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Q&A: Bruce Devlin on SMPTE U.K.

BASINGSTOKE, ENGLAND—Technology standards save time—an imperative in today’s market. That’s the upshot of Bruce Devlin’s response to becoming the first governor of the U.K. chapter of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. The formation of SMPTE U.K. Region was announced shortly before the holidays. Devlin, chief media scientist at Dalet, jocular co-author of the MXF format and the guy who warms up for the NAB Show with a triathalon, was elected governor. He recently provided TV Technology with a perspective on the intention, purpose and benefits of standards, and how the needs of the U.K. and U.S. markets differ.

TV Technology:Mr. Devlin, What will be your first move as governor of this new SMPTE Region?

Devlin: To support and promote the existing team that has created the excitement in the U.K. region. In SMPTE’s 100th birthday year, I hope to promote the full and diverse events calendar that the U.K. region has created.
The calendar is interest in its own right and it also promotes the U.K. as a center of excellence in the media industry. SMPTE can sometimes be seen as a U.S.-centric organisation. One of my goals is to help promote the fact that SMPTE’s membership has the same international reach as the standards that it creates.

TV Technology:To what do you attribute the growth of SMPTE in the U.K. from 83 members in 2012, to more than 500 this year?

Devlin: The team uses SMPTE’s three pillars of Membership, Education and Standards as the core of its activity planning with the added motivation of creating a diverse and locally motivated regional membership. Although geographically tiny compared to the USA, the U.K. has distinct local groups that work to grow the membership, arrange events and make SMPTE feel real regardless of which media center you work in. There is more to the U.K. than just London and the U.K.’s success has been due to spotting this and applying enthusiasm.

TV Technology:What standardization role will SMPTE have in the U.K. (say, versus the British Kinematograph Sound and Television Society, the Digital Television Group and the Digital Production Partnership, (which is in a strategic alliance with the North American Broadcasters Association)?

Devlin: SMPTE’s role is mainly to create the generic infrastructure standards that power the industry. Local organisations like the DTG, DPP, BKSTS and others use SMPTE standards as the basis of a regional working practise where options in a SMPTE standard can be removed without prejudicing interoperability.
For example, in the U.K., our frame rates are all based on multiples of 25 fps and the complexity of Drop Frame. Non-integer audio relationships and 2:3 sequence are things that just aren’t needed in the day-to-day operational interchnage of streamed, broadcast and file based content.

TV Technology:What is the value of a standard?

Devlin: A cynic once told me “if you can’t win the market, win the standard.” In today’s environment, where it’s all about APIs and multi-vendor software environments, standards are more important than ever. The ultimate goal is that consumers get great and compelling media powered by profitable content creators who use tools and services created by profitable vendors.
A good technical standard allows the size of the market for tools and services to be quickly grown. The tools and services can be written in virtual isolation with a very good chance of interoperability at the moment that those tools and services are deployed.
Without a standard, then vendors have to do bilateral interworking with a vastly greater amount of engineering being performed for very little overall gain in terms of market size or value.

TV Technology:I see the phrase “open standards” used in situations that don’t appear to be truly open, particularly with regard to IP-based media technologies. What do we really mean by “open standard?”

Devlin: Open is often used to describe the access to the standard. Open does not mean free and does not always mean public. It does mean that if you want to get at the standard or want to participate in the process, then you are able to do so.
SMPTE standards are open because there is a due process that is open to everyone who wants to participate. Standards development can be expensive and all things today have to be funded somehow. Many standards organisations charge a fee or have rules on how to participate in order to manage the complexity of the process. Some organisations (e.g. MPEG) restrict participation to national bodies. SMPTE, by comparison, produces standards proposed by individual members. Both organisations produce open standards.

TV Technology:Is it financially conceivable for broadcast media vendors to build to a truly open standard?

Devlin: It should be possible for any vendor to build to a well-written open standard. The world, however, is not becoming any simpler and one of the challenges facing all standards bodies (including SMPTE, MPEG, IETF, W3C etc) is how to write down those standards such that the complexity is contained, the flexibility is retained to hit the user requirements, but ambiguity is removed.
Many have argued that plain English is one of the worst ways of doing this, but no one has yet replaced English—or sometimes French—as a better way of expressing these international standards.
Not all standards are “heavy-lifting” ones. MXF may be huge but smaller standards like encapsulating a new VANC packet can be trivial to document and implement. There are several groups working at ways to improve the accuracy and the development speed of media standards. We should see some updates towards the end of 2016 on whether there are viable new approaches out there.

TV Technology:In the United States, SMPTE is heavily invovled in the development of standards for IP-based media transmission, processing and distribution. Is there a demand for this type of technology in the U.K. and other EU nations as well?

Devlin: Anyone still waiting for IP to arrive will be surprised to see that it’s already here. Streaming proxies, faster than real-time downloads and IP backhaul are all in regular use in the U.K. as well as in the USA
What’s missing is the complete IP facility. SMPTE has plugged many of the standards gaps with work on synchronisation and encapsulation. AMWA has created documents on componentised transport. Interop tests are happening in the U.K. as well as the rest of the world with the BBC’s media lab providing a showcase for what can be done with today’s (and tomorrow’s) equipment.

TV Technology:How do media industry demands compare between the United States and the United Kingdom?

Devlin: Despite being neighbours separated by a common language (and spelling), there is a huge commonality between U.K. requirements and USA requirement. Given that many of the U.S. media giants’ international distribution divisions are located in the U.K., you could argue that as a territory, the U.K.’s requirements are, “everything that you could want in the USA or Europe with the addition of 30 languages and a couple of frame rates for every title.”
The U.K. media industry is a technically challenging and stimulating place to work. I am very proud that the SMPTE members thought me good enough to the “the Governor.”