Transition Checkpoint: 2007

If all had gone exactly according to plan, NTSC over-the-air broadcasting would have been replaced by high-definition DTV everywhere in the United States as of Jan. 1, 2007. Why didn’t this happen as planned?

First, a year was lost debating the ATSC Table 3 scanning formats while the computer and film industries used their political clout to bend the proposed ATSC DTV standard to benefit themselves. This delayed an FCC adoption of a DTV standard until December 1996. Then, bickering over COFDM vs. VSB and predictions of multicast windfalls into 2001 thwarted the rollout of HD as Congress had intended, with the loan of a second channel. Cable systems finally agreed to deliver HD programming beginning in 2003. Anyway you count it, this is about five years wasted in the HDTV rollout.

While delays impeded OTA HD delivery, cable viewers grew in number. With the advent of smaller dishes, DTH satellite services became a practical reality and a viable alternative to rising cable prices. Today, cable and satellite dominate broadcast TV delivery, and an estimated 15 percent of total TV homes get OTA. So, the NTSC turnoff is really something of a non-event.

HDTV’s image hasn’t faired so well either. Statistical multiplexing, rate shaping and grooming lowered bit rates, production formats and countless conversions during distribution, all contribute to the lowering of image quality, often to the point that HD isn’t really HD anymore. Multicasting additional services while an HD program is on the primary channel hasn’t helped the perception of HD quality much either. Neither has stretching SD 4:3 aspect ratio content to fit a 16:9 display. In such scenarios, artifacts are observable. This is certainly not what the creators of HDTV had in mind.

The DTV Transition Bill

The DTV Transition Bill sets Feb. 17, 2009, as the day that NTSC terrestrial transmission will cease to exist. Spectrum auctions have been held, and companies such as Qualcomm are making plans to exploit this spectrum.

Some provisions of the DTV Transition Bill were hotly debated. Programs receiving funding from auction proceeds that are authorized to begin this year include:

  • Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Assistance: The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is authorized to administer a digital-to-analog converter box assistance program that provides up to two $40 coupons to consumers for use toward the purchase of digital-to-analog converter boxes.
  • Public Safety Interoperable Communications: Development of interoperable first responders communication systems will receive $1 billion.
  • NYC 9/11 Digital Transition: NYC will be assisted with interim broadcast facilities until the Freedom Tower is completed.
  • Low-Power Television and Translator Digital-to-Analog Conversion: Low-power TV licensees fall under separate rules than full-power stations and will receive assistance. Transitioning to digital will entail a flash-cut turn off of analog service and immediate initiation of digital broadcasts.

Feb. 18, 2009, will be the first day of all-digital over-the-air broadcasting. At this point, the significance of the event is questionable, even if broadcasters meet the deadline.

The DTV business model

The big news at the start of 2007 is the practical realization in 2006 of the anticipated three-screen scenario. Technology that now enables TV, PC and handheld device content reception has changed the very nature of the broadcasting business.

Broadband Internet connections threaten to dominate content delivery, just as cable invaded OTA territory two decades ago. The three-screen content delivery and consumption scenario is here.

Three key attributes mark the current state of the digital transition. New system engineering methods are needed to address digital media system infrastructures. These new infrastructures incorporate new technology that is not traditionally associated with broadcasting. These new infrastructures and technologies enable and require new digital workflows.

A new discipline

By now, it’s obvious that the need to integrate information technology and broadcast engineering in contemporary operations centers has given birth to a new technical discipline: media systems engineering. Yet, many issues inherent to this integration remain to be resolved.

About four years into the conversion to server and computer-based infrastructures, system complexity continues to increase exponentially, while the learning curve lags far behind. Enhancing the IT skills of veteran broadcast engineers and training IT professionals in the ways of broadcast engineering is a critical necessity. With so many interdependent systems in a broadcast infrastructure, a sufficiently deep, as well as broad, plan must always be kept in focus. There are simply too many technologies and too many details for any one person to know. This places an emphasis on technical project management and the development of large project umbrella programs. Teamwork between broadcast engineers, IT, application developers and users is crucial. Each needs to understand and respect the nuances of other technical disciplines and have an understanding of how their areas of expertise fit in the overall system.

New technology

Advances in technology are occurring at an ever-increasing pace. Witness how quickly single-core processors went dual-core. Now, quad-core looms on the horizon while a nine-processor system targeted at multimedia gaming is a reality. It won’t be long before similar advanced processing systems find their way into broadcast operation centers.

Disk storage is giving way to holographic storage. Gigabit Ethernet, introduced only a short while ago, is proving insufficient for the demands of an HD content production infrastructure. High-end technology to satisfy the needs of media systems requires precise system design and integration.

Often, the result is that management is confused, engineers are overwhelmed and production personnel are forced to cope with getting content on the air through cumbersome systems. Despite rosy reports of digital conversion of production and transmission systems, the picture painted on the front lines is not always so pretty.

New workflows

Automated processes and file-based production facilitated by the introduction of IT networks, PCs and software applications are a radical change in broadcast infrastructures. This necessitates the need for new, digital workflows. The simplest example is a comparison of tape-based editing and sneaker net content movement with a file-based, networked workflow. The tape-based, analog workflow, if continued, would actually slow down a file-based production methodology. Yet, performing a thorough analysis and integration of new, digital infrastructures while evolving to digital workflows is a challenge for understaffed engineering departments with deadlines. Non-technical management can have trouble understanding digital technology and difficulty in grasping its benefits.

But as more networked, computer-based equipment is controlled by more sophisticated software applications, neglecting optimizing workflows to leverage this new, digital infrastructure will lead to a waste of time and money. How many organizations have understood the value of installing a comprehensive SNMP infrastructure management capability? Some do not see the need for proactive preventative actions. Others are happy with GPI and RS422 solutions, while in departments such as transmission, monitoring and diagnostic capabilities have been the norm for years.

IT and computer-based BOC equipment does present many new problems. Beyond the inherent stability and reliability issues is the reality that hardware and operating systems rapidly become outdated. Upgrading a dozen PCs is a pain, but with hundreds — even if the process is automated — there is a risk that on-air systems could crash without warning.

Along with this risk is the new danger of computer viruses that could take a broadcaster off the air.

Ask us

In 2007, T2D moves into its third year. Past topics have ranged from ATSC standards to the build-out of integrated broadcast engineering and information technology operations centers.

I’d like to ask all of you to help guide the content of this tutorial. What are the challenges and issues; what problems have you encountered in transitioning to digital? What frustrates you about the transition, equipment and standards? What implementation problems have you encountered? What kind of features would you like to see in new equipment?

Whatever they are, I am sure you are not alone!

E-mail your thoughts, experiences and suggestions to with the subject line T2D.