“The world is HD. Why be anything else?” asks Henry Ruhwiedel, chief engineer at Lakeshore Public TV in Merrillville, Ind. That assessment, equally shared by Lakeshore chief executive Tom Carroll and other staffers, is primarily why the broadcaster recently decided to stretch its allotted spectrum to the max by pursuing two HD and two SD channels for its planned multicast scheme.
The four channels were still in test mode until early September, simulcasting sample content by halving most of the station’s allotted spectrum for both HD venues and using the remaining 3-4 MB for the two SD channels. “Eight megabits is more than enough for a 720p channel,” Ruhwiedel said. “Generally we run about 6 megabits each, and each SD usually is 1 megabit or more. It all looks fine, unless you get a lot of simultaneous motion on all four channels and then you’ll get some artifacting. But that won’t happen now that we’re feeding different types of different video on all four channels.”
EVERYTHING IN 720p
PBS member station Lakeshore Public Television is using three Plura Broadcast PBM-147 monitors in its new HD master control room. Actually, despite the 2HD/2SD configuration, virtually everything processed by the station’s new MC (built where an old newsroom once stood, with 36-rack capacity) is HD at one stage or another. “At the very last instant right before encoding, two of the MC switcher channels are down-converted to SD, so everything in the plant really runs in 720p mode,” Ruhwiedel said. “Anything going to an SD channel is coming from an HD server. It may have started as SD because of all our tens of thousands of hours of legacy material, but everything we create from this point is 720p. The Harmonic system only uses the megabits as it needs them.”
The second SD channel (likely to be Channel 17.4) will usually only feature “talking heads” and other very low-demand content. For redundancy, Ruhwiedel chose to keep the old CBR encoder system that can handle 1 HD/3 SD channels—while a new VBR encoder can deal with 2 HD/2 SD. Titan automation from Sundance controls all four channels, and Intellisat automates most of the recordings. Four Pioneer DVD units (PRV-LX1) have provided the bulk of program storage. The new MC also features three 47-inch Plura (PBM-147) LCD monitors. The MC typically keeps track of about 16 satellite systems, and has switching options via nearly two dozen receivers.
Carroll, Lakeshore’s president/ CEO, said “a lot of the big stations are there already with HD, and we know in a period of years nearly everything we produce here will be in 720p. So if there’s the option of having two HD channels, why not?”
A ‘GROWTH PROCESS’
Lakeshore is not exactly your grandfather’s PBS station. It’s a PDP (Program Differentiation Plan) entity that competes for viewers in the huge Chicago market (DMA 3)—primarily serving 14 counties in northwest Indiana and Illinois with a lot of live play-by-play coverage of several area college teams. It also airs its own local newscast striped across weekdays at 9 p.m. “We turned the corner a couple of years ago,” said Ruhwiedel. “We’re the only [PBS] station to show significant growth in all areas, and it’s because of our local programming and [community] initiatives. It’s a growth process.”
It was largely because of program restrictions typically placed on PDP stations that Lakeshore pursued its own ambitious line-up of local programming. Besides the new MC, it also boasts a trio of ENG/satellite vehicles and the license for a new public radio station (Lakeshore Radio) it bought earlier this year. A 950-foot tower had been erected at its Crown Point, Ind., transmitter site a few years ago—giving Lakeshore (a.k.a. WYIN-TV, Channel 17) a relatively robust DTV signal over a 50-60 mile radius. In 2004, the station used a $2 million Indiana state grant to install its digital antenna.
But state grants are not the bread-and-butter of Lakeshore’s funding. Carroll makes it clear that each of his four multichannels has to be a financial standalone. “They’ve got to have a revenue source behind each of them,” he said. “We operate our PBS station just as a business. They each have to generate revenue. Strictly speaking, of course, it doesn’t have to be that way because in public broadcasting we do have a mission, but we would like it to be that way.” Carroll said for one channel, Lakeshore is committed to working with a consortium of other regional PBS outlets to produce a kind of a local version of C-SPAN (possibly to be dubbed the “Indiana Network”) for live coverage of the state legislature and the arts.
FLEXIBLE AND ROBUST
Meanwhile, while the recession has not exactly emboldened a lot of other broadcasters to stretch their own creative multicast muscles yet, some in the industry are taking note of new ideas. “Isn’t it amazing that a station can do something like this that nobody considered even feasible when the [technical standard’s] decisions were made?” asked Peter Symes, director of standards & practices for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Symes thinks “kudos” are in order for technologically enabling such a flexible approach to DTV multicasting to the MPEG-2 compression standard itself, and to the committee that created it.
“I think this was the first major standard that left almost unlimited opportunity for development of better and better encoders while maintaining compatibility with all the decoders in the field,” Symes said. “And the MPEG Transport Stream… has to be one of the most flexible and robust structures ever conceived.”
David Donovan, president of the Association of Maximum Service Television, notes that consumers are just now learning about multicasting. “Absent a carriage arrangement for multicast offerings, there was no way for the consumer to see these channels. All of that changed on June 12,” he said. “Off-air viewers now see their favorite local channel in digital and—for the first time—they’ve been introduced to additional multicast channels.”
Yet what about pushing three HD (720p) multicast channels through that 19.39 Mb pipe? “No, we tried walking the walk on that one, too,” said Lakeshore’s Ruhwiedel. “The technology’s not there yet.”