You might not have noticed, but… we’re losin’ a lot o’ sleep over pleasing a bunch o’ dentists. Sheesh.
We’ll get to the dentists in a minute; but first, a story.
It’s a red-letter day around our place when an actual, real, live visitor gets walked through the studios—over the years, the number of civilians eager to watch the sausage being made has plummeted like an outdated holiday panettone off a grocery shelf. And I’m sure the antisocial nature of the technical staff hasn’t helped; who wouldn’t thrill to a detailed explanation of the PSIP protocol by a gassy, coffee-stained engineer?
This visitor, though, was a bright, older fellow… an engineer in his own right, although not attuned to TV. As I led him through room after room of the aging and/or obsolete equipment we all use (if it’s not already obsolete, it will be soon), I was yappin’ about the standards and formats we’d spooled-up over time—SD, HD720, HD1080i, 1080p30, 4K, HDR…
“And 3D?” the visitor added.
I laughed out loud. “Oh, that 3D nonsense,” I grunted. “Lucky that never went anywhere…”
Not accustomed to self-examination—there are few mirrors in Mario’s world—I nonetheless found myself pondering my own kneejerk reaction some hours later, after copious doses of limoncello lubricated the thought processes. OK, so 3D was an awkward, kluge-y attempt at a theatrical novelty act; but I felt that the issue was bigger—it was about the bandwidth.
Now, I’ve used this space several times before to rant incoherently about this dichotomy of small versus big, regarding formats, screens, bandwidth… you name it. But for technologists worried about the future of over-the-air (OTA) TV—and there ain’t nobody left except us these days—this is the burning question: How can you possibly keep pace with algebraic leaps in next-great-invention bitrates?
I know, we’ve got our 6G-SDI and our IP infrastructure; but how many more times will we be able to pull the HEVC rabbit out of the hat… tighten down that compression valve until the bitstream trickles like a shopping mall water fountain? Our elected officials are auctioning spectrum out from under us, which made OTA 3D an even crazier thought—tie up multiple broadcast channels just to watch the snake pop out of the peanut brittle can? At the same time, I’m willin’ to bet that the brain trust at Japan’s NHK Laboratories, aghast at a mere 8K resolution, is putting the finishing touches on OTA 16K transmission.
I don’t know about the rest of youse, but my bandwidth budget is in the red.
LOOK TO THE FUTURE
Let’s pause for a brief (and rare) engineer-pat-on-the-back moment: Even though our original technology has mighty long whiskers, we were able to catch up and meet the OTT whiz kids on their own turf. We learned to send some content via RF, and push other content via cable, mobile and IP platforms… yay, us!
Now, it’s time to take it up a notch, and do what the non-technical types love so much: look at the consumers—our viewers—and see what they really want and need. What’s the one thing we’ve got that the whiz kids don’t got? It’s those towers! We may hate ‘em, we may love ‘em, but they’re the essence of what we are as broadcasters. To use their new-speak jargon, we’re hyperlocal.
We live and work in the communities and regions we serve, and we’ve got boots on the ground. There’s value in that. And until the day our beloved Commish sells out and allows one or two giant corporations to own us all—and to feed content from a single playout server—we’re independent, and we’re diverse. Some of us drawl like rednecks, some have that Cali chill goin’, and others of us sound like a table read for a Sopranos episode (who you thinkin’ bout?). We’ve got texture… local color… and a viewpoint that people wanna hear. Why aren’t we cashing in on that?
And here’s something no one can argue with: our next-gen audience doesn’t seem to give a hoot about high-bitrate streams, HDR and 4K… most of them are content to squint at their wireless devices. Sixty-five-inch 4K screen for $2,000? That’s for the dentists! Back in the days when high-end audio equipment took off, the term “audiophile” was synonymous with “rich guy”—cash to spare. Dentists. Today, the bleeding-edge video gear and high-bitrate services play to the same audience.
As broadcasters, we’re saddled with a pretty skinny bitbudget; but that doesn’t figure into what we really do best. Armed with ATSC 3.0, more modest pricing on production gear, and a love of community, we can make limoncello from the lemons we’re dealt, and keep on pumpin’ our stories into the ether.
Mario Orazio can be reached at email@example.com.