The Endless Transition To Digital Television: An Antidote

A decade ago, when the broadcast industry began the move away from traditional analog television facilities, no one predicted the many twists and turns this journey would take.
Just as broadcast engineers not too long ago encountered SDI, HD, multiple channels, surround sound, advanced compression, and the 16:9 aspect ratio, the world is now changing again with the increasing adoption of file-based IT infrastructures. It appears the transition to digital broadcasting will extend well into the future.
Unless they are fortunate enough to build an entirely new plant deployed with the latest technology, most broadcasters will upgrade their facilities incrementally. This means that the new gear they purchase must coexist with the old—usually in clustered islands.
The size of these islands might change depending on the expansion schedule of the broadcaster, but due to rapid change in both technology and business models it has become clear that multiple generations of broadcast gear will have to work together for many years to come.
Of course, these islands of analog, SDI, and file-based systems—whether SD or HD—must operate simultaneously and in harmony with each other. To do so, they require an infrastructure that can also operate in all these domains at the same time, providing both legacy and future compatibility.
At Snell & Wilcox, we see the best antidote to the endless technology transition as a smart infrastructure. By smart, we mean an infrastructure that can quickly and easily adapt to rapid change; an infrastructure that can quickly be configured to build bridges to the various islands that make up the evolving facility.

A Combined World
For example, a small broadcast station may upgrade to a digital switcher while still using analog studio cameras. Bridges must be built between the two generations of equipment while preserving the best image quality available. Larger facilities with an installed SDI plant must bridge file-based technologies that are quickly gaining momentum. No matter the size of the broadcast operation, a quickly adaptable infrastructure is the best way to adapt to this transition continuum.
In the old days (about three years ago), many broadcasters used the term digital glue to describe devices that interconnect products from the analog and digital eras. These days, the glue won’t hold.
A far more sophisticated bridge-building integration product is needed, one that includes not only networking, self-configuration, and automatic monitoring functionality, but the built-in capability to recognize metadata and to identify file movement throughout an existing SDI television plant.
Some broadcasters see modular infrastructure components as mature commodity products that differ little from manufacturer to manufacturer. We strongly disagree with that misconception, especially at a time when flexible, networked modular infrastructure components are finding new importance as buffers against constant technological change.
Yes, we at Snell & Wilcox, with our IQ Modular and RollCall network and control system, manufacture more than 300 modules in a leading broadcast infrastructure product. This article, however, is not an ad for our products. It is written with the hope that broadcasters will appreciate the importance of a good and reliable infrastructure in their future. With this should come a careful consideration of the various systems offered by broadcast vendors.
What should a broadcaster look for in selecting a modern infrastructure system? A good place to begin is built-in system “intelligence.” Each module should be self-aware. Plug it in the card rack and within seconds it should announce itself to the control and monitoring network. From there it should be easily configured for precise functionality.

Life In The Network
In a well-designed infrastructure product, every module acquires full membership in this system of integrated intelligence. The network should have the capability to update control system software or firmware on any module. Through tight integration, the system should scale to any size, offering the same level of performance and reliability no matter how large it grows in the future.
The network itself should use common, off-the-shelf PC components, yet it should have operational redundancy. It should run on IP networks, but should also simultaneously run on a coax network. Such mission-critical monitoring and control functions need this double layer of backup and security.
Engineers faced with real-world problem solving also need a wide choice of infrastructure modules. These facility building blocks should cover all the infrastructure bases, with dozens of available conversion, distribution, routing, video, MPEG processing, monitoring, audio, and test generator modules. Then look beyond these basics to see if there are special, unique image-enhancing components available from the vendor, or to whether other products in the product line offer “plug-and-play” capability with the network.
Make sure the manufacturer of your infrastructure adapts to the constant changes in broadcast technology. Modules should be routinely re-engineered and improved to meet the requirements of broadcasters. For example, in combining standard and high definition functionality, multichannel embedded audio, or support for longer cable runs. Whatever advances are made, backward and forward compatibility must remain key features of the development process, ensuring complete control and peace of mind for the broadcaster.
By centralizing the control and monitoring of a broadcast infrastructure, stations can do more with less. That’s because well-designed network infrastructure software makes broadcasters far more efficient. The power of such a system enables stations to choose a financial model that makes sense for them, whether it’s full-blown centralcasting of multiple stations over a wide area network or the simple use of a few modules in a single facility.
Finally, broadcast IT technology may seem to be in the distant future to some broadcasters, but for others it’s already a reality. Each broadcaster has a unique timetable for the transition, based on its business model and in-house workflow. However, there is no doubt that recent advances in technology, broadcast industry standardization, and high-performance, generic IT hardware means that open standards IT-based broadcasting is an idea that’s time has come.

An IT World
The standardization of MXF (the Material eXchange Format) and the SMPTE RP-210 metadata dictionary as well as the latest AAF Edit Protocol will empower broadcasters to create multi-vendor systems with complete interoperability, and to begin a move away from costly proprietary storage and asset management systems. The driver for this transition will be the improved economic performance IT technology offers the business of broadcasting.
A flexible infrastructure is the key to a smooth migration from conventional broadcast technology to a file-based facility. That’s why choosing the best infrastructure solution today will have a lasting impact in the years ahead. It is essential that today’s infrastructure product not only accommodates legacy analog and SDI standards and formats, but new technologies such as HDTV, multichannel audio, widescreen, MPEG, file, and metadata handling.
That’s right: file and metadata handling. Make sure the infrastructure you buy today can track the metadata that identifies file movement throughout an SDI video plant. Making this smart purchase means that products you buy today will still work in an IT facility a few years down the road. Demand to know that your vendor has a clearly defined path to the future.
A well-chosen broadcast infrastructure is not a commodity product. It is a mission-critical component of your television plant. No matter what its size or technical evolution, any broadcast facility and its engineering staff can benefit from the quality and reliability of the best infrastructure technology.