Panelists at the HPA Tech Retreat agreed with PBS's Eric Wolf: “Channel sharing is a reasonable option for people to look at, but at the end of the day management has to look at this and say we can take a one-time infusion of cash from the auction and give up forever some portion of our spectrum, which is our bread and butter, and forgo a lot of future options." But panelists weren't in harmony on every issue. CBS's Bob Seidel (l) and Sinclair's Mark Aitken disagreed on the approach to the next-gen TV standard ATSC 3.0.
Top Techs Have No Desire To Lose Spectrum
While the FCC may want broadcasters to surrender some or all of their spectrum back to the commission for auction to broadband wireless providers, a panel of top broadcast TV tech experts says “no way.”
That topic, along with plenty of other hot-button issues — including spectrum re-packing, channel sharing, 4K/ultra high-definition acquisition and delivery, AFD (active format description), unbundling of subscription TV packages, software defined networks, IP broadcasting and ATSC 3.0 — were explored at the annual Broadcaster Panel at the recent HPA Tech Retreat in Indian Wells, Calif.
A highlight of the HPA conference for many attendees, the panel is a one-hour discussion featuring the top technology executives from major broadcast networks and TV station groups.
Moderated by Ericsson’s Matthew Goldman, this year’s panel featured Anthony Caruso from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Bob Seidel from CBS, Dave Seigler from Cox Broadcasting, Richard Friedel from Fox, Eric Wolf from PBS and Mark Aitkens from Sinclar Broadcast Group.
Starting with the topic of spectrum repacking, sharing and multicasting, broadcasters were in general agreement that although there may be some stations that want to cash out in the auctions, it does not make sense to permanently give up spectrum that might be used later for a variety of services delivering everything from mobile to 4K.
PBS’s Wolf raised the point that although today’s encoders make channel sharing a viable option, advances in technology cannot solve the thorny contractual issues of how a for-profit station can share spectrum with a nonprofit PBS station, or whether it makes commercial sense to do so at all.
“Channel sharing is a reasonable option for people to look at, but at the end of the day management has to look at this and say we can take a one-time infusion of cash from the auction and give up forever some portion of our spectrum, which is our bread and butter, and forgo a lot of future options,” Wolf said.
Siegler agreed, saying that Cox sees surrendering spectrum as limiting the future, and that the company has “no interest” in turning over any of its spectrum.
Sinclair’s Aitken went further: “No matter what happens, if the next generation of broadcasting is planned using legacy ATSC 1.0 and MPEG-2 standards, everyone will be ‘half of a broadcaster’ because what you can do within the limitations of ATSC 1.0 is only half of what broadcasters are capable of doing.”
Aitken added that “any consideration of channel sharing would have to go hand-in-hand with the notion of advancing broadcasting to the next-generation broadcast platform,” which he described as being all IP-based and capable of supporting both mobile and fixed services, which Sinclair believes will be vital to the livelihood of broadcasters in the future.
According to Seidel, the issue comes down to quality for CBS, so channel sharing is out of the question. The network always strives to deliver maximum quality, so until very recently CBS has used its entire 19.3 Mbit/s for HD. Recent advances in compression have enabled CBS to lower the bitrate slightly, freeing up approximately 1.5Mbit/s for a subchannel.
THE FUTURE OF 4K
The industry’s top techs were also in broad agreement on 4K — delivering it over the air is not a priority.
“We’ve done a lot of testing of 4K in our labs, and you know what, it produces the best HD pictures we’ve ever seen,” said Fox’s Richard Friedel. “We think there is some there is some viability for 4K sets for consumers, but that’s not to suggest that we will be broadcasting 4K any time soon.”
Aitken put it more bluntly: “4K is not going to happen for broadcasting until ESPN says so.”
Seidel says CBS is a fan of 4K — for acquisition. He described how CBS/CW program delivery specifications include separate elements for acquisition and delivery. “On the acquisition side, our philosophy has always been that we want to maintain the highest possible quality levels so that we ensure the residual asset value of that content.”
Accordingly, for the past two years the CBS/CW specifications have allowed for acquisition in 4K, although this is not mandatory today. “Having an edited 4K master on the shelf is going to add to the asset value in the future, no matter how it’s distributed.”
On the sports side, CBS and others have been using 4K for acquisition (CBS used six 4K cameras at the 2013 Super Bowl), and using this content to extract HD content, as well as for super slow-mo replays. 4K/UHD will continue to be used in this way for sports productions.
It was Dave Siegler from Cox Media, whose parent company is also a major cable operator, who expressed disappointed in the downgraded signal that cable companies deliver to the home with compression, and asked rhetorically whether 4K delivered to the home would look as HD should.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ATSC 3.0
The panel disagreed on several important topics, the most controversial of which had to do with the future of broadcasting, and the various options for the ATSC 3.0 standard.
Aitken kicked off the debate by expressing concern that “that virtually all activity and focus of the ATSC has been on high data rate delivery to a fixed receiver environment” (in other words, delivering a single channel to a single UHD display in the home).
While Aitken sees this as part of the future of broadcasting, “Sinclair has fought for 15 years to bring mobile capability to broadcasting.”
“Fifteen years ago, people looked at us cross-eyed and said ‘mobile, who’s going to do that?’ ” said Aitken. “Look around today and the question is: where is broadcast to mobile? There has been an avoidance [at ATSC] of moving forward any proposals that would take bits away from fixed service for mobile services. There may be a need to run a parallel path outside of ATSC with industry adopters bringing forward a de facto next-generation technology that then gets adopted by the broadcast community.”
According to Aitken the new broadcast standard must meet all the needs of all broadcasters, rather than perpetuating an old-world view that all broadcasting is just about television, which is what politicians in Washington think of when they hear the word “broadcasting.”
“Every broadcaster would say they want [their content] to be on every device,” Aitken said. “It’s just a question of how to get there. Broadcasters should be in a position to be their own gatekeeper in getting their content and licensed content delivered to the consumer. It’s really a matter of setting off a warning bell that we’re not going to sit still and wait for another mistake to happen.”
CBS’s Seidel defended the ATSC 3.0 effort, noting that it has solicited bids from all over the world. At least 13 proposals are now under consideration and many include mobile services, including LTE broadcast, DVB-T2, and even 8K from Japan. Seidel said the process was still at the early stage, and still has a long way to go.
Fox’s Friedel added the final comment on the topic, saying that if broadcasters are not involved in the ATSC 3.0 process, they should get involved as soon as possible. “The key for the ATSC is a standard that is flexible and extensible, and allows the business to grow and change with the future. I can’t predict the future better than anyone else, but there is going to be a transition from big screens today to portable devices. That much is clear.”
On the subject of integer frame rates, Seidel said that the industry will likely be stuck with 59.94 for many years to come due to the millions of hours of 59.94 content on the shelf and the complexity of converting back and forth from 59.94 to 60 in the plant.
Aitken disagreed, saying video content creation is exploding, and that the amount of content created in the next 10-15 years will equal all the content ever created. Therefore, it makes sense to Sinclair to move forward with all new content generated at integer frame rates, while maintaining compatibility with legacy non-integer material.
Friedel agreed with Aitken, saying that Fox has been advocating that new formats (e.g., 120 fps) would be integer-based, and convert to non-integer rates for legacy compatibility.
Another area of disagreement had to do with the unbundling of cable services.
Friedel said that Fox “firmly believes that the cost of TV will go up for people if it’s unbundled. If you think about the way a show is put together and marketed, there is no possible way that popular television programming will be able to be produced and sent to consumers at the same rate they are paying today. Prices would go way, way up.”
Aitken countered, saying “unbundling is inevitable and will happen naturally due to an environment of hybrid convergence of content across multiple platforms. If broadcasters had a decent platform, we’d be delivering a Sinclair bundle to the home. Unbundling will happen as a natural occurrence of the proliferation of platforms that can bring content into the home.”
SOFTWARE DEFINED NETWORKING
Moving on to what is sure to be one of the biggest technology trends over the next 5+ years, the panelists were asked how long they think it will take for broadcasters to truly move to full IP infrastructure or software defined networking (SDN).
Wolf said although it will take a few more years, PBS is currently building a new disaster recovery (DR) center that’s based completely on virtualized IT systems, along with “little bits” of traditional broadcast gear. Although this new facility is not yet based on SDN or cloud enabled, it’s the first step on the path.
DR is a great test facility so it’s a positive step along the way,” he said, “but as we look at our next big playout system, the big question on the table is whether we can go all IP for all the routing in the plant and the suspicion is that we can.”
Friedel agreed, saying that IP is “well along the way” towards becoming real. We do have IP-based routers in our plant today, and IP technology is just going to proliferate. If you walk into any of our equipment rooms at the moment, there is almost no classic broadcast vendor anymore.
“Instead you’ll see rows of Hewlett Packard, IBM, and Cisco. We’re really in an all-IP world now. We’ve got huge virtualization farms already and this is coming. In five years no one will build a plant of our size that’s not based on IP concepts.”
Friedel added: “This is a pretty fun time to see where the future will go,” and encouraged the audience to learn more about the SMPTE 2022 standard, and become involved with the Joint EBU-SMPTE-VSF Task Force on Networked Media (download whitepaper here), which is helping to define the future of the all-IP broadcast facility.
Other issues included a discussion of electronic interference, which is affecting both C-band contribution feeds and wireless microphones.
Friedel said “white space interference is a huge issue for broadcasters,” and then quipped that viewers of the 2014 Super Bowl may have noticed that either the hands of the on-air talent had gotten smaller or the microphones had gotten larger.
He explained that in order to eliminate the risk of wireless interference in the crowded Met Life Stadium, Fox had switched to new wireless microphones from Sennheiser that operate in 1.6 GHz band. Although these microphones worked perfectly, they require more power and larger batteries, making them 40% larger than traditional wireless microphones.
Joe Zaller is the founder of Devoncroft Partners, a Coronado Calif.-based provider of market research to broadcast, ProAV and financial clients. For more information, please visit www.devoncroft.com.