Living On HDV’s Bleeding Edge With KLCS

In 2003, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s KLCS made the jump to DTV. It was no small step: To better serve nearly one million classroom viewers, KLCS now transmits four DTV SD channels, four Windows Media 9 streams and NVOD content over its digital TV bandwidth.

In the evening, KLCS plans to launch one HD and three SD channels, while overnight it currently broadcasts four SD channels and most of NVOD programming to LAUSD schools.

To work effectively in this brave new world of DTV, KLCS Director of TV Engineering and Technical Operations Alan Popkin migrated his station to an entirely tapeless environment. In general, the transition has worked fine...except for a striking problem that serves as a cautionary tale to broadcasters and vendors everywhere. Why this problem occurred, how it stranded Popkin in an HDV “no man’s land” with no relief from his suppliers, and what can be learned from the fiasco, is what this story is all about.

During the NAB2005 show in Las Vegas, Popkin and Nigel Hamley of The Flicks Factory (KLCS’s vendor of choice) were on a mission. They were searching for products to help KLCS upgrade its DV video environment to HDV. Among these were new portable DTE (Direct To Edit) recorders, to capture video from KLCS’s HDV camcorders and make it seamlessly available to their Pinnacle Liquid Edition and Liquid Blue 6.1 NLEs.

It was during this quest that Alan Popkin and Nigel Hamley dropped by to see a Focus Enhancements demonstration. There, they saw a FireStore FS-4Pro DTE successfully capturing and recording HDV video from a Sony HDR-HC1 camcorder. Intrigued, “I asked the Focus Enhancements rep if it would work with Pinnacle Liquid 6.1,” recalls Popkin. “He told me that it didn’t do so right then, but promised that Focus had firmware in development that would support Liquid 6.1 in a few months’ time.”

According to Nigel Hamley, it was Focus Enhancements’ Senior Product Manager Matt McEwen who made this promise. “Alan asked Matt, ‘Will I be able to use the FS-4Pro DTE with Pinnacle Liquid 6.1?’ Matt answered that this DTE would be ‘Pinnacle-ready’ in a number of months.”

Based on repeated assurances from Focus Enhancements, Alan Popkin decided to buy FireStore FS-4Pro DTEs for KLCS. It seemed a safe bet at the time, and, at first blush, appears to be today. After all, the current FireStore Features Comparison chart here not only shows the FS-4Pro HD DTE as usable with HDV 1080i and HDV 720p, but also lists “Pinnacle Systems, Inc.” under the heading, “DTE-Compatible Partners.”

There are no disclaimers attached to these statements. The problem is, it doesn’t work with Liquid Edition/Liquid Blue 6.1.

Unfortunately, such a disclaimer should have been put in place, because the FireStore FS-4Pro HD DTEs were not compatible with KLCS’s Pinnacle Liquid 6.1 NLE systems. The problem was the file format output by the FireStore DTEs. They stored the HDV video in its native m2t format, a format that the Pinnacle NLE couldn’t decipher.

To cope, Popkin engineered a workaround to break apart the m2t data streams into elements that his Pinnacle NLEs could work with. However, the firmware upgrade he says Focus Enhancements had promised to him—after asking them repeatedly for assurances that it was in development before KLCS bought the FS-4Pro HD DTEs—never materialized.

To make matters worse, Pinnacle was bought by Avid, which then alerted dealers that Liquid Blue 6.1 would not be upgraded any further. “That alert was sent out a few days before I bought the FireStore DTEs, but nobody told me about it,” says Popkin. “Had I known that Liquid Blue was at end-of-life, and that there wouldn’t be an upgrade that would accept m2t files, I wouldn’t have bought these DTEs.”

Since then, Alan Popkin has spent many frustrating hours trying to get relief through Focus Enhancements and Avid. Although both companies have offered some assistance, neither has come to grips with KLCS’s fundamental problem: That its FireStore FS-4Pro HD DTEs are incompatible with its NLE system.

For his part, Focus Enhancements’ Matt McEwen says he never promised Alan Popkin—or anyone—that the FireStore FS-4Pro HD DTE would be compatible with Pinnacle Liquid Edition and Liquid Blue. (He also doesn’t recall speaking to Popkin at NAB2005, because “we meet so many people at these events that you just can’t keep track of them all,” he says.)

“As a public company, we cannot make statements that aren’t true,” McEwen tells Television Broadcast.

“If they [Popkin and Hamley] were somehow misled, I’d be willing to take the units back. But I do not remember ever committing to Focus Enhancements’ providing support for Pinnacle Liquid Edition or Liquid Blue at any time.”

As for the online Focus FireStore Features Comparison chart which lists Pinnacle Systems as one of Focus Enhancements’ “DTE-Compatible Partners”? According to McEwen, this list only applies to DV equipment. This is why the statement, “Video production solutions from Focus Enhancements provide seamless compatibility with most leading DV cameras and editing software packages” is posted above the DTE-Compatible Partners list.

Maybe so, but these two items are spaced one below the other, with no indication that the DTE Compatible Partners list is a subset of the statement. As well, the fact that the Firestore FS-4Pro HD is listed as HDV 1080i and HDV 720p compatible on the same page—without any helpful disclaimers attached to these qualifications—clearly gives the impression that the FireStore FS-4Pro HD DTE is both HDV and Pinnacle Systems-compatible.

To be fair to Focus Enhancements, in a FireStore FS-4 document named FS-4-DS-10Nov05-US.pdf, which we assume was published in November of 2005 (after the NAB meeting), the company does clearly state in the FS-4 technical specifications for DTE file formats “FS-4 HD and FS-4Pro HD only: MPEG-2 ts (.m2t).”

We many never know what really happened in this dispute. Notwithstanding, Alan Popkin’s trials offer some very important lessons to broadcasters and vendors everywhere.

First and foremost, if someone has made you promises in order to clinch a sale, get them to put it in writing, regardless of what marketing materials might say.

Press releases and marketing materials can be subject to interpretation, as is the case here. So let me say stress the point again: Get it in writing!

James Careless covers the television industry. He can be reached at