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Building IT systems

The shift toward IT solutions such as Microsoft’s IPTV Interactive Program Guide in broadcast operations requires a new perspective on managing content.

Few things in our industry are more certain than the growth of information technology-based systems in television and radio facilities. Equally certain is just how difficult and fundamental this change has proven to be, and how inadequately trained and equipped many among us are to take full advantage of the power and capability of IT systems.

There are some clear and defining differences between IT- and video-hardware-based systems. The most fundamental technological difference is the bidirectional nature of much IT technology, specifically networking. IT has begun to approach the sustained error-free speeds of baseband digital video (SMPTE 259M and 292M). In the next few years, the cost of interconnection for IT will drop, and it is unlikely that new videocentric interconnections will erupt onto the scene. 10G Ethernet can support high QoS video connections on technology that rivals SMPTE 292M in cost of implementation while offering bidirectional capability. But, for now, it certainly seems that most manufacturers in our market swath are not rushing to embrace new approaches. There is simply not enough infrastructure available to build a practical complete air chain using IT hardware.

Don't get me wrong; we are moving rapidly in that direction. The author's systems design and integration company has explored MPEG play-to-air solutions using splicers and bit-stream-grooming technology. This kind of sweeping change could propel a movement to IT infrastructure. So far, however, even in this specialized world, the interconnection of choice is ASI. Technical issues aside, it fundamentally seems to be the chicken-and-egg conundrum at play (no infrastructure; therefore, no infrastructure). To date, most IT systems used in broadcast and production are employed in support systems, editing, server storage and asset management, routing control, graphics, video-audio file movement, and control circuits.

With that said, what should we, the non-cognoscenti, be doing to prepare ourselves? Training and education are at the top of the list. The Society of Broadcast Engineers has taken the issue to the first logical conclusion and developed a specific certification program for IT in broadcasting, Certified Broadcast Networking Technologist. According to the SBE, it has designed the certification to enable participants to demonstrate a basic familiarity with networking hardware in business and broadcast audio/video applications. Also, Microsoft administers a certification program that offers two levels that seem to apply in our industry:

  • Microsoft Certified Systems Administrators (MCSAs) administer network and systems environments based on the Microsoft Windows platforms. Specializations include MCSA: Messaging and MCSA: Security.
  • Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers (MCSEs) design and implement an infrastructure solution based on the Windows platform and Microsoft Servers software.

Neither certification will be required for remaining in the broadcast business after this transition has run its course. But, clearly, both establish a new level of training and expertise that demonstrates the effort to learn new skills applicable in our changing business. And, in the future, employers may require some evidence that applicants have sufficient training to be effective in their positions.

In the past, video and audio engineers largely learned their crafts from others in a chain of practical knowledge. Those seeking FCC licenses often learned from well-thumbed volumes such as Schrader's “Electronic Communication.” Often, we learned the most about hardware by attending training schools put on by Ampex, RCA and Sony. Little of that kind of in-depth training is now available in our industry. Now, the most effective route may be self-paced training sold by Microsoft, community college courses or, perhaps, trade schools. But the transfer of knowledge is less experiential today and much more akin to conventional academic pursuits. Those not learning regularly and continuously will be relegated to lower paid, less interesting jobs.

It is equally true that we learned technology by being operators first, and later moved to more engineering-oriented positions. That allowed us to learn by osmosis, if nothing else, the way broadcast stations were organized and operated. Station operations have, however, become more specialized. It isn't as easy for a camera person in a studio to move into more technical pursuits without specialized knowledge. The consequent stratification in our industry has meant that the truly skilled technical person must take the initiative to learn new skills to move to new areas and toward management. Look around the average station and you will see few technical personnel in the first years of their career. It might be the “graying” of broadcast engineering at work.

There is also a fundamental paradigm shift involved in this transition that is difficult to fully appreciate from the perspective of traditional broadcast engineering experience. The emphasis on networking and software “tools” instead of hardware and interconnection into “systems” that perform functions means that facility staff must think less about the physical layer and more about applications that interface over a common structure. Thus, it becomes critical that the underlying structural layer be extensible to new uses. As software-based systems take over for hardware solutions, the technical staff must understand less about reading a waveform monitor and more about the software tools needed to interchange files and formats.

But the deterministic nature of communications in isochronous video systems is holding back this transition. In 1939, the camera that first acquired images at the New York World's Fair for live broadcast over the air scanned in perfect synchronization with the receiver a few kilometers away, phase-shifted only by propagation delay. Today, the entire notion of “live” is a bit more fuzzy; “live” now means not intentionally recorded for later delivery. One consequence is the potential for congestion on interconnection networks in a synchronous video system. The thought of defining quality of service was an oxymoron in a synchronous video system because each coax carried but a single signal. Now, “signals” may well compete for bandwidth on a larger pipe. Managing such a complex system requires an understanding of statistics and the way applications access the network.

Lastly, we now find ourselves increasingly managing metadata and operations databases. Due to recent FCC action, DTV tuners will expect to see PSIP. To generate PSIP, you must gather data from various sources, including listing services, traffic, automation and perhaps from DTV encoders. Understanding what bits must be delivered, where they come from and how they are processed before assembly in the PSIP generator will be critical. Understanding how a MAM system makes the decision to move media offline is important if you want to understand why something is not stored where you expected it. When automated actions become manual, you must know where the control over bits went awry and how to redirect the various applications and networks involved to heal the electronic wound.

As with all things in life, the key is knowledge. The acquisition and application of knowledge is rapidly becoming the key to the broadcast engineer's future.

John Luff is senior vice president of business development for AZCAR.

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