Mission: Reliable

We can see the future, but first we need to get through next week.
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When videotape was the only electronic storage media available, there were two technical workflows at television stations. One was the well-worn, coffee-stained path from news edit stations to the news playback VCRs. The other was the daily path around the station taken by spot reels and program videotapes. Tapes were generally hand-delivered to the front desk or mail room, logged in by traffic and moved to the tape room for playback.

Today, instead of pushing a cart full of videotapes or racing down hallways with breaking story in one hand and b-roll in the other, we're pushing files across a network. The technology is not unlike that used to create this newsletter and push it into your e-mail box. Broadcasters are moving as quickly as possible away from tape towards integrating IT and commodity-level products into a new file-based broadcast workflow.

Gone with analog videotape and VTRs are the once all-important technical specifications, such as signal to noise, horizontal resolution, depth of modulation and head life. They've been replaced with bandwidth, quality of service (QoS) and quality of experience (QoE). IT technology virtually guarantees that quality in equals quality out. With signal degradation issues behind us, we are finding that the transition to digital extends beyond new hardware and software. It is also about replacing outdated traditions and building a new digital broadcast infrastructure and workflow.

When most stations first signed on, there wasn't a standard workflow system for TV stations. Instead, stations created their own house numbering systems, and their own procedures on receiving, airing and archiving videotapes and films. Some were based on legacy radio station protocols. Others were created from scratch out of necessity. Once in place, station protocols seldom changed.

Roll tape
You could say the transition to digital started with the digital time base corrector (TBC). It made the 3/4” U-Matic VCR FCC legal and suddenly quite relevant. A $5000 U-Matic system could do the work of a $175,000 quad machine. It was also about 90 percent cheaper, 90 percent smaller and lighter, and tape media cost about 90 percent less than quad. It was also portable and simple to operate. It was a station owner's dream come true.

Since then, network and station market shares have changed drastically, and the ENG revolution left RCA and Ampex wondering what happened. It was the also the beginning of a new TV broadcasting business model that has changed very little since. It’s all about doing more with less, with the possible exception of weather radars and helicopters. Some call it streamlining. I call it progress.

Now it’s 30 years later, and there's a new game changer in town, more powerful than a boatload of U-Matics, and it’s called IT. Now that personal computer technology has caught up with the bandwidth-hungry high-definition needs of broadcasters, IT makes doing more with less practical and attainable. It also has other benefits too numerous to mention here. And, it has kind of a glitch. Computer giants aren't impressed by call letters, and they don't depend on business from broadcasters.

We who keep everything working flawlessly 24/7 must bear in mind that most large computer companies deal in commodities with lots of commas and zeros. They have and will abandon our relatively small niche market in a New York minute if it makes business sense to them. As Apple recently demonstrated by dumping Final Cut Pro, a huge NAB presence and an industry-leading professional editing system does not imply a real commitment. Apple may think they have a good excuse, but if they knew the market, they would know that broadcasters don't accept excuses.

We can see the future too, but to earn the money to spend on new technology, we need to get through next week first. To do that, we need reliable vendors who understand what committed support to the unique demands of broadcasting is all about.

Digital survival
To survive in a growing universe of competition for eyeballs, broadcasters must be reliable, relevant, competitive and profitable. Reliability is the mission of the engineering department.

Broadcast engineers are great at adapting as long as what we adapt has mission-critical, bullet-proof reliability and that spare parts and components are readily available. Others may be a little slower to embrace change. The transition to digital means everyone at a station must adapt to file-based workflows, and it is sometimes up to engineers to show others the features and sell them on the advantages and benefits.

Broadcast engineers have three new responsibilities during the digital transition. One is to learn the nuts and bolts of the new technologies to maintain transparent system reliability. Another is to help others at their station learn and embrace the new technologies. The third is to step way back, study the big picture and ask how the facility's systems and workflows might be improved with the new technology. Think out of the box, because this is the opportunity to redesign the box.

In the newsroom, file-based workflows benefit everyone from field photogs and editors to viewers. It supercharges efficiency and gets stories on the air faster. Many stations have moved or are moving to file-base newsrooms. Most stations have already adopted file-based spot and program distribution systems, and there are few complaints — except perhaps from overnight package delivery services, which must miss the revenue. Most digital distribution networks, such as CBS' Pitch Blue, are self-healing, meaning the servers can request repair packets to repair transmission errors.

One of the many quiet advantages of digital IT gear is that it is subject to the digital cliff effect. It either works perfectly or it doesn't work at all. It doesn't suffer the gradual deterioration and physical wear like the electromechanical gear we are used to installing and nursing. It also can reveal an error clue or two that it's about to fail before anyone but an engineer monitoring the data would notice. Engineers love to avert surprise catastrophic failures, and, in most cases, IT tools give us that ability.

In cloud we trust
Experienced broadcast engineers know that you can't beat copper for reliability. Second to copper in reliability is a licensed private microwave system. How reliable is the Internet cloud or cellular networks? Most would say: So far, so good. That's good because the latest generation of gear is highly Internet- or cell phone network-dependent. But you know what? The broadcast engineer inside me says, “Don't put all your eggs in one basket, especially a public basket.” While the Internet seems technically stable, it is becoming a political football. If the Internet fails or is shut down for some reason or another, who do you call? What's your Plan B? My advice is to not get too comfortable with the Internet.

A recent Broadcast Engineering survey of television engineering managers and executives indicates many facilities plan to add new digital systems this year. Managers are focused on reducing expenses and improving quality, and nearly every broadcast engineer is in self-directed or formal training to gain IT expertise. Nearly all stations are broadcasting in HD, but some are still upgrading isolated SD ENG and editing islands to HD. Others are upgrading to a 3Gb/s infrastructure. Many are adding bonded cellular news gathering (BCNG) for competitive advantages and cost savings. It will be interesting to see how well BCNG systems perform on the exhibit floor of the NAB Show, especially from a cold boot during exhibit hours.

Meanwhile, some engineers are struggling to keep a few VTRs of various formats in service for the occasional videotape that surfaces and needs to be brought into the digital domain. For purposes other than that, VTRs, alignment tapes, eccentricity and tension gauges are buggy whips. And like buggy whips, they make lousy door stops.