Two Important Lessons For TV Broadcasters

It seems to be human nature to fail to grasp the concept of exponential growth, but if broadcasters wish to succeed as they face new competition they must grasp how the concept doesn’t — but should — apply to them and the over-the-air service they deliver.

Today, TVNewsCheck in cooperation with NAB is putting on the TV2020 conference during the NAB Show New York in Manhattan.

I’m moderating two panels. One on ATSC 3.0, single frequency networks and the TV spectrum repack, and the other on the future of TV with an emphasis on 4K, 8K, high dynamic range and immersive audio.

So, it’s probably to be expected that the future of TV has been on my mind of late. What may be a bit surprising, however, are some of the lessons I learned two weeks ago about the future of technology at the 2016 SMPTE Technical Conference & Exhibition and how they apply to what is currently unfolding in television.

Al Kovalick, industry veteran, chair of the SMPTE Networked Media Infrastructure conference track and principal of Media System Consulting, tackled the topic during his “Looking Deep into the Future: Infrastructure Prospects for the Media Enterprise in 2036” presentation.

Two of his takeaways seem particularly on target for those attending the TV2020 conference and the TV industry at large.

First, it’s quite difficult — if not downright impossible — for most humans to think exponentially.


“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function,” Kovalick quoted the late Albert Allen Bartlett, professor of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, as saying.

However, Kovalick did an admirable job of helping those attending his SMPTE presentation to overcome that human failing.

Consider taking 30 average human steps, he said. The distance covered will be around 75 feet. But what if it were possible to take 30 exponential human steps? Now the distance covered skyrockets to 1 million miles, he explained.

The same concept holds true in aviation and flight distances, said Kovalick. Orville Wright covered 120 feet in 12 seconds when he made his first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in December 1903.

Twenty-four years later, Charles Lindbergh flew 3,500 miles across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris in 33.5 hours. The difference between the two represents about 17 doublings in distance per year.

To their credit, many of the vendors that regularly exhibit at events like the NAB Show New York, get this concept.

In fact, their enterprise may succeed or fail in some measure based on their understanding and application of the concept of exponential growth when it comes to things like CPU processing power, digital storage and network systems.

Kovalick offered several examples of exponential growth in the tech world.

For example, hard disk storage capacity is predicted to climb from a maximum of 4 TB today to 512 TB by 2037, he said. The same is true of networking speeds. Link speeds will grow from 10 Mb/s in the early to mid-1980s to 6.2 TB/s before 2030, Kovalick predicted.

Then there is the granddaddy of all technology exponential growth: Moore’s Law, named for Gordon Moore of Intel who observed in a 1965 paper that the number of transistors packed onto an integrated circuit doubles every two years.

Kovalick illustrated Moore’s Law with two pictures arranged side-by-side on a slide. On the left was the phase-shift oscillator that Nobel Prize winner Jack Kilby invented at Texas Instruments in 1958. It had one transistor and a several resistors.

To the right of it was a picture of an eight-core Xeon CPU from 2014 that is packed with 2.3 billion transistors, a stunning example of exponential growth over 58 years. Elsewhere in his presentation, Kovalick pointed out that transistor count has grown to more than 30 billion this year with the Altera/Intel Stratix 10 FPGA.

Based on Kovalick’s presentation and the upcoming TV2020 conference that is happening today at the NAB Show New York, I began to wonder how exponential thinking matched up with television, specifically what gets delivered over the air to viewers.

Sadly, it seems the exponential train forgot to stop at the TV station.

In 1953, a backwards-compatible system for color was tacked onto black-and-white NTSC television. That carried the industry forward until it began giving way during the long, gradual analog-to-digital transition that concluded in 2009.

That’s 525 lines (483 visible lines) made up of two fields of 262.5 scan lines apiece at 29.97 frames per second vs. 1920 x 1080 pixels at 30 frames (60 interlaced fields) per second over a period of 56 years. I’m not seeing anything that approximates that beautiful exponential growth when it comes to what television broadcasters deliver over the air.

Why? Two closely related reasons. First, the TV industry never dared to tell consumers they would have to toss out all those heavy, bulky TV sets and consoles every few years to upgrade to the latest, greatest set.

Second, TV broadcasters have operated at least since the 1940s under government regulations that proscribe the type of signal they transmit to achieve the commendable goal of serving all of the public with news, sports, weather, entertainment and emergency bulletins, not simply households with the latest TVs.

Enter ATSC 3.0 and the proposed plan on the table at the FCC to transition from the current ATSC 1 standard to next-generation television.

By proposing that stations in a market channel-share to continue delivering DTV signals to viewers while they build out their 3.0 transmission infrastructure and launch next-generation OTA television on their remaining channels in the market, the industry is saying it honors its obligation to provide over-the-air television to everyone in the community while positioning itself for a future where technical development isn’t snuffed out by government mandate.

Doing so might even allow broadcasters to jump on the Exponential Express to the future.

The second takeaway from Kovalick’s presentation that is germane to the future of TV is what he called the “S -curves evolution.”

It’s a pretty simple concept. The technology that has enabled exponential growth one day reaches its outside limit. Telegraphs, slide rules, videotape and CRTs are good examples, Kovalick said.

Eventually another technology comes along to carry progress forward, and as each new successive cycle of exponential progress, ceiling-bumping and new technology unfolds, a series of S-curves is created along the trajectory of growth.

That’s where OTA television is today. Bumping its head against the ceiling. New replacement technology is within reach in the form of 3.0, but without FCC action to remove regulatory roadblocks that’s where it will stay.

All the while, new competitors are entering the business of content delivery. But they face no similar government restrictions and are free to exploit the benefits of exponential technology growth as they power on by.

(Editor’s note: Al Kovalick’s presentation was drawn from an article he wrote for the SMPTE Journal. More information is available on the SMPTE website.)

To stay up to date on all things tech, follow Phil Kurz on TVNewsCheck’s Playout tech blog here. And follow him on Twitter: @TVplayout.

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