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The science of compliance

Compliance is the hottest buzzword in the industry right now because broadcasters must comply with new laws, such as the CALM Act. Broadcasters stake their licenses and reputations on complying with laws, standards and practices, right down to guarding from airing any of George Carlin’s famous “7 Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Broadcasters must be fully prepared with supporting data when their compliance is questioned.

Before home VCRs, when a television station made a mistake on the air, the usual control room chortle was, “It’s halfway to Mars by now,” and the show went on. Now, nearly everyone has a DVR. An instant replay requires a thought and finger twitch to do what used to take a truckload of engineers and very expensive esoteric television equipment to do. Now, with little more effort than a single digit replay twitch, anyone who has saved the mistake in a file can post it on YouTube, where it can become internationally famous for all the wrong reasons.

We’re barely walking
The wholesale replacement of analog transmitters with DTV transmitters was the birth of the transition to digital. With ATSC transmission, SDI and nonlinear editing such as AVID’s NewsCutter, we started to crawl. Now we’re starting to take a few baby steps. The transition to digital is still in its infancy and isn’t limited to broadcasters, because it brings as much computer power to viewers as it does to television stations. It also replaces enough videotape to stretch halfway to Mars, or Saturn if you count audio cassettes, plus or minus an asteroid belt.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, many unexpected realities are being introduced by the transition to digital. One is that many viewers have a virtual security camera system focused on your station.

DVRs allow anyone to closely examine every frame your station broadcasts. Advertisers and agencies can prove that a frame of their spot was missing, or the wrong spot ran, or the spot was in a break with a competitor, regardless what the as-run program log or salesperson says. In fact, as security people might say, we’re on TV.

Video logging has been around since VHS. When video servers became practical, file-based video loggers followed. They were as expensive as they were clunky, but much better than keeping track of shelves of VHS tapes. Now that powerful computers and terabytes of storage are commodity items, software has taken file-based video logging to higher level, with a much better view.

Some modern logging systems use closed captioning for search functions. With this feature, if something was said on your station that was captioned, it can be found and seen it in seconds on any computer in the network. Now, that’s a useful leap in technology.

Some monitoring and logging systems can scientifically verify compliance of the CALM act. Some do it by examining files in a server beforehand. Others do it afterwards by examining the log file. Some enable use of the electronic program guide (EPG) for automatic recording of specific channels at specific times, just like a DVR. At least one system uses the recorded logging files to help the flow of content to the Internet and second screens, so stations can repurpose content quickly. This technology is another benefit of the transition to digital, and an opportunity for broadcasters to grow their revenue and share in a market that everyone wants a slice of.

When FOX News Channel adopted a new logging and monitoring system, FOXNews.com staff quickly discovered additional benefits. Instead of requesting content from the broadcast group, FOXNews.com can quickly search, retrieve, clip and publish media directly from the system. It has allowed FOXNews.com to triple the number of clips it creates and posts daily.

A similar system is in use in San Diego, at CBS affiliate KFMB-TV. There it records and monitors video from its HD broadcast on one channel and off-air SD content on the other channel. The system records the director’s private line intercom track along with the aired audio track, enabling operators to later determine whether a problem is due to a technical error or a missed cue from the director. When a fault occurs, the system automatically notifies operators via e-mail with an attached clip of the video displaying the fault.

Automating transcoding
Encoding and transcoding is at the heart of nearly every video workflow. Encoding is needed to convert SDI to video files. Transcoding is necessary for exchanging files between incompatible acquisition, production and delivery systems. Transcoding is used to standardize digital media for distribution or archive, or to re-purpose content for multi-screen and second-screen distribution opportunities. Encoding and transcoding the amount of media many broadcasters process and air 24/7 can be complicated, time-consuming and costly.

Broadcasters have spent much time and money automating systems in stations for one reason. Automation saves money by allowing stations to do more with less. Several new systems can automate the encoding and transcoding process. Like a DVR, they can be programmed to start and stop, but with the flexibility of assigning a different set of encoding parameters, file types and wrappers, including different compression formats, to each scheduled task. Typically, an intuitive GUI simplifies setup and management.

In one system shown at last month’s NAB, captured media files were automatically combined with user-defined metadata, additional media files such as extra audio tracks and resources such as proxies and thumbnails. Files captured during scheduled ingests were then automatically associated with a pre-defined set of asset structures. Complete assets can then be exported for further processing by other solutions or third-party applications.

The system simplifies operation with individual or group-based encoder management. It can alert engineers and operators to events such as failures and scheduled task completions through configurable alert notifications. Errors can also be monitored by any SNMP-compliant network management system. The GUI provides mosaic-style, multi-channel video confidence monitoring, allowing operators to simultaneously view the outputs of multiple encoders.

Activities such as commercial black removal, black border detection and correction, and more are handled automatically, while transcoded outputs can be submitted to Tektronix Cerify or similar third-party quality control (QC) analysis tools for automated compliance verification.

While many transcoding systems offer built in QC, beware. Most self-testing transcoders use the same code base for the QC engine as their transcoder engine. They can’t check for critical compatibility issues and don’t check for syntax errors. Unidentified syntax errors can propagate throughout a system and to viewers’ decoders.

Besides the ability to quickly look back in time, another benefit of the digital transition is the ability to look forward in time for discrepancies and errors before they occur. A good automated QC test system can do exactly that by inspecting media files for hundreds of compliance errors or violations, from missing stop bits or bad video to verifying technical compliance with FCC regulations. Thank goodness compliance verification has finally become more scientific than watching a waveform monitor with one eye and a VU meter with the other.