Digital TV, Sax and Violins
Feb. 17, 2009, is a date that is indelibly written in the minds of U.S. television broadcasters as it marks the projected end of analog television. As a result, many television station operators are making final plans to turn off their analog transmission systems, possibly relocate their digital transmission frequencies and head off into the brave new world of digital-only TV.
I have to admit that I didn’t think this date meant much to me in an IT context. After all, doesn’t this transition simply mean that we turn off the analog transmitters? I have come to realize that it’s not at all that simple but it also offers some great opportunities. This thought came to me while I was trying to play the violin… seriously.
You see, I am a guitar player (or try to be) and have played since I was in second grade. I recently had this incredible urge to learn to play the violin so I thought to myself, hey, it has strings like a guitar, how different could it be? Well, it turns out that pretty much everything is different (except that both the violin and the guitar have strings). The tuning is different, the fingering is different. You get the idea.
NO SAX METAPHOR
Then it hit me that this had been my approach to digital television. I have been thinking of digital television as if it were just another variation of analog television when in fact about the only thing it has in common is the word “television.” Digital television is my violin and analog television is my guitar (unfortunately I don’t have a good sax metaphor but I really liked the title so I left it in). I’ve come to realize that it’s not wise to approach digital television processes in the same way as analog television processes just as it isn’t wise to try to play the violin like a guitar (my wife says you should trust me on that).
Here’s an example of the difference I’m talking about. Over the past months in my job, we’ve been defining on-air automation needs for a new traffic system. One of my colleagues pointed out that a lot of the parameters we were defining just didn’t make much sense when analog TV went away. For example, we’ve done some clever things to separately switch network HD feeds in parallel with our analog feeds in master control. This required some unique video source names so the automation systems could react appropriately. These codes simply won’t be needed when we’re all-digital. We’re now reviewing all of our procedures to make sure we’re not carrying over solutions that simply aren’t needed anymore.
TOWARD A SINGLE SYSTEM
It’s also dawned on me that this transition date could be a great catalyst for other changes too. By taking a fresh look at production equipment you may find other ways to streamline operations in a post-analog world. For example, look at the technology advances that affect news production control rooms.
Not many years ago, separate systems were needed for character generation, still image playback, and video clip playback. These devices were generally wired to a video switcher where they were used directly or layered (keyed) over other video sources. Manufacturers then began building systems that provide all of these functions (on multiple channels) in a single box that can even perform video layering independent of a video switcher.
In parallel with the changes in CG/still/clip systems, video switcher and audio console systems have changed. Systems like the Ross Video Overdrive and Thomson Grass Valley Ignite have moved the controls for switchers and mixers from panels filled with buttons and faders to software-driven timelines that can coordinate video, audio, and other systems simultaneously. At the same time, the physical size of these systems has continued to shrink.
Taken to the extreme, it’s not unrealistic to expect that all of the functionality of a traditional control room will soon exist in a single system. On an admittedly smaller scale, systems like the NewTek Tricaster or VT do this very thing today. I’ve had several conversations with manufacturers who have seen the possibilities of current processor technology and are beginning to explore similar solutions.
Another big benefit of the upcoming transition is that broadcasters won’t have to keep worrying about the effect of things like 16:9 aspect ratios on 4:3 analog streams. Instead of constantly compromising on presentation, we can finally concentrate on maximizing the potential of our digital streams.
When this transition happens it should be treated as an opportunity to review the entire approach to production. Advances in IT systems and video systems are happening at just the right time to allow some new approaches to be taken. We just have to remember that we’re no longer bound by the processes that have served us so well in analog TV. So rosin up your bow and get to fiddlin’.