The Problem with PATSS

The DTV transition has prompted new lingo at IPTV
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JOHNSTON, IOWA
The Iowa Public Television network includes a program origination facility in Johnston, Iowa, as well as nine full-powered analog television transmitter facilities located throughout the state and eight translator facilities to fill in coverage in the northeast, southeast and northwest corners of the state.

When I arrived at IPTV a decade ago, my primary focus was to transition the facilities to digital. Unfortunately because of economic circumstances over the past decade, much of the early planning for the transition ended up being too expensive and then too obsolete to be implemented. As a result, much of it was delayed and then modified. But finally, on June 12, 2009, IPTV shut down its full powered analog transmitters and became an all-digital, statewide PBS network. Our troubles were over!

Regular readers of my column and colleagues that know me better might sense just a touch of irony in that statement. The truth is that my staff and I—like many other television stations in across the nation—are dealing with post analog television stress syndrome (PATSS). The condition is brought on by a number of separate factors that simultaneously impact the overall system and can overwhelm the station, and if left untreated may actually lead to catastrophic failure.

I will endeavor to highlight some of the major factors and suggest some potential treatment options.

‘DIGITAL-CONVERTUS OVERSELLUM’

One factor that has had the greatest impact on the station is what I call “digital-convertus oversellum,” a term I use to describe how digital technology has been oversold. At virtually every level, every potential buyer has been told that digital is better than analog.

In many cases it may be true, but in other cases, digital may just be different and in some cases it may actually not be true at all. Every time I go into a store and see a television antenna labeled “digital” or better yet “HD,” I cringe. My staff and I have spent countless hours on the phone with viewers who have purchased these new “digital” antennas explaining to them that there no such thing as a digital antenna and the reason they still don’t get reception is more about antenna location.

Digital-convertus oversellum isn’t just used at the consumer levels either but is rampant at all levels. Recently, while discussing plans with my colleagues for rolling out a new delivery system, the subject turned to the timeline, which was based on digital boxes being delivered, installed and fully operational at launch. I asked my colleagues if and when any of them had had that experience in the last 10 years and there were none. The simple truth is that virtually all digital systems are delivered and installed and don’t work out of the box or don’t work as advertised or don’t interface with the other systems in the chain the way they are supposed to.

When we came across a problem like this in the old days of analog it was called a “design flaw” or manufacturing defect and was usually quickly corrected. In the digital domain these problems are often referred to as “implementation issues.”

The problems they create are pretty much the same in that the system either doesn’t work at all or is unreliable; but the focus now is more on finding excuses rather than solutions. The only way to get any help with digital systems, unfortunately is to have an annual service contract.

I cannot tell you how many digital products I have purchased and installed at IPTV that have taken more than a year or two to get operational to the point where they meet the requirements that were specified in the purchase documentation. I have actually had vendors stop working on their systems at the end of a year because our service agreement has expired, despite the fact that the system has never worked.

‘CYGNUS X-1’

This leads me to another factor that contributes to PATSS which I refer to as “Cygnus X-1.” Cygnus X-1 is believed to be a black hole that sucks in everything in proximity to it, including light rays. With very few exceptions, the digital systems we purchase seem to have that same quality of sucking in everything in their proximity, especially operating funds and time.

The ubiquitous service agreements that we sign to just talk with the manufacturers about problems or concerns come at an annual fee that evidently has no sunset. However, there then comes a time when the product (whether fully functional or not) transitions to “legacy” and unsupported and now help is not available at any cost.

The proposed solution is typically an upgrade to your system which in most cases involves a fork-lift to remove the old system, a whole new and still incomplete new system and another round of service agreements.

There seems to be a belief among many digital system suppliers that there is no end to the money available for upgrades and service agreements. Many times it is based on the belief that efficiencies in workflow will cover the costs by reducing staff sizes or the more politically correct “reallocation of staff.” The fallacy in this is that most broadcasters downsized a couple of decades ago so there is little gain in further reductions.

Another symptom of PATSS is a little more insidious. It is the one where the customer is blamed for the failure. What makes it so insidious is that in many cases we may be both the accuser and the accused. I have been ridiculed by vendors because I expect their systems to do what was described in the brochure and written in the bid documents. Evidently in the digital era, my expectation that things should work out of the box and perform the functions that were purchased is as unreasonable as is my belief that I should not have to spend my facilities’ time and money to make it so.

In one example, IPTV’s engineers evaluated a number of systems for a fundamental part of our network’s distribution architecture. When we found a vendor’s system that had all the required features and specifications, we wrote our RFP based on that vendor’s features and specifications. That vendor was one of a number that bid on the work and ultimately was awarded the contract. They then spent the next three years making the system meet the specifications that they had written.

That is probably the most extreme case, but is not the only multi-year implementation that IPTV has had to endure. In the old days, customers drove the change and asked for the new technologies—now the changes are driven by the companies supplying the new technologies. That changes the dynamics of the manufacturers which now must sell new products every 18 to 36 months with annual support agreements hammocked between each purchase and the end user that must now look at purchases in the hundreds of thousands of dollars as commodities with relatively short life spans. Is this sustainable for most businesses?

But as I said, sometimes the accused becomes the accuser. I have found myself frustrated and angry when talking to viewers trying to explain to them how to scan for channels on their new digital converter boxes or explaining to them why their indoor antenna that provided a “perfect picture” in analog does not provide any picture in digital.

Trying to explain to the average person the difference between receiving a digital signal and decoding a digital signal is a challenge especially when they may have 50 years of familiarity with the analog service where the differentiation was easy to see because the picture was noisy or not. I have to constantly remind myself that these people are not the cause; they, like me are dealing with a change they didn’t ask for and equipment that is not perfected.

Given the ubiquitous nature of the digital conversion, I have been pondering a solution that would be just as ubiquitous. I believe it may already be happening in a new digital interface protocol which I call the simple network adapter for users or “SNAFU” for short. I believe that SNAFU has been liberally used throughout the digital transition and is now the glue that holds it together.

In the often rocky and unpredictable transition to digital, I think we can all agree that SNAFU is still a driving force and will be for some time to come. My hope is that this is a transitional protocol and that we will move on to something more stable in the future.

Bill Hayes is the director of engineering for Iowa Public Television.