CHRIS LENNON /
05.01.2008 12:00 PM
PSIP: The FCC gets serious

Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) is nothing new. It includes information critical for viewers to know what's on TV and to tune to digital OTA programming in ATSC countries. PSIP information is contained in many systems, and Programming Metadata Communications Protocol (PMCP) was created to enable this data to be easily extracted from these systems and provided to PSIP generators.

It is not news that PSIP is required by the FCC. However, in its Report and Order of Dec. 31, 2007, the FCC seems to have put some teeth into its regulations concerning PSIP.

Beginning May 29, 2008, terrestrial broadcast signals in the United States must include PSIP information that accurately reflects the content being aired. This means either someone must manually update your PSIP generator's event information table (EIT) data — basically the contents of the program grid that appears on viewers' EPGs — or you must implement a system that will do this automatically.

A little history

Back on Sept. 7, 2004, the FCC issued its first rule concerning accuracy of PSIP data. It went into effect in early 2005, but many broadcasters didn't follow the guideline. The wording of the 2004 PSIP rule was wishy-washy and didn't come right out and say, “Send accurate PSIP or else!” It included weak wording, such as “… correct program titles that can inform consumers about which programs are planned to be broadcast” and “These EITs should be populated with the correct information, so that the user knows what programs are on …”

It was like the FCC was saying, “Hey guys, we all know what you should be doing, so why don't you just do it, and get your PSIP in line with what you're broadcasting?” However, in the absence of any “shall” or “must” provisions, or the threat of any consequences, the most common reaction was no reaction at all.

So, the FCC played nice for a while on PSIP. It assigned some fines for blatant violations (such as for those sending out no PSIP at all), but by and large, the commission sat back and hoped the industry would sort out the PSIP issue by itself.

It's rare today to find PSIP data that accurately reflects what a broadcaster is transmitting all the time. This is largely because most broadcasters simply import program listing information days prior to air and never update it.

The new rule

The FCC's December 2007 Report and Order, as part of the third periodic review of the DTV transition, contained some interesting references to PSIP. Some of the key passages are cited below.

  • “This latest revision requires broadcasters to populate the EITs with accurate information about each event and to update the EIT if more accurate information becomes available.”

  • “Also, broadcasters must accurately fill the contents of the fields and the descriptors of each event descriptor loop with the known information about each event at the time the event is created and shall update each field if more accurate information becomes available. The Commission will continue to monitor these issues and act accordingly.”

  • “Finally, a couple of comments noted, in response to our inquiry in the Third DTV Periodic Review NPRM, that PSIP information may not be passed through to cable and satellite subscribers. We will address such program-related PSIP issues in our DTV Must Carry proceeding.”

It's interesting to contrast this with FCC statements three years ago, as the new rule uses stronger language, such as “requires” and “shall,” and promises that the FCC will “act accordingly” if broadcasters don't comply. (The full R&O can be found at http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-07-228A1.pdf.)

Consequences

The new rule implies that the FCC will not hesitate to fine broadcasters who continue to send out PSIP that doesn't accurately reflect what's on-air. The commission also plans to actively monitor PSIP information. If past history is a good indicator, fines could be in the neighborhood of $3000 per violation. That is what the FCC charged a couple of years ago when a group of stations were found to not be transmitting any PSIP.

What about must-carry?

One thing that has perhaps held many broadcasters back from investing in truly dynamic, accurate PSIP is the fact that most viewers receive their signal via cable or satellite. With PSIP being an over-the-air standard, many thought that there were so few viewers looking at it that it wasn't of critical importance.

The FCC will address this in the upcoming DTV must-carry proceeding. This seems to imply that we can expect the FCC to include PSIP in must-carry, requiring cable and satellite providers to pass PSIP along to viewers. Suddenly, getting it right becomes far more important for broadcasters, as the number of viewers exposed to inaccurate PSIP will grow significantly if it's included in must-carry over cable and satellite.

How to comply?

So, if you only have until the end of May to get your PSIP accurate and keep it so, what do you do? There are two clear options for broadcasters.

First, PSIP generators that are in use at stations today all have some degree of capability for an operator to manually edit the PSIP data being sent out. The master control operator could edit the upcoming PSIP events when the next day's playlist is loaded into the automation system, ensuring that everything is in sync at that point. Then, when things don't quite go according to plan and programs are added, skipped, changed or joined in progress, the operator can make those corresponding edits on the PSIP generator's GUI.

The second option is to automate the updating of PSIP events. When the automation system loads a new list of events, it can compare those with the list of upcoming PSIP events known to the PSIP generator and signal any differences using the ATSC's A/76B Program Metadata Communications Protocol (PMCP) to the PSIP generator. The automation system can then continually monitor future events for any changes that will require an adjustment to PSIP, and if any such changes are detected, again, message those to the PSIP generator using PMCP.

Taking the second, more automated approach ensures that your PSIP will be accurate, while keeping your operator's attention on what's important — making sure that your programming and commercials are going to air as intended.

Your automation system vendor can recommend how to best provide accurate PSIP for your workflow.

Timelines

The NAB and MSTV have filed a request for an extension of one year until this new rule is enforced, allowing broadcasters the time they need to deploy automated PSIP solutions. Harris filed supporting comments, expressing support for the new PSIP rules, while at the same time, reinforcing the NAB/MSTV view that more time is needed. Expecting all 1600-plus U.S. stations will have such solutions in place by the end of May of this year seems optimistic at best. How the FCC will react to this and other comments remains to be seen. For the latest updates, visit www.broadcastengineering.com.


Chris Lennon is director of integration and standards at Harris.



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