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PBS, Omneon Develop Distribution Prototype

Stations want in on program-sharing network


PBS is experimenting with a prototype system that could enable its member stations to browse and select content for broadcast and even permit sharing of programming between stations.

The system, called the Next Generation Interconnection System prototype (NGISp), is currently being tested even while it is undergoing expansion to better simulate its likely use. According to Jim Kutzner, senior director for interconnection planning at PBS, the goal is to create a system that will let all PBS stations browse the network's library of content and download programming to meet the individual needs of each station.

"We want to build a system that's cheaper to operate and is more reliable," Kutzner said. "The prototyping project will work with stations to figure out how we can get to the point of actually saving operating costs."

The heart of the test is an Omneon MediaServer that stores 860 GB of program material and can feed it out in either real time or nonreal time. In addition, the full prototype will have satellite encoders and receivers, plus edge servers located at PBS stations that are part of the prototype system. Custom software will control interaction on the system.


If the system tests well and is rolled out to the entire PBS network, it will provide the network connection for about 180 licensees. This final system will include the capability to determine the "least-cost routing" for the programming, determining if either satellite or some terrestrial network is used for delivery.

With virtually everyone in the industry familiar with Internet browsing, PBS engineers will employ a similar user interface for the station end of the system.

"We decided to go with open, common standards and make the interface Web-browser based," Kutzner said. "That will reside within the 'extranet' that we're developing for public broadcasting called 'PBSConnect.'"

Ultimately, the final system will tie into an asset management system that will track broadcasting rights and other business issues. Both HD and SD programming and distribution can be accommodated in the NGISp system.

"The hardware and the links that we're providing for this prototype have the ports available for both standard-definition and high-definition [programs] on SDI ports, and we'll provide digital-to-analog converters," Kutzner said. "We're also providing ASI ports for compressed digital."


The prototype project is funded through most of 2003, but Kutzner expects that PBS will know by the summer if the system works as designed. There is a lot of equipment and software that needs to be examined, tested and documented before the end of the prototype phase.

"Besides the Omneon edge servers, we're looking at various options for file software, evaluating receivers, looking at platforms that we need to provide to stations for the prototype but we're very close to making all those decisions," Kutzner said. "Starting in the next few weeks, we'll start rolling out equipment to six stations that are participating in the prototype."

Kutzner could not disclose the names of the participating stations but said that these six participants were typical of the range of PBS broadcasters, including state, university and community broadcasters. The broadcasters chosen represent small, midsized and large markets, as well.

"A couple of other [stations] have come to me and said 'We want in,' and I have to deal with that, " he said. Additional PBS stations have heard of the project and indicated that they would like to participate in the near future.

Engineers at PBS are pretty secure in their belief that the technology for this system will work as designed.

"Technically, we know we can do this-this is not a 'technology test' project," Kutzner said. "This is an implementation project."

For the prototype system to be considered successful, Kutzner said that the bottom line plays a very important role.

"The prototyping project will work with stations to figure out how we can get to the point of actually saving operating costs," he said.

Although PBS is not the first to develop a system that allows browsing and downloading of content, the goal of the NGISp project is to become a model for how a large broadcast network conducts the business of distributing its programming. With technology capable of handling the task, like so many things this prototype comes down to engineering the human factors that will enable it to work in the real world.

Bob Kovacs is the former Technology Editor for TV Tech and editor of Government Video. He is a long-time video engineer and writer, who now works as a video producer for a government agency. In 2020, Kovacs won several awards as the editor and co-producer of the short film "Rendezvous."