Exit Interview: Rich Chernock Gives Parting Thoughts On Next-Gen TV

One of the final official duties of newly retired Dr. Rich Chernock, former chief science officer at Triveni Digital and former chair of ATSC’s Technical Group 3, was to travel to Columbus, Ohio, in late June for a conference put on by six Midwestern state broadcast associations about ATSC 3.0.

During a tour of the nearby Early Television Museum in Hilliard, Ohio, we had a face-to-face conversation about how he came to the television industry, his time as chair of TG3, the technical group responsible for the ATSC 3.0 standard, and his thoughts about the future of television.

Trying not to pull him away for too long from the impressive collection of early TVs and other television relics, I set up a telephone interview with Chernock so readers could get a taste of what I found to be an intriguing conversation.

The following interview, conducted on the phone, covers much of what we discussed in Ohio. Enjoy.

TVTechnology: Rich, you retired at the end of June, and a week or so before you did, we had the chance to talk at the Early Television Museum in Hilliard, Ohio.

I asked you then how you got into the television industry, and I am sure many of our readers would be interested in your story. Can you recount how you came to television?

Rich Chernock: I was at IBM, doing electron microscopy in a lab that I’d describe as last-resort failure analysis for the corporation. If something went wrong, it came to us, and we tried to figure out what happened.

I spent a lot of time in the dark room because I worked with film. Got fed up with it, got into multimedia and began learning about image capture.

At the same time, IBM was beginning to look at whether this new thing called digital television was something the company should look at. They formed a study group, and the guy I worked for urged me to join because he thought I might be interested.

The end result was IBM decided digital television was a real thing, and there was business to be had. It formed a new division, and I ended up jumping ship and going over and starting a new ship.

So I moved from lab work doing digital microscopy to digital television. Part of it, I was getting bored. I had done it for a long time, and this new stuff sounded kind of interesting, and my brain was wired for understanding MPEG.

TVT: I’m sure at the time you could never have envisioned heading up the technical group that would be responsible for a whole new television standard.

RC: Nope. That was not something I thought of.

[Read: Chernock To Chair ATSC 3.0 Group]

TVT: Tell be about the time right after the DTV transition was complete. I think you were already working on ATSC 2.0 and pushing data sets to be stored and accessed to emulate interactivity. But at some point it must have become clear that for TV to move forward it would have to jettison the MPEG Transport Stream and backwards compatibility. How did all of that happen and the decision that the industry needed an IP-based television standard?

RC: I came into digital television partly through the notion of data broadcasting — being able to carry things in MPEG besides live television.

So data broadcasting has always been an interest of mine. The problem was a number of years ago, the technology was great, but people were into a certain way of watching television. They’d sit down and watch TV. TVs didn’t have storage, and the idea of pushing things that you watched later wasn’t there.

Over time, the internet grew up. All of these devices popped up. People actually began interacting with their entertainment.

ATSC 2 noticed this and the thought was maybe it was time to do more than just live TV with broadcasters’ big data pipelines.

So, we started working on adding things to what we now call ATSC 1 that could make television a more engaging experience. ATSC 2.0 was supposed to be completely backwards-compatible — something you could add on the original ATSC broadcast.

And all of the equipment that didn’t know what to do with it would happily perform the way it did before, and new equipment could take advantage and offer new features.

Some work had started up in a planning committee that asked the question, “If we pushed technology as far as we could, how far could we go? And if we dropped the idea of everything having to be backwards compatible, could we move things far enough ahead that such a transition was worthwhile?” In other words, would the pain of the transition be worth it. That was ATSC 3.

If you try to keep things backwards compatible, there is a limit to what you can do. You can advance things 10, 15, maybe 20%.

If you drop the idea of backwards-compatibility, you can now get improvements that are three times or four times whatever you had before. You can make a major jump.

So, when people looked at this and looked at the possibilities and realized what the limitations were of today’s television, it became apparent to a lot of them that even though the transition to a new system would be painful, there wasn’t an awful lot further to take the existing system.

So, the pain of making a transition to a new system presented so many more opportunities and business areas, that it was felt it made sense to make a transition.

During this time, ATSC 2.0 matured, was finalized and published. And when people looked at it, they realized it just didn’t go far enough. And the new system coming along had so many more advantages, that it was felt it would be more worthwhile to pursue a new system than to confuse things with an interim change.

TVT: I think Jim Kutzner from PBS was initially chairing TG3, but shortly after he became chair he decided to retire from the industry. How did you get chosen to be TG3 chair?

RC: Jim Kutzner was actually the chair of the planning committee that did all of the background work for ATSC 3.0.

Then when the planning committee was done and had come up with the requirements for a new TV system, the ATSC board approved the work to create ATSC 3, voted to create TG3 and Jim was the chair.

So Jim Kutzner was the chair of TG3 for a bit over a year. Then he decided to retire. The stars aligned, everything worked out, and he could go pursue what he wanted to pursue.

At about the same time, I was chair of TG1, which was doing all the work on ATSC 1 and 2. And I was term-limited. TG chairs had a three year term. While I was reaching the end of that, Jim was about to retire. The board looked at various people and decided I would be a good person to chair TG3.

So, I basically got a one-month vacation from being the chair of TG1; Jim retired; and I became the chair of TG3.

TVT: Given the suite of standards that make up ATSC 3.0, what was it like chairing TG3? I know I would call you for interviews, and you always seemed to just be getting off a 3.0 committee call or getting ready to get on one.

RC: I think maybe it consumed 80 to 90% of my time. My expertise up until that point was really at the bit level. My knowledge of the physical layer was really rather weak. I sort of had an idea, but it wasn’t really something I focused on, because my attention was elsewhere.

The first time I went to an S32 [the committee that did the physical layer] meeting after a couple of hours I turned to the guy next to me and said, “What just happened?”

Basically, I didn’t know what was going on, and I leaned on Luke Fay [Sony] and Yiyan Wu [CRC] and other experts. They explained it to me. I am still not an expert, but at least now I can understand what goes on there.

So, there was a whole lot of learning. There are a whole bunch of areas that I knew stuff about but wasn’t an expert in.

At the beginning, I tried to participate in virtually all of the calls, partly to learn, partly to see what was going on, and over time, I cut back doing that with some groups because they seemed to be doing a great job by themselves. They weren’t going off the rails. And there wasn’t enough time in the day. So, I focused on groups that needed me.

That took up most of my time. It was a ton of travel, and a huge number of phone calls.

TVT: One time at an IBC in Amsterdam, I asked you what was going on with the Future of Broadcast Television (FoBTV) effort. You told me at the time that FoBTV was basically on hold because the effort going into ATSC 3.0 was the focus of the smartest minds in television from around the world. How were you able to attract the smartest minds to the ATSC 3.0 development effort?

RC: I think it was actually pretty simple. We made it open to everybody. Anybody with ideas who wanted to contribute had a seat at the table, and their contributions would be considered.

In a way, the ATSC 3 work was really the only activity in the world to try to create a new, next-generation TV system — completely. I think that attracted a lot of people because there was an opportunity to start from scratch and come up with the best possible approach — the best technology people knew — and remember a lot of the people were researchers, so this was an opportunity for them pursue their research at their universities.

TVT: Given the number of people working on the standard, each with specific knowledge and priorities, I’m am sure building a consensus was challenging at times. How did you go about that? And what did you do when you came to impasses?

RC: Building consensus was difficult. In some areas, there were simulations that one could run to actually judge which technologies were the best. Engineers with hard numbers in front of them quite often can make compromises and choices.

Probably the most difficult area was the physical layer. It wasn’t the case that people contributed ideas and technology. People contributed complete systems.

But in choosing a system, and going with that, has a whole lot of implications. It means you may lose out on good ideas an organization didn’t think of. So, instead of choosing one, it was sort of built in pieces. Different pieces of the physical layer use pieces of technology from different places — whatever was the best.

And as it turns out, most of the contributors had part of their technology included in the system, which made reaching consensus quite a bit easier.

TVT: I remember when the first announcements were made public about the physical layer. The first announcement was about the bootstrap. Is the bootstrap an example of selecting one piece from one source rather than taking the whole system? And, isn’t the bootstrap especially important so the broadcast industry does not have to face obsoleting TVs in the future?

RC: The bootstrap, I believe, bits and pieces came from different places, but the basic concept came from one source. There were definitely tweaks in what was originally suggested.

The idea of the bootstrap was actually very good. It does help a lot with the extensibility. It is the core of the physical layer — the starting place for everything.

By having the bootstrap — very simple, very robust and essentially unchanging — one can then put a signal in there that allows everything else in the system to be evolved.

Really, it is one of the core pieces that allows ATSC 3 to be different than everything we’ve done in the past, meaning you don’t do it, sit on it forever, and when everything changes in the world you say, “I guess we have to throw it away and start over.”

Now with the bootstrap, you can keep it as is and as technologies change, you can do things to the system, and old receivers can see there is new stuff, but old stuff, too.

It knows what the old stuff is, it knows when it is going to come, and the new receivers can work with what’s new. So you can slowly evolve things over time and get away from the problem of abrupt changes that obsoletes old equipment.

TVT: As you look back on the standardization of ATSC 3.0, were there any areas of difference that stand out as being harder to overcome than others?

RC: There were a number that were kind of difficult. One was the choice of IP transport over MPEG transport. There are some things where there are tangible measurements you can take and know if you do it this way you can get 3 dB of improvement or 20% better.

In the case of transport, if you look at it purely in terms of efficiency, IP and transport stream are pretty close. The difference is what happens in the future. How far can you extend it? Can you take advantage of what’s happening in other arenas like the internet?

These are sort of intangibles that you can’t put a number like 10% on, but you can get a feeling that if I do it this way, I will probably be a lot better off in the future. So that was one of the issues that was a bit more difficult because it was not a pure engineering thing.

Another one of the difficult decisions was between the ROUTE transport and MMT transport. They are both very good. They do things well. They just do them differently. It was impossible to get consensus on one over the other. And the end result was we allowed both.

TVT: Same thing with audio, right? MPEG-H vs. AC-4?

RC: Same sort of thing. They are both superb technologies. In some ways, it’s easier to have a system with no options. You do it this way.

But getting to that point can be very, very difficult. If you don’t have a good technical reason for one over another, it can be very difficult. So there were a number of places where options were allowed.

TVT: In the future, do you think a standards body like the Advanced Television Systems Committee can keep up with the accelerating rate of technological developments? Or, eventually, will the rate at which the marketplace brings about change surpass what can be accommodated by a standards body?

RC: I think it is possible to keep up. Look at the internet. The internet is built on standards. It’s changing very rapidly, but the things that are not standardized and are proprietary tend to disappear. So, using the internet as a model, it is possible to keep up.

Some of the work in ATSC 3, like interactivity, there is a lot of work there recognizing that we are following the internet, following what W3C [the World Wide Web Consortium] does.

The way of managing that and standardizing that has to be a bit different than we’ve done in the past. Using the way it works in the internet world is the model that is being used right now to try to keep up. I think it is possible.

The good thing about standards is that when consumers buy a TV and bring it home, they know it is going to work. That’s something you don’t want to get rid of.

TVT: Looking back on your time as TG3 chair, do you have any advice for Madeleine Noland who now fills that seat?

RC: I think the advice I gave to Madeleine was practice herding cats. But I think she knew that already.

I think Madeleine will be an excellent replacement. She will do really well. She is focused on some different areas. A lot of my focus was get it done, and I think now the focus has to be get it implemented, get it up and running.

Part of the advice is spend more time listening than talking. Try to figure out some way — I think the best way to say it is — that annoys everyone equally.

That is part of managing an organization. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can make everyone equally unhappy. That’s a pretty good place to be.

TVT: How about to the industry at large? Any parting piece of advice as relates to 3.0?

RC: A lot of people have said this, but the new functionality and the new kinds of businesses enabled by ATSC 3 are really necessary.

Without doing that, broadcasting is probably going to disappear and be overtaken by all of the other options people have for getting information and entertainment.

So, if broadcast doesn’t get nimble and take advantage of the things ATSC 3 offers, there’s a problem.

But I think there are a lot of tools now, and there is a lot of upside to broadcasting. Broadcasters should implement, take advantage of it and take full advantage of the unique future they have.

The notion of broadcasting — delivering the same stuff to lots of people very efficiently, there’s nothing that beats that.

TVT: Finally, it’s only been about a month, but how are you enjoying retirement and what are your plans?

RC: I’m liking it. Less stress. That’s one big thing. One of the things with ATSC 3 and all of the travel, I had all kinds of things I had to put aside and didn’t have time for.

I can pick them back up again. So, playing music, doing electronics and all of the projects I put aside are coming up to the forefront.

For a comprehensive list of TV Technology’s ATSC 3.0 coverage, see ourATSC3 silo.

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Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.