting back on the cutting edge of media.
The next-gen system — ATSC 3.0 — “is a crucial long-term project that paves the way for futuristic terrestrial television broadcasting technologies,” said ATSC President Mark Richer in formally announcing the initiative in September.
NAB Broadcast Lab
The NAB is also increasing its efforts to improve the technology underlying TV and radio and help them keep pace in the fast-moving digital world. The staff won preliminary broad approval to establish a broadcast lab in October.
Now responsible for the lab project and all else of a technical nature at the NAB is Kevin Gage, who was hired in May to the newly created post of chief technology officer. The former rugby player and digital media maven said his goal is to not just develop new technologies, but new revenue streams for broadcasters.
“There is a lot of really interesting technology,” he said. “With the thought leaders that we have, and the engineers that we have, we are asking what more can we do to help drive these new technologies into the marketplace so that our business leaders could actually build good models off of them.”
Gage will have some extra help on complex spectrum issues. When the Association for Maximum Service Television was folded in the spring, its two spectrum experts, Victor Tawil and Bruce Franca, joined Gage’s Science and Technology Department.
The NAB has also been trying to advance the technical ball by investing in new technology through its FastRoad program. Among its investments is Syncbak, which is developing a system that would let broadcasters stream their programming online.
Early last year, Anne Schelle of the Open Mobile Video Coalition promised that the broadcaster-driven mobile DTV service for smartphones and tablets would be available by this year. That promise went unfulfilled.
Although a growing number of stations have upgraded their transmitters to broadcast the mobile signal, the many pieces needed to turn the technology into a service — and business — have yet to come together.
Taking the lead in mobile DTV is the Mobile Content Venture, which comprises NBC, Fox and 10 major TV station groups.
With mobile DTV long past due in the minds of most, MCV executives are reluctant to make any more promises on timing, but insist the pieces are coming together. “The stations are lit, the network is available, the devices are coming,” said MCV’s Erik Moreno in October.
One of the major stories of 2011 was the proliferation of IT-based broadcast playout, or channel-in-a-box technology. It is perhaps the hottest TV technology in the industry and a who’s who of major players are expected to introduce new products in the category at next year’s NAB Show.
Yet, many broadcasters are skeptical, questioning whether the technology is mature enough for everyday use in television stations. “They all work on the surface and the idea makes a lot of sense,” said Dave Folsom, chief technology officer at Raycom Media. “But when it comes down to it, each of these systems falls short a little bit.”
Channel-in-a-box technology evolved from various efforts at centralcasting, managing master control of multiple stations from a central hub. And one of the pioneers in centralcasting was the NBC Owned Television Stations. After some early difficulties, the group finally seems to have gotten it right, having outsourced the job to Encompass Digital Media in Atlanta.
Loudness was another highlight issue in 2011. Congress passed the CALM Act in late 2010, giving the FCC a year to write the rules. On Dec. 13, the FCC did just that. Now broadcasters have another year before the loudness rules are enforced. As expected, the FCC is requiring stations to follow ATSC guidelines for making sure promos and commercials are broadcast with the same volume as the surrounding programming.
And it decided to rely on consumers for enforcement. Only if it finds a “pattern” of non-compliance in complaints from consumers will the FCC act.
Broadcasters had no complaints about the rules. “I think both the technical and enforcement aspects are relatively acceptable to all parties,” said NAB’s Skip Pizzi.
Even before the rules were issued, vendors were selling loudness monitors and correction gear to broadcasters. Top companies include Linear Acoustics, Harris, Wohler, Miranda, Evertz, Ensemble Design and Volicon.
Broadcasters were also coping with what they would consider a more serious audio issue: lip sync. The problem of matching sound with pictures goes back to the early days of movie making when clap sticks were used.
And it persists in the digital world. However, a new tool has been found that promises to solve the problem once and for all. It’s a real-time process called AV fingerprinting that uses algorithms to compare two signals — one with no lip sync errors and one anywhere in the program distribution chain. If there’s a difference between the signals, software alerts operators or the system can automatically correct the error.
SMPTE is working on a standard that would allow inoperability between manufacturers. Look for the first draft next summer.
In other parts of the broadcast plant, there are few places with faster changing technology than newsrooms — both on the outside and inside of the station. In the past year alone, there has been major shift in how news is gathered, transmitted and edited.
A major new newsgathering technology coming into its own this year was bonded cellular. It allows reporters and producers in the field to send back video over conventional wireless networks in near real-time.
WCBS, the network O&O in New York City, has been among the technology’s early proponents, using gear provided by LiveU and TVUNetworks. “This technology has made us truly mobile, on foot as well as in the vehicles,” said WCBS news chief David Friend.
The technology isn’t perfect, but it is steadily improving, said Kal Hassan, director of engineering at ABC’s WLS Chicago, who is using gear from Dejero Labs. “This is the Model T,” he said. “In a few years, you won’t recognize the performance that these guys can deliver.”
Another new tool for broadcast news interviews is Skype, the free video Internet phone service. Small television stations to large cable broadcasters now use it for interviewing and newsgathering.
Prices for converters that put Skype calls on the air range from $2,500 to $5,900 for top-of-the-line Brighteye Mitto converters to very low-end Matrox Convert DVI devices starting at just under $1,000. The cost difference is mainly for features and controls.
WYFF, the NBC affiliate in Greenville, S.C., uses Skype for Next Generation News, where it airs a variety of Internet-originated interviews within its news shows. For this purpose, it purchased Matrox’s basic Convert DVI for $995. It does the job just fine, WYFF said.
Final Cut Pro X
Apple stirred up the faithful, including many broadcasters, with the introduction of Final Cut Pro X, a revolutionary new version of the top selling editing software at a very low price — only $299.
When the software was released last June there were howls of protest from professional editors. But after a couple of updates, much of the protest has now died down and many television editors like the simplicity and low cost of the new software.
Also affecting television stations in 2011 were cloud-based services for broadcasters. These include graphics, asset management, email for user-generated video, back-office functions and warehousing of documents and video. In fact, the list of services and vendors grows almost daily.
Some broadcasters are attracted to “the cloud” mostly by cost savings and improved efficiency. Others still harbor a basic mistrust of the technology, principally because it relies on the public Internet that lies beyond their control.
For example, Gannett uses Chyron’s AXIS cloud-based graphics in 19 of its newsrooms, supplemented by a 10-person Gannett Graphics Group based in Denver. The Denver group produces custom and animated graphics, about 10% of all the group’s graphics. The rest is done via AXIS, which Gannett said has proved reliable and efficient.
As with many new technologies, experts think resistance will decrease as the technology demonstrates its value. John King, Bitcentral’s VP of engineering, said the broadcasters’ reluctance to use the cloud for all applications will eventually vanish.
“We have seen the reliability of ISP and the maintenance of connections come up tremendously in the past couple of years,” King said. “Prior to that, the Internet was hit or miss. It was not uncommon for an Internet service provider to refresh everybody at odd times of the day, thereby terminating any connections you had open at that time. We find, even internationally, that we are now encountering about a 100% success rate.”
Even though 2011 has seen a major rush in new technologies that can significantly lower costs, many broadcasters still haven’t make the transition to high definition. A report earlier in the year by Positive Flux found that more than 350 U.S. TV stations have not yet upgraded.
While many station executives see HDTV conversion as a competitive necessity, they have not recognized the inherent opportunities for process improvement and cost-savings the changeover can bring, the survey found.
Ask any broadcast engineer about what he or she is up to and the answer is apt to be something about improving the news workflow so more news can be produced with the same or fewer people.
For the sake of improved workflow, a working group of the Advanced Media Workflow Association has begun work on improving interoperability of news production tools by coming up with a spec — AS-10 — for handling metadata.
“Our goal is to have a single file that could move from camera to edit to playout to archive and back, really to be able to traverse the entire work flow,” said CNN’s Michael Koetter who is leading the effort.
Nationwide EAS Test
All year long, broadcasters, cable operators and government officials planned for a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System on Nov. 9 at 2 p.m.
Unfortunately, it didn’t go quite as planned as many viewers did not see or hear the alert. “We always knew that there would probably be some things that didn’t work and some things that did,” an unnamed FEMA official told the New York Times an hour after the test.
In The Trenches
During the year, three prominent broadcast engineers made moves. Cox Media Group’s Sterling Davis retired as of Jan. 1, but he has stuck around as a consultant to represent Cox on industry committees.
Ardell Hill, chief technologist for Media General, took a new job at Baran Services in March, and Andy Setos stepped down in July as president of engineering for the Fox Group. Later, he was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
To read Parts I, II and III, which covered the year’s developments in business, regulatory, programming, journalism and new media, plus a remberance of those who died in 2011, click here.