During the last year, Transition to Digital has traced various aspects and issues regarding the creation, assembly and distribution of content. As engineers, it is our job to design, construct and maintain a reliable infrastructure to support broadcasting operations and business models. But in the final analysis, broadcasters do this for a single reason with one measure of success: the size of the audience.
It is a new era in broadcasting, a digital era. But, more has changed than just the technology. This “transition to digital” has shifted the balance of power in the entire media business to an audience of consumers. At a time when consumers have access to virtually any media, anywhere, at any time, where does TV fit in? Are broadcasters providing programming for audience entertainment, or providing a product available for consumption and purchase?
Push vs. Pull
For decades, broadcasting, by virtue of its underlying technology and business model, confined viewers’ choices in programming — whatever time it was delivered to your TV was the time you had to watch the show. Fair Use and VCRs introduced time shifting. Today, the object is to facilitate content consumption anywhere, at any time, on any device.
In a push environment, the news crawl or the game’s clock and score are visible whether you want to see it. For example, it’s easy to get lured away from the program when something catches your eye in the “crawl” at the bottom of the screen, and passes by before you can read it.
But, in a pull environment, you would be able turn the crawl and score on or off. Or better yet, you could customize the crawl so it only presents the information you want when you want it. You, the consumer, would be in control.
The paradigm shift of program element assembly in a DTV receiver allows this to happen. Programs are no longer delivered as composite signals but as Packets in an MPEG transport stream. The capability is not quite available yet, but this will eventually enable a consumer to control how program elements are presented.
At this point in time, three fundamental modes of consumption coexist. TV has been used for passive entertainment and reception of information. Viewers sit back, more than three feet from the display, and passively enjoy a program.
With the PC, noses are pressed up almost against the screen, less than 18 inches away. Pushing keys and clicking the mouse, consumer interaction is the normal mode of active consumption.
Personal communication devices are mobile, hand held and self powered. They serve three functions: ease of use, mobile consumption and lifeline communication.
Convergence is not about receiving media on one device. It’s about getting that one piece of content to all three types of devices.
Two ways to get there
There are two general scenarios from the consumer’s point of view. Either content is available on all three channels, or content is transferred among all three devices.
In the first case, broadcasters must implement multiplatform production for each consumption scenario. The same audio, video and graphics content must be formatted for each consumption device.
This requires careful workflow mapping and process analysis to design an infrastructure that will support multiplatform production and distribution. The study is very similar to a Six Sigma or ISO 9000 effort. As a reference point, an in-depth understanding and documentation of how current infrastructure supports production workflow and content distribution is required.
Definition of goals is an integral part of the design process. What content is targeted for what kind of devices? For example, if you are going to simulcast a live event over the air, on the Web and to cell phones, what combination of infrastructure architecture and workflow processes is most efficient?
In another origination scenario, a pre-produced program may be offered for download the day after its initial airing. This would require a different infrastructure and workflow than the simulcast scenario if the broadcasting operation were to operate at maximum efficiency.
In many cases, the content is delivered to the consumer and then “ported” to each device. A networked consumer electronics environment is enabling this ability.
Personal Home Digital Networks enable the consumer to move content to any device. DRM and format conversion are at the core of interoperability and will determine content accessibility. There are two approaches, TV-centric or PC-centric.
In a TV-centric implementation, the DTV is the control interface, the “GUI,” to all network functionality. Using the remote control, recording can be scheduled and content transparently format converted and copied to other devices. Communication with a PC and other devices will be necessary to move content. The DTV will need an IP address and port to facilitate its network integration.
When a PC is the network interface, DTV information, such as PSIP, will have to be available for the control application. An on-line DTV with an appropriate data availability software application will support this. The PC will have to be networked with all the consumer electronics devices.
Copy control and protection will be necessary in both instances. And unless all devices are plug-n-play, there will be a steep consumer learning curve.
The Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) is working toward a networked environment where consumer electronics, personal computers and mobile devices can seamlessly share content. The alliance has published the DNLA Home Networked Device Interoperability Guidelines that specify building blocks that can be used to design equipment and software applications that enable personal media, such as images, audio and video, to be seamlessly used across all devices.
For the remainder of this year, Transition to Digital will focus on the empowerment of the audience of consumers and how this impacts broadcasters. Topics will include security and copy protection, consumer device interfaces, interactivity, recommender applications, surround sound and other emerging trends and technologies that put the audience in control. Also examined will be the fundamental shift in the broadcasting model and how these new features impact the production and broadcast infrastructure.