‘Way-out-of-the-box thinking’ may be critical to success of broadcasters

The National Association of Broadcasters will honor S. Merrill Weiss with its 2006 Television Engineering Achievement Award.

Weiss, a consultant in electronic media technology and management, has nearly 40 years of experience in broadcasting. He is internationally recognized for his development of new television technologies, including digital video compression.

He conducted the experiments that led to the first digital television standard (CCIR Recommendation 601) in 1981and has been involved in the development of virtually every DTV standard since. He has served with the FCC Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service, the Advanced Television Systems Committee and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

HD Technology Update approached Weiss weeks after Congressional passage of the budget reconciliation legislation bill with language establishing a date for switch-off of analog television transmission. Weiss provided extensive insight into possibilities and pitfalls broadcasters will face. HDTU will present the first half of the interview in this edition and the second in its March 21 issue.

HD Technology Update: Even before the Feb. 17, 2009, end date of analog transmission has arrived, MPEG-2 — a government mandated component of the digital television transmission system — is being replaced in terms of compression efficiency by MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 and VC-1. The consequence for broadcasters is a situation in which they are saddled with a technology that prevents them from maximizing the full potential of their services. In other words, they can’t fully partake in the multicasting opportunities that a more efficient compression scheme offers. Are broadcasters just out of luck or is there a way that the situation can be ameliorated?

S. Merrill Weiss: First, it’s important to understand the context in which broadcasters have been mandated to use MPEG-2 and the opportunities to use MPEG-4 and other advanced coding technologies.

MPEG-2 is mandated by the FCC through its adoption of the ATSC Standard for Digital Television. It is required to be used for delivery of one free, over-the-air TV service that is comparable in quality to an NTSC program.

There’s nothing that requires broadcasters to use MPEG-2 for all of their video services. In fact, today there are examples of advanced coding being used over broadcast transmitters, but the data for those coding systems is sent as so-called “private data.”

So, technically, there is no real constraint on broadcasters using advanced coding. As a practical matter, though, there are issues of getting receivers capable of handling advanced coding into consumers’ hands. Those issues relate to the willingness of the consumer electronics manufacturers to build receivers of that sort.

Up to this point, it hasn’t been possible to get the advanced coders adopted into ATSC standards, although there has been a lot of work going on to write the necessary documents.

The reason is that consumer electronics manufacturers are concerned about abandoning consumers who have purchased receivers with only MPEG-2 decoders. They have been looking to broadcasters to indicate when and how they would use the advanced coding so that receiver manufactures would know there will be content appearing, based on advanced coding, for those receivers. It is the old chicken and egg problem: broadcasters want receivers to be built before they offer content, and receiver manufacturers want there to be content before they build and sell receivers.

The issue for broadcasters that differentiates them from satellite broadcasters or cable operators, although cable perhaps to a lesser extent going forward, is that the other content delivery operations have control of their receivers. They have closed systems, where the broadcast environment is one in which there is an open system, and broadcasters don’t have control of receivers except through the adoption of standards. Unfortunately, broadcasters have been very much underrepresented in the standards bodies, so the votes haven’t been there to get the approval of the documentation of the advanced coding standards on the ATSC committees.

HDTU: It seems odd that broadcasters would be under-represented in a body that has such an important impact on their future. Why is that?

MW: There are a lot of consumer electronics manufacturers who are members of ATSC. The ATSC consists of whoever joins the group and shows up to vote. So, the broadcasting community has been outvoted by the consumer electronics manufacturers that belong to the ATSC and have been there to vote. It is also the case that there are some broadcasters who do not believe that advanced coding techniques should be adopted into ATSC standards, and they normally vote against moving such standards forward.

What you have is a small amount of cable representation, and when it comes to broadcast standards, the cable members usually abstain. When you get into the contentious issues, it generally becomes broadcasters on one-side and consumer electronics manufacturers on the other. The ATSC has a two-thirds rule that says you have to have two-thirds approval in order to get things passed, and sometimes it’s hard to get even 50 percent to move things forward.

It’s been a question of broadcasters not working together enough to develop a cohesive position on some of these issues and then coming (to ATSC meetings) to get standards adopted. These standards are voluntary, other than the ones adopted by the FCC. Even if the advanced coding methods were adopted as standards, that still doesn’t require consumer electronics manufacturers to build them into receivers.

Some kind of understanding has to be reached between broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers about what content will be available using these advanced coding technologies and in what time frame it will be available so consumer electronics manufacturers will find it sufficiently attractive to begin putting that advanced coding into the receivers.

To make the transition happen, it’s necessary to have decoders for these advanced coding techniques in the receivers as soon as possible so at some point in future the industry can begin offering such content.

That will encourage the sale of receivers that have the advanced decoders and over time cause the universe of receivers to be equipped with the advanced coding technologies.

HDTU: On the one hand there’s Moore’s Law stating that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years, the consequences of which imply that increasingly efficient compression schemes are right around the corner. On the other hand, broadcasters live in the world of government regulations and large capital outlays. As a result, won’t broadcasters always be several steps behind competitive media distribution alternatives?

MW: It doesn’t have to be that broadcasters are always several steps behind. There are a couple of possibilities of things broadcasters can do to speed up the process. It is also the case that some of the other industries may not move forward as quickly as you might think.

Once cable has millions of set-top boxes in the field with MPEG-2 in them, they generally won’t be changing them out to MPEG-4 at least until they fully depreciate them. Where you tend to see new technologies develop is where there are new services coming online rather than replacement of MPEG-2. For instance, DIRECTV pushed real hard to get MPEG-4 AVC into use to support their new local-into-local HDTV service. So, broadcasters won’t be so far behind when you are talking about already rolled-out applications.

Another possibility is that broadcasters could do some things if they choose to that would advance the rollout of receivers. Some of these things might not be politically or economically attractive — for example, subsidizing the development cost or even the purchase cost of broadcast-capable receivers having advanced decoders in them — such as encouraging over-the-air reception, as opposed to other avenues of signal delivery, by offering a service to consumers similar to what satellite and cable operators do, by making antenna installations available or offering a place for consumers to call when the set-top box doesn’t work.

That is way-out-of-the-box thinking compared to what the industry is used to, but if broadcasters want to be competitive, they may have to think about being competitive with what consumers expect when they pay for services from satellite and cable operators. And you can see that kind of approach beginning in USDTV, where consumers will pay a monthly fee, and they will expect that the support they will get will be equal to what they would get from the local cable operator.

So being competitive with cable, for instance, doesn’t just mean having the same technology, it means being competitive on a broad scale with respect to the overall characteristics of the service.

Tell us what you think! HDTU invites response from our readers. Please submit your comments to editor@broadcastengineering.com. We'll follow up with your comments in an upcoming issue.

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