NAB2005: Transition to digital status report

With nearly 1500 stations on the air transmitting HDTV to their audience, broadcasters have done their part
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Numerous sessions at NAB2005 reflected on the state of the transition to digital. After sundry attempts to delay or derail the transition, momentum has gathered and there is no doubt its moving forward. The question remains: How broad a media universe will it occur?

Originally referring to the implementation of the ATSC standard by over-the-air broadcasters, “transition to digital” has taken on a broader meaning. Facility infrastructure and vendor incorporation of IT technologies, cable, satellite and broadband delivery and the availability and purchase of HDTV receivers for consumer’s media networked homes now all fall under the umbrella of the transition.

DTV Rundown: Revving-Up the Transition, a panel discussion led by Richard Wiley, concluded that any further delay in returning the analog spectrum to the FCC for auction is now the result of the lack of affordable HDTV sets. The group called upon the FCC and CEA to begin a program to educate consumers to the fact that an analog receiver purchased today, would be obsolete in the future. All agreed that a hard shutoff date must be established.

Legislation to establish a firm shutdown date may be achievable in the House according to Rep. Joe Barton. Other members of the panel at the Congressional Breakfast, notably Senator Burns of Montana, countered that many would be without any free TV. Could the solution be as simple as turning off NTSC in a given DMA as it attains 85 percent DTV availability? If only 15 percent of viewers in the United States get their TV over the air, why shouldn’t all DTV delivery methods (cable and satellite) count?

Education and equipment

How are broadcast engineers adapting to IT technologies? Some have embraced the evolution of a new media engineering discipline. Still, it is difficult for many veteran engineers to return to school and basically start from the beginning.

Most chief engineers have never had the challenge of starting from scratch, with Alpha versions of equipment in an infrastructure exponentially more complex than their already intense facility.

The SBE Ennes Workshop Saturday sessions discussed the challenges of “Building the Next Generation Master Control.” Topics included calculating reliability, using IT switches and routers to replace crosspoint audio and video routers, compressed domain master control, content regionalization by local branding, logo insertion, PSIP adaptation, DPI of content and ads, file based content delivery and network automation (command communication).

Equipment migration to IT based technologies has not been a smooth road. The fundamental difference in cultures has been challenging for broadcast engineers to adapt to. In particular, having to pay for maintenance contracts every year and replace equipment ever three years or so. This is in stark contrast to installing a piece of equipment, which comes with a 10-year warranty and most likely never fails.

One notable trend is the development of SDI/LAN hybrid routers. Currently some equipment can switch MADI and AES audio, but video switching is still a design goal. This will most likely have to be done in the compressed domain, MPEG 40Mb/s SD or DV100 HD.

Another useful undertaking is the design of multi SD/HD resolution switchers that perform format agnostic conversion. With this type of equipment, PCR designers can eliminate the need for up and down conversions between SD and HD.

Over the course of the convention, the Broadcast Engineering Conference strove to educate industry technologists about the demands of a digital infrastructure. DTV Transition, Technologies and Techniques seminars discussed second channel frequency allocations and how to bring a station up to full power compliance in a timely manner. The afternoon continued with presentations discussing transport stream implementations of PSIP, regionalization and DPI. Life in a multi-codec world concluded the afternoon’s presentations.


A Multimedia World session presented by Apple’s Richard Kerris, The Democratization of HD: From Desktop and Workgroup to Laptop, discussed and demonstrated how HDTV field production has become cost effective with the implementation of HDV. Dr. Bob Arnot dazzled the audience with a demonstration of his “Back Pack Journalism” field acquisition, editing and delivery of HD segments produced under battle conditions in Iraq.

David Krall, Avid’s president/CEO, was the featured speaker at a Super Session, Look Before You Leap: The Dollars and Sense of Transitioning to HD, and discussed the evolution and continued proliferation of HD content in the film, television, and broadcast industries. He joined an industry panel that offered different views about incorporating HD into the content creation process. Upfront planning was stressed. With the impossible complexity of contemporary infrastructures and their exorbitant cost, one must avoid the possibility of discovering a fatal design flaw. Using emerging open standards to ensure equipment interoperability is the preferred philosophy.

Global transitions

Digital Television Transition Worldwide, chaired by Graham Jones, discussed the plans and progress made in rolling out DTV in Europe, China and East Asia.

Japan is targeting a hard analog HD shutoff date in 2011 and transitioning to HDTV. Korean Broadcasting has similar plans and a timetable but has forged ahead with ITV implementations. Once the red tape of Chinese bureaucracy is satisfied, China will roll out DTV as well.

Europe has plans to upgrade DTV to HDTV. The EBU has recommended 720p as the preferred format. HD broadcasts of the World Cup 2006 in Germany, Belgium, France and the UK are expected to be a watershed moment in the transition.

The future

At the BEC Keynote, Dr. Robert Pepper, Chief of Policy Development at the FCC, discussed the digital revolution and the future of broadcasting. Digitization, he said, destroys the compartmentalization of content that now defines its boundaries. The enabling technology of cheap storage will decrease in price. Delivery migrates from silos to convergence. What will localism, content diversity and competition mean in the converged future? What will consumers want?

Homes will be media networked. Pat Griffis of Microsoft described the Digital Living Network Alliance vision of this future. Media interoperability is a challenge and DRM a necessity. The NextGen Home demonstrated a seamless integration of technology with lifestyle.

ITV will enable broadcasters to build a relationship with their audience and permit on-demand, localized, personalized and customized features. This interactivity will impact the design of broadcast infrastructures. ITV must also be part of the creative process, easy to use and most of all compelling and immersive.

The conference proceeding can be purchased at

Into the sunset

Broadcasters have done their part to further the transition. Nearly 1500 stations are on the air; MSOs deliver five HDTV program services; and satellite beams HDTV across the country. The onus is now on the manufactures to lower the cost of receivers so that every American household can enjoy the quality of HDTV.

The ultimate outcome of the transition to digital will be the advent of global TV. Thousands of programs will be available at any time, through any delivery technology, on any presentation device, from all corners of the globe.

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