We often have to remind ourselves that the purpose of broadcast engineering is to create compelling content that informs and entertains viewers in ways that provide a return on the investment in production and distribution. In this era of technology, there is an incredible array of options in which to invest, and often no clear consensus on which alternate delivery mechanisms will be more than an interesting historical footnote.
Take, for instance, early attempts at interactive cable in the 1980s. Warner Cable deployed CUBE interactive systems in several markets, but never got the kind of viewer response that proved it was something worth sustaining. The company killed it. Then the company tested a “full service network” in Florida. That too closed, at which time the “Orlando Sentinel” said, “the company is shifting its emphasis toward an evolved form of the technology being developed by outside companies under contract with Time Warner Cable.”
Other alternative distribution systems have been tried, including various broadband wireless models. In the end, the most successful model to date is Internet delivery of both pay-per-view and free (streaming and downloaded) content. Inexorably, digital delivery via the Internet is making other models of content distribution at once more interesting and in some cases signaling a permanent shift in consumer habits — away from packaged media toward impulse and subscription delivery.
This had pernicious effects on every part of the production and delivery ecosystem. From a technology standpoint, it is relatively easy to adapt bit rates, picture formats, compression choices, aspect ratio and quality to fit delivery to any intended display. The rub is that there are simply so many of them. As I sit at my desk writing this article, I have within arm's length reach no less than 10 choices of aspect ratio and many more choices of resolution available for delivery of digital content for consumption. I routinely watch current content on my Mac Book, iPhone, pocket organizer, laptop, desktop monitor and tablet PC. I watch small windows on news sites, content of every possible level of quality and coding standard on YouTube, and last night's prime-time programming on Hulu. Each presents options for level of quality, aspect ratio and connection speed that directly affect how the content is produced. I have the ability to stream content to any set in the house over the wireless network deployed as part of the IPTV service I subscribe to. This year I will add ATSC Mobile options to my panoply of choices.
A broadcaster's quandary
The quandary a station owner has to face is which of the options are worth doing. A serious issue is how to technologically support many alternative reuses of the content a station has the rights to distribute. Some cases are relatively easy. A public broadcaster I work with sends content to the video on-demand service of a local cable provider by delivering content to the drop box on a transcode engine, which then places it in the cue for delivery to its partner's servers via ftp. The transcode setup is well-defined, and it is a relatively transparent process. But that is essentially an alternative that does not modify the content; it simply changes the coding parameters.
The more general problem, and the one worth spending some time on, is how to make content fit new viewing models, both technological and sociological. For instance, some research shows that viewers will use mobile devices more often without full-length content. This replicates the “news on demand” model often seen on Internet news sites. That requires a different version of the content itself, perhaps a 10-minute version of a 30-minute newscast. Technology and workflow collide at the point content needs to be repurposed in a cost-effective manner and delivered in near real time to boot.
Take the actual screen display of news where the screen is perhaps 2in × 3in. Some things don't work well when pushed to small screens, especially supers. A super that is 4in wide on a 17in laptop is only ¾in on an iPhone and barely ½in on many cell phones. This begs the question of whether screen content needs to be rerendered for small screens. One manufacturer has shown a system that can read the supers, zoom the “area of interest” in the picture to better frame the content for a small screen and then reapply the text to the reformatted screen. The demo showed a soccer match with the player moving the ball tracked in a zoomed in display automatically. This provided a much better viewing experience on a small screen.
For the multiplicity of delivery formats, it has become quite common to have a transcoding engine, or farm of transcoders, that renders multiple versions of the same content either live or from a file (as appropriate to delivery). Once a format is successfully set up and proven on the intended receiving device, it becomes a “black box” solution, which acts dispassionately to deliver the content in the right form. The process of fine-tuning the transcode can be lengthy and complicated. Captions, alternative languages and metadata needed to identify and tune to the content must all be optimized. Complex file-based workflow solutions like this are not for the faint of heart, nor for technicians without a deep understanding of wrappers, compression and the intended application.
With the deployment of ATSC-M/H this year, many broadcasters who have done only small content windows on their Web sites for news will get immersed in the multiplicity of issues surrounding content repurposing. It is a good time to bone up on compression, file-based workflow issues and service-oriented architecture, which can help automate processes and can evolve rapidly as the market moves.
Lastly, the IT industry, which is the basis for all transcoding, has been working on software as a service (SaaS) for some time. This year, a cloud-based service was announced that will transcode content and deliver it back to you without any investment in hardware or software. While not particularly inexpensive for an ongoing service, it may prove to be an efficient model for nonrecurring projects. As the cloud computing industry grows, and presumably prices fall, transcoding as a service in the cloud may prove to be a great way to adapt to a changing reality.
John Luff is a broadcast technology consultant.
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