Download: Change is inevitable

Change is inevitable

By Craig Birkmaier

Many TiVo subscribers were disappointed when recent attempts to watch World Cup soccer matches were tarnished when their digital video recorders (DVRs) didn't store the programming.

Florical’s ShareCasting is used to originate three channels from the NBC hub in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Florical Systems.

Is this yet another setback for digital technology, or a reflection of the reality that change is inevitable in the real world of television operations?

The problem was caused by a scheduling change that was not reflected in the guide used with the TiVo DVR service. The World Cup soccer matches were originally scheduled to be aired on ESPN2; however, at the last minute they were moved to ESPN.TiVo relies on television networks to frequently update their schedules so changes can be reflected in the guide. But the guide information is only updated when a TiVo box dials into a server to download guide information — typically no more often than once each day.

Centralcasting and multichannel broadcasting

While broadcasters deal with change on a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute basis, one could argue that the medium has been highly resistant to changes in the underlying business model, not to mention the technology for delivering television programming to viewers. A black-and-white television built in 1950 can still receive NTSC VHF broadcasts today. Somehow, broadcasting has endured, even as the world of television has seen radical changes in recent decades. Cable, the VCR, DBS, DVD and the Internet have expanded the options for distribution of television content. And the tools for creating video programming have been democratized with the availability of inexpensive digital camcorders and computer-based video production systems.

With the transition to DTV broadcasting, it was assumed that there would be profound changes to the business model for television broadcasting, such as a shift to high definition or multiple channels of standard-definition television, interactive television services (ITV), data broadcasting, or perhaps even reliable mobile reception. But none of these potential changes have generated new revenue for broadcasters or enthusiasm among consumers.

Now it looks like we may need to add two more buzz words to the list of promising technologies that have been placed on hold: centralcasting and multichannel broadcasting. Once again, a major factor is the inevitability of change.

The technologies for centralcasting and multichannel broadcasting are well evolved. Many systems have been deployed successfully, although in some cases the promised benefits of reduced operational costs have been elusive. A year ago centralcasting was a hot topic of discussion at the broadcast networks and larger station groups. A year later it has been placed on the shelf alongside other promising technologies that will impact broadcast operations… someday.

In almost every major city in the United States, cable systems operate sophisticated multichannel systems that insert commercials into an average of 25 cable networks — unattended. PBS is moving forward with multichannel DTV at both the network and local affiliate level, based on a business model with limited insertion of “commercials” and promos, and the ability to checkerboard programs in multiple time slots.

The current volatility of the evolving business model for local commercial broadcasting may be the most important factor in the shelving of emerging technologies, along with the significant investments required to begin operation of mandated DTV channels. Concerns about network/affiliate relations, pending changes to FCC-imposed ownership limits, and the shift of advertising to alternative media including cable and the Internet, are all contributing to the current reluctance to embrace change.

Consolidation can take many forms. If network ownership caps are raised or eliminated, it is expected that the broadcast networks will go on a buying binge and move to a regional centralcasting model. NBC has already taken the first step with regional centralcasting facilities in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. The relaxation of duopoly rules, along with local management agreements and other creative partnerships between stations, has led to the development of local multichannel operations in both the analog and digital domain.

The potential for cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations in a single market portends yet another opportunity for shared operations in local markets, feeding print, TV and the Internet. On June 17 the FCC announced that it will combine six separate reviews of six separate rules governing media company ownership into one. FCC Media Bureau Chief Kenneth Ferree said he expects the new rules to be adopted by the FCC next spring. This schedule could delay completion of one rule now being reviewed separately: a ban on ownership of a newspaper and television station in the same market, as sought by the Tribune.

Meanwhile, broadcasters are exploring the potential of multichannel broadcasting via their new DTV facilities. The variations include an HDTV program with an SDTV simulcast, HDTV with multiple SDTV programs (networks), and multiple SDTV networks.

The first and last mile

Adding to the uncertainty about pending changes to the broadcast business model and ownership consolidation is uncertainty about the cost of the backhaul connections that enable the shift to centralcasting. On the heels of the dotcom meltdown, we are now witnessing an equally astonishing meltdown of telecommunications companies that invested heavily in wide area fiber optic networks in anticipation of exponential growth in demand for broadband network services. Long-haul networking capacity is abundant; large bandwidth users such as broadcasters implementing centralcasting solutions can negotiate highly favorable rates.

But the cost of the local first mile bandwidth from a centralcasting facility to the wide area service provider and the last mile links to each station being fed often are higher than the cost to move bits across the country. In many cases current total costs for backhaul are higher than the costs for personnel at each local facility.

Given the current marketplace realities, broadcast station groups are looking at other ways to reduce operational costs through the application of technologies used for centralcasting, sharecasting, station automation and multichannel systems. By retaining local control over on-air operations, it is still possible to realize some operational savings across a station group.

John Luff, senior vice president of business development for AZCAR, a large systems integration company, prefers the term “centralized operations” to centralcasting. At NAB, AZCAR was promoting distributed broadcasting solutions that centralize control functions such as traffic and promotions while distributing critical elements of the on-air operations infrastructure to each station. Luff suggests that television broadcasters have been reluctant to implement centralized operations because of a prevailing attitude that “you can't run a television station from a remote location.”

One example of how distributed broadcasting techniques can be employed is through the use of lower cost IP networking solutions, which can be used to move content between the servers in multiple stations.

Another example relates to forward-and-store programming. A station group may run the same syndicated programming on multiple stations. Typically, a human operator must review the feeds stored on the satellite ingest system to get the program timings, which are then provided to the traffic department and on-air operations. With centralized traffic this task can be done once in a central location, with the pertinent information forwarded to each station from the centralized traffic department.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and hosts and moderates the OpenDTV Forum.

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