Despite a tail-dragging economy, the broadcast spectrum under siege, and some signs of eroding support for public television, PBS affiliate station representatives trekking to the desert for the group’s annual pre-NAB technical and management conference should find some hopeful rays of sunshine among the brewing storm clouds.
Prior gatherings focused on “doing more with less,” and “with even less.” Being efficient and relevant in this cash-strapped, yet increasingly diverse media environment is crucial for PBS’s future, especially if last year is a harbinger of future trends: Despite the governor’s efforts to drastically cut the budget of Idaho Public Television, the legislature eventually voted a 16 percent decrease after a public outcry; KCSM in San Mateo, Calif., fell so short of fund raising goals it may be sold or shuttered; and Flint, Mich.’s WFUM narrowly avoided extinction when their university owner dumped the 30-year old station.
John McCoskey, PBS CTO
Nevertheless, “attendance is tracking close to last year’s numbers,” according to John McCoskey, chief technical officer of PBS. “Las Vegas is more affordable this year and, by combining our conference with NPR and the NAB, our members can do it all in one trip.”
There’s not a single big theme this year, McCoskey noted. “We have a broad agenda with some 50 tutorials, sessions and panels,” he said. With the DTV transition past, sessions are “geared to stations looking to button-down their ATSC operations, ensure high quality production and master control, and overcome any remaining consumer reception challenges,” said Eric Wolf, executive, technology strategy & planning. Looking to the future, “we have multiple sessions on mobile and 3D.”
“‘Doing more with less’ remains a clear underlying message of the conference,” McCoskey emphasized. “Automation, multiplatform distribution, quality assurance, and file-based workflow, including the non-real-time aspect of the Next Generation Interconnection System (NGIS) will be well covered.”
NGIS-focused sessions will again bracket the conference open and closing, this year spotlighting non-real-time file-based distribution aspects of the multiyear project. “It’s complex, as we need a ‘one size fits all’ solution... unlike commercial [groups], each PBS member station has complete autonomy over their infrastructure, workflows and subsystems, which makes it a challenging endeavor,” McCoskey acknowledged. “Our Alpha test stations have really carried a lot of water over the past year... their hard work, along with a very active station advisory committee, have shaped the non-real-time design into what we believe will work well across the entire system.” With key partners and vendors selected, “we’re moving toward production software and a system-wide rollout.” Behind the scenes, PBS is actively participating in industry groups working to standardize file and metadata formats; essential for the multivendor NGIS environment to succeed.
The NGIS team is also working hard to build-up the process, training and support infrastructure. “Getting the technology right is critical, but so is ensuring that it can be implemented successfully at the stations,” Wolf said. “Our Alpha and Beta site experiences will help identify and resolve most of the implementation wrinkles before the full rollout begins.”
McCoskey noted the timeliness of the sessions on broadband and the FCC. “With the National Broadband Plan due out just three weeks before our conference, the stations are naturally curious to know more about the FCC’s proposals,” McCoskey said. “We’re featuring a number of Web-centric initiatives at the conference,” Wolf added. Among them: COVE (Comprehensive Online Video Ecosystem), an online video distribution network exclusively for public television... it brings national content to local audiences and allows stations to share their content with the national audience (see the beta at http://video.pbs.org).
Another initiative, Merlin—nearly a year in planning and development—will index and categorize thousands of PBS content pages using next-generation search technologies and developer APIs to suggest and promote relevant content based on the user’s locale, interests, or current page view. Lastly, Bento is a platform initiative to speed the development of PBS Web properties, enabling producers and local stations to focus more of their resources on content generation.
McCoskey stressed that “as a membership organization, we exist to support the stations. We offer a number of broadcast and online services that offload work from them and allow us to leverage economies of scale across the entire station community.” For example, he cited an automated transcode-based multiplatform infrastructure project. “Our goal is to follow a normal workflow; to be as hands-off as possible, so [station] staff can focus on exception conditions... we’ve integrated software tools to monitor and identify video or audio impairments in content files—people still have to screen their content, but these tools help them focus-in on the problem areas.”
Several of the sessions will deal with real-world quality options and decision points. Through grant support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), “we’ve formed a Quality Group [comprised] of system leaders to focus on all aspects of video and audio, with the goal of maximizing the quality of content for our viewers,” said McCoskey.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for conferees will be choosing which sessions to attend. “We’re fortunate to have so many top notch people from inside public television and the industry-at-large offer to give presentations and sit on panels—we had a 25 percent increase in papers submitted for consideration—it’s a point of pride for the planning team,” Wolf noted. Diverse session titles include: “A DIY Disaster Preparedness Plan” with Hurricane Katrina experiences from the staff of “Broadcast Central” (LPB) in Baton Rouge, “DTV Loudness Management,” “Lessons from the Trenches of File Based Workflow,” “3DTV and Video Standards,” “Stress Management in the Workplace,” and “It’s a Broad, Broad, Broad, Broadband World.” The formal conference wraps-up, as always, with a typically lively “PBS Question & Answer” session.