Quantity vs. Quality: New technology eliminates classic multiplatform delivery dilemma

Monday, May 14, 2012

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Stan Moote, Vice President of Business Development for Harris Broadcast
The secret here is to give feeds to these outlets that have a higher bitrate than they need. This dramatically reduces multi-pass compression artifacts, yet still results in an economical net distribution of feeds.

As broadcasters, it is easy to lose sight of how TV viewers are getting content. Back in the old days, it was pretty simple: Viewers received content through their TV antennas or via huge, rogue satellite dishes in remote areas. Then along came satellite and cable, which filled in all the content gaps and made access easy — at a price, of course. Today, users are bombarded with ways to get their content, and broadcasters are challenged with providing more and more distribution methods, often without having solid business plans for each technique. 

Regardless of distribution method, professional program producers and broadcasters always strive for the best quality achievable. Of course, our CFOs often have a differing opinion, and some type of compromise is struck. But even when faced with lower budgets or CAPEX, as engineers, we still manage to figure out how to achieve a quality picture. 

We can argue that the switch to high definition has made maintaining quality more difficult as larger television sets have become the norm; however, HD cameras and production, processing and distribution equipment have improved to the point that it’s actually quite difficult to destroy HD signals as compared to dealing with PAL or NTSC.  When viewing old TV shows on our HD sets, it’s easy to see the camera-to-production technology improvements (including VTRs), which have taken place over the years.  Whilst the improvements were also visible on older SD TV sets, most non-industry viewers were primarily picking up on simply the switch from black and white and the camera/lens resolution and persistence issues. 

So getting back to the current-day broadcast dilemma of providing a multitude of distribution methods:  How does this phenomenon impact the issue of picture quality?

It’s been well documented that the broadcast industry is currently facing a significant gap in viewing habits. At first glance, this trend could be considered merely a technology gap, but I call it a “Television Consumption Chasm.” Whilst we can endlessly debate the merits of time-shifting vs. VOD vs. live, the fact is that certain types of programs have a specific shelf life. To this end, the same can be said for viewing quality.

In considering the quality issue today, it’s necessary to take a closer look at the “Television Consumption Chasm.” By stretching outside of our broadcast comfort zone and examining the various viewing categories and disparate factors that make up this trend, we can attempt to triangulate the best way to cost-effectively distribute programs in an environment where quantity often seems to take precedence over quality..

Real Time
No question that sports and planned special events are the biggest drivers of real-time viewing. We watch (or listen) any way we can. Obviously, sports is a huge driver for large-screen technology (highest quality); however, when this is not available, people resort to any method they can to receive the game, including radio (terrestrial/Internet), small player windows buried under the spreadsheets on our desktops, and MobileTV or handhelds using an Internet connection. 

In this instance, is quality a key driver for the viewer? The answer is Yes and No. The large screen sports fan definitely wants quality; the remote user also wants quality, but is happy to receive the event anyway he can. Given the options, viewers migrate to the highest quality possible. 

The key in sports is to create several different types of “streams” at the highest quality, tailored for different types of distribution. Technology now makes this possible as you can see in Figure 1. Let’s look at this in more detail. 

Assume the original produced feeds are full HD with surround sound backhauled to a facility. Typically, more bumpers, ads and perhaps even extra spots are added in before distribution. While complex packaging schemes for each different distribution outlet will happen more and more, the same feed is typically distributed across outlets today. The key to quality distribution in this case is to give feeds to the distribution network that match the viewing format with much higher bitrates.

As an example, in Figure 1, the broadcaster has four main HD feeds feeding a newer piece of hardware that provided instant multiplatform media convergence. Multiplatform must be performed before distribution to assure the highest quality. In this example, when feeding the DVB-T transmitter, the signal is compressed to 9Mbs for HD; the original HD signal goes through a high-quality down-convertor to produce SD and is compressed at 4.5Mbs for SD. For DVB-T2, only the HD signal at 9Mbs is used.  

Now let’s look at the other media feeds for cable/satellite, IPTV, MobileTV, and Internet delivery on handhelds and PCs and the like. Each of these distribution types clearly wants to use its own type of video/audio compression to match its own unique requirements. They may want to dramatically reduce the number of bits needed to minimize buffering/overload conditional, or perhaps may want even higher quality than that of the terrestrial version. 

The secret here is to give feeds to these outlets that have a higher bitrate than they need. This dramatically reduces multi-pass compression artifacts, yet still results in an economical net distribution of feeds. Figure 1 provides a typical example true instant media conversion for linear channels. Don’t forget about audio. Up/down mixing, surround encoding and loudness controls are very important to maintain a high quality user experience.  
Prime Time Programming
Statistics showing real-time viewing vs. time-shifting on TVs vs. on-demand over the Internet continue to evolve; however, a couple of points are very clear. Until the prime time series comes out on DVD, viewers want to watch the whole weekly program in an uninterrupted fashion. Time-shifting or watching over the Internet is a convenience factor simply because we don’t want interruptions while viewing — yet we can’t wait for the next episode. As soon as the series or episode season is released on DVD or for on-demand viewing, habits again change. 

This is where there is a huge Television Consumption Chasm. Some refer to this as On-demand vs. Couch Potato modes.  Just as people quickly learned how to make up their own playlists, the same goes for television — up to a fashion. Television is a type of relaxing entertainment: put people in front of the TV, turn it on to almost anything (except sporting events!), and they become almost hypnotized. They simply want to relax, don’t want to think, and hence, do not want to make any on-demand decisions. Of course, if there are ever more than a few seconds of technical glitches (black, no sound, frozen video, buffering), they’re quickly off to a new channel. 

Linear Prime time
Just as with live events, Figure 1 holds true for broadcast prime time. The user may decide to time-shift with their PVR or via Internet TV.  The point is, the best quality was delivered to them. 

Nonlinear Prime time
Assuming consumers are not doing their own time-shifting, they may be leaving this to their local provider. This is typically done in a nonlinear fashion. The provider more often than not receives a VOD version of the prime time program which they keep online for a week or so.  These programs are reproduced for VOD, having hooks for different bumpers and ads.  In many cases, fast-forwarding is disabled, preventing viewers from skipping through these ads. Figure 2 shows how automated tools take the same server files used for the original broadcast and spin out VOD files for distribution directly to service providers. 
Figure 2 – File based quality repurposing 

Prime Time Series
Much beyond this week period, consumers typically like to watch many episodes of the series. DVD or on demand is ideal for this. Again content is repurposed using the tools in Figure 2. Advertising is minimised (as these are typically paid for directly in some fashion) and special features are often added. 

Distance Viewing
I have always been intrigued with the huge profits generated by so-called ethnic programming. Years ago, Sony India capitalized on the fact there were so many expats worldwide that would pay substantially to receive programming from their homeland. Digital satellite made this all possible, and worldwide, local cable and satellite providers picked up these packages for their clients. 

Now, the Internet is cutting out the middleman. 
I was amazed to hear how a Chinese friend of mine was shopping in the local Chinese supermarket and was offered a free Internet set–top box that would receive most of the main channels in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan (on demand, to match time zone issues, within a three-day window) all for only $6 a month.  He was even offered a free bag of rice to sign up today! 

Is the quality good? I would consider it marginal; however, his family is happy to have so much programming available in Chinese. Previously, they were using a PC to pick up feeds from China. The set-top box changes the entire experience, making them feel just like they’re back in their homeland watching TV provided by their local cable company.
 This is a type of Television Consumption Chasm, which extends well beyond ethnic programming. It is fairly simple: we want to see programming that originates in parts of the world (or country, or city) where we are from. Again, sports are the prime example. Watching that old local team in action is cool. This is the TV everywhere example. Again, this relates to all TV stations seriously looking for an economical way to format their outputs for other types of media distribution. 

As for a business plan, this is still evolving — from subscription-based to targeted advertising.  But the trend seems clear: people accept less-than-stellar quality in order to obtain the programs they want to see now, and also migrate very quickly to services with better quality and ease of use. As broadcasters, we might be less focused on the ease-of-use aspect, but must always be mindful of providing excellent video/audio and metadata. Without proper metadata, distributors cannot provide a good user experience (and could also violate rights issues).  Tablet and Small Screen Versions The examples in both Figure 1 and Figure 2 match the quality that users have for their specific delivery or viewing screen. As in the second case, and more specifically with handheld devices for VOD, programs should be repurposed, i.e., graphics can’t be too tiny to read.  Pan and scan techniques can be used to assure the viewer doesn’t miss important aspects. Audio should also be adjusted, assuming viewers could be in a noisier environment.  Conclusion In summary, the issue of quality vs. quantity is not easily resolved when it comes to this Television Consumption Chasm of viewers’ needs, screen size and the decision of which program to watch. Television consumers today are a moving target.   That said, current technology makes it possible for broadcasters to easily distribute content with the appropriate resolution for each viewing device and provide consumers with a high-quality experience. Regardless of multi-redistribution issues, broadcasters need to embrace all the forms while business cases are becoming solidified.   

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