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National Association Of Broadcasters 2000
Television and Networks In Progress
by Jim Bennett (April 24,2000)

HDTV Still Developing

HDTV has been evolving since the late 1980's and has now been coupled with data casting in the form of DTV. Why is this happening so slowly?

Basically, it's the continuing search for worldwide standards and profitable revenue streams. Contributions to the development and implementation of workable HDTV standards and establishing a positive financial bottom line are essential. The profitable financial business direction search has been increasing in the past few years to the point where NAB is beginning to look more like an Internet show than a broadcaster's show. In reality, a cost effective home delivery solution is still "a work in process" and many years away regardless of what tech wonder is finally decided upon. For now, broadcasters and the viewing public rule, but that may change in the future.

According to various exhibitors, this is still the first wave of development. Several commented, "We are seeing analog set top boxes being replaced by digital boxes more frequently, but it's been a slow and expensive process". Some noted, "It won't get interesting or profitable until the digital technology starts changing the way our facilities are operated". "We feel two of the key drivers are improved cost effectiveness and more efficiencies in the distribution process to generate more revenues to pay for all the new expensive HD and digital equipment now required".

Another said, "The second generation DTV uses a high level of computational power is convert standard definition signals into full HD". This single box solution will permit broadcasters to transmit a full DTV signal and hopefully do so at a profit. Vendors are promising local content and advertising can be cut seamlessly into the broadcast signal that is a fully encoded ATSC signal.

It's a 24p Acquisition World

Standards are slow to adopt, especially by the global broadcast industry. The Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) lists at least 18 different HD transmission formats. That is simply too many. It has been a hard fought battle over the years and isn't over yet.

The 24 p system is gaining acceptance by significantly reducing acquisition costs by lowering format transfer expenses. This will help reduce the industry's dependence on film and processing costs while speeding up the acquisition and development process. Vendors are promising easier integration into existing operations, but we'll have to see if they actually deliver.

The p stands for progressive scan, which stores images at 24 frames per second as film has done for decades. "This is about as close as we are going to get to a universal format in the future" commented one source. Others noted the format could be converted into the various formats without serious quality degradation.

Panasonic announced two high definition camcorders and studio decks such as Model AJ HD3700 D5 multi-format mastering deck and AJ-HD150 to augment HD field and multi-format production.

Sony constructed an entire "24p Demonstration Area" that was packed with attendees throughout the event. The long awaited HD camera Model HDW-F9002F records 1080 lines progressive or non-interlaced at 24 fps and is now available. It's officially part of the Sony 1080p product line-up. Also, the HDW-F500 VTR was noted and records both interlaced and progressive signals at switchable frame rates.

Sony professional camcorders such as the CineAlta were also displayed and will be used in the production of the next Star Wars. These units will support many lenses including Panavision and are planned for extensive use in the next production of Star Wars, which may be all digital. I've seen this video format projected on the large screen and it is comparable to 35-mm motion picture quality.

Varied HDTV Views

Since HDTV has not made it into many homes at this time, I conducted an informal survey of attendee and exhibitor opinions on the current and future state of HDTV. This should add some personalized perspectives to all the hype and flash seen at the displays. These comments are not in any particular order or level of importance but help serve to demonstrate how far HDTV/DTV has come but how much further it has to go.

"The lack of firm digital standards continues to be a problem for us. It seems they keep changing. We have to change our business plans, change equipment purchasing requirements and hope not to go broke."

"There's way too much equipment out there that's expensive and unproven--especially the Internet stuff."

"HDTV is currently available in over 20 markets, but relatively few people have it at home and that's a big problem. It's too expensive now and prices need to be at $4000 or less for some early adopters to consider it. Set top boxes are in short supply and expensive."

"Programming of HD is getting better at some networks like CBS. More prime time and special event programming is becoming available in the new format. Jay Leno's NBC show is hyping HD a lot and ABC's sports events should be a natural. Some cable channels like HBO and Showtime seem to be featuring more HDTV recently. However, most of the cable industry lacks even basic HDTV programming and most customers don't have much experience with HD. Even PBS is pushing HD fare in its evening programming. I hope this all works since we need viewers to make this expensive format work."

"Most television shows are still shot on film and that won't change until HD, or whatever they decide to call it, is made available at affordable prices. It also must easily integrate into existing facilities." "It's got to be a reasonable cost and business proposition for the station and especially the viewer."

"I'm looking for solutions at NAB and working with companies and people I can trust. I can't sell this dot com stuff to my management since we have to make profits consistently and can't rely on some fancy buy out in the future. That's not the way this industry was built. When viewers turn on their television they want it to work and can't have a blue screen like the PC guy's seem to live with for years."

Keynote Comments

Sumner Redstone, Chairman and CEO of Viacom, also shared many of the attendees' feelings when asked who would win in the HDTV and DTV race. He stated the communications and broadcast businesses are driven by proven traditional business models that would eventually win despite all the promotion of new technology and business models.

As the creator of the phrase "Content is King", he underscored broadcasters have a big advantage over dot-com businesses in that they make money and have a proven track record. Content will be the big winner in the minds of viewers, especially when coupled with reliable and affordable systems.

However, the video techie group at NAB lead by RealNetworks and Microsoft were strongly promoting new video streaming initiatives at the conference. RealNetworks established an alliance with Akamai Technologies to improve video download performance and allow smoother video streaming performance. This is done by placing host servers close to users and using RealSystem G2 technology. I believe these two companies are trying to create additional "virtual bandwidth" at less cost than bidding for traditional bandwidth.

Microsoft demonstrated its Windows Media 7 platform that was billed to deliver broadcast quality video at 60 frames per second at a minimum of 700 kb/s. While the demo images looked good for the Internet and Broadband channels, they didn't come close to the HDTV experience I've used for my benchmark standard over the years. Microsoft appears to be ahead of market needs with this demo in that the high frame rates and throughput are seldom used today but that may change in the future.

It will be interesting to see how many developers, programmers, end users and broadband companies adopt this interesting technology in the future. What is for certain is Microsoft plans to be a key player in the streaming media market segment.

Video Networking Is Hot

Sony's well attended data management exhibit points to a significant trend that marries the broadcasting, telecommunications and data networking industries together when it comes to providing tomorrow's television experience. Video on Demand, Video Streaming and higher quality television will have to use technologies from all three industries to deliver on its promise. This is the first year I noted Sony had such a large exhibit that was well attained consistently throughout the entire event. It seemed like a Networld+Interop show with all the technology on display and large numbers of broadcasters cueing up to speak with company representatives.

Even Lucent presented a network focused unit called WaveStar decoder that integrates a satellite demodulator, ATM, decryption, frame synchronizer and MPEG decoder that functions with HD 4:2:2. This is part of a family of products and technology that will open up entirely new levels of distribution capacity.

Lucent said it would be announcing new technology soon that will dramatically increase wavelengths per fibre several times. When asked what that means in everyday terms a Lucent rep said, "Take a feature film and multiply it a few hundred times to over 500 gigabits per second and you have some idea how fast this really will be." Global Crossing is supposed to test the system later this year.

Wrap Up

The good news is, with more than 1500 exhibitors (600 more than 1999), NAB is now bigger than ever. Attendance seemed high with some new business being developed by the large traditional players. LVCC was ground zero for these players with everyone vying for attention and dollars.

On the other hand, challenges and opportunities to the status quo abound. About 300 are first time exhibitors and many are in the Sands CC new media space. A brief tour of the Sand's new media groups showed more than new content, technology and hardware. I noted increased efforts placed in commerce and marketing to try to generate revenues by adapting some e-commerce models.

Personalization and micro marketing are said to take on new importance but it will be the marketplace that ultimately decides the winners and losers. The interactive and enhanced television markets are just beginning and there are few compelling reasons for end users to make dramatic viewing changes. Some of the new business strategies I listened to seemed to be reaching too far in that they were solutions in search of markets. This seldom works in real life in my experience but with rapidly changing market and economic conditions, I will be following it closely in the year ahead.

Copyright 2000 Jim Bennett All rights reserved.

   
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