16 reasons your master control is not HD and nine ideas to get you there.
Welcome to the first of a series of articles examining technology in the media industry and a market-driven look at how successful programmers are dealing with the myriad of changes they face. This series is being written by my firm, Positive Flux, a technology and operational process consulting firm.
Who would have thought that two years after the digital transition, there would still be a huge number of broadcast and cable services that are not yet in HD. Through this article, I'll dive into 16 reasons frequently given to justify this delay and provide nine new ways to think about the transition as potential solutions.
Before we get to those, we need to frame the problem. In the recent study "The HD transition has just begun," we found that only 48 percent of stations are truly HD (meaning they have both HD production and HD master control). After getting input from over 350 chief engineers, we discovered that while 57 percent of master controls have been converted to HD, these percentages are significantly tilted in favor of the larger markets.
The sixteen reasons
There are plenty of good reasons for this disparity, the greatest of which is economics. The larger markets have greater revenues and more competitive pressures than the smaller markets. Many small markets have been hit harder by the recession. The net result is reasons for not moving to HD that include: "It's too expensive," "It's all cost with no upside," "There's no premium for HD TV commercials," "We don't have cash available for capital expenditures," "HD tape stock/VTRs are unbelievably expensive" and "The government made us pay for the transmission upgrades and we are still smarting from that!"
Some organizations are afraid of change: "Transitions are hard," "Our technical team is not up to speed on HD" and "Master control is so sensitive, we don't want to create more outages."
Then, of course, there are the technical concerns: "Changing servers means changing my automation systems," "The current infrastructure is all SD — ugh!," "Weather crawl and other equipment is all SD" and so on.
Finally, there are what I call the "aw shucks" reasons: "My existing content is all SD and 4:3," "I'll do it when my competitors do," "I'll just pass through the network/syndicated HD content" and the ever-present "Viewers don't really care anyway."
Nine ways to approach the change and justify the investment
1. Start by changing the focus. Some leaders think of HD as a cost of doing business. It's much healthier to see it as an opportunity to use change to create value for your company. Think about the other pressures facing your organization in the future and think about this as an opportunity to rethink a classic operation into something that is modern, efficient and aligned with future business goals. In other words, instead of "Do we have to?," change the game to "We want to!"
2. Use change to drive process improvements. Creating operational pay-back is always a great way to overcome financial concerns. Examine the current operational processes and look for opportunities to streamline and automate them. Where are the value-added steps? Are they in list management? Ingest? Monitoring the transmissions? Tape handling and inventory? Eliminate the non-value-added steps and determine which can be simplified and automated, driving cost out of the equation. Maybe some functions can be done remotely or some after-hours systems can be left unattended if moved to more reliable systems. If this frees up some operational time, think about other functions the operators can do to create value.
3. Consider central casting. It's a mature technology that has demonstrated results for saving capital and lowering operational costs through shared resources. Our survey indicates that more than 30 percent of stations are now hubbed either with other stations in their group or through an outsource vendor. We outline a number of potential architectures in the study. Speaking to engineers, the biggest obstacles in making central casting work are generally in getting a reliable and executable traffic log, not in the technology or financial aspects.
4. Think tapeless. Although many master controls play commercials and programs from disk servers, a significant number still record local programming and ingest commercials from tape. Tape has enormous hidden costs including the cost of stock, maintenance of machines and don't forget, the labor costs of monitoring the transfers in real-time. Account for these in your financial analysis. Even if your production facilities are still linear, master control can be completely tapeless.
5. Consider the new master control a springboard for multiplatform. Overcome change concerns by shifting the focus to growth. Consider your organization's plans for the next few years. Are you supporting websites or iPads? Multicast? Will you embrace OMVC? Tomorrow's content delivery platforms will require nonlinear delivery. Can your new systems leverage an asset store for delivery to these platforms? What are the monitoring requirements? Can QC be unified? Can the operational functions in the facility be used to monitor the performance of all platforms, perhaps bringing in some functions that are currently outsourced?
6. Embrace IT. There are myriad solutions available now that marry an IP backbone to a reduced-cost playout system. These station-in-a-box systems can reduce the device count while expanding your output to more platforms. Many of them permit you to do your QC up front, long before the material is sent to viewers, so the focus shifts to initial quality and systems monitoring, not on linearly watching the feeds go out. These systems can reduce the capital investment and pay dividends through flexibility and simplicity of design.
7. Consider exception-based monitoring. Once IP is embraced, there is a growing list of systems that permit the machines to automatically monitor themselves, alerting operational teams only for missing or bad material, transmitters that fail, etc. These tools enhance productivity and may improve reaction time.
8. Employ AFD. One of the biggest challenges in moving to HD is handling the aspect ratio changes of the content. Aspect Format Description (SMPTE 2016) can be used to automatically mark the content's current aspect ratio and how it should be handled in both 16:9 and 4:3 environments. Overcome the content concerns by using AFD. You will seamlessly integrate SD and HD content without adding the complexity of tracking format in your traffic log. Check out this SMPTE webinar for more information.
9. Simplify and reduce. Routers are so 1990s. Reduce the capital cost of the implementation by using video/audio routing only for elements that must be live. Think file-based for everything else, eliminating sources and destinations for all but the critical few. The station-in-a-box systems often have video playout, dynamic graphics, audio leveling and Nielsen watermarking all as features within a single frame. Lower the number of boxes to speed the installation, ease the maintenance and reduce the cost.
So what's a smaller station or cable network to do? Using these tips as a starting point, you should be able to overcome much of the financial, operational and technological resistance within the organization. Viewers do care. Do not wait for your competitors. Your signal is one of the most important elements underlying the audience's perception of the value of your content. Change the story to one of growth and planning for the future, and you'll find that HD comes along for the ride.
Before beginning Positive Flux, Larry Thaler served as vice president of engineering for NBC Universal. During his 26 years there, he led efforts to transform production and distribution across the company's broadcast, cable and new platform businesses, including the TV network's HD conversion and the creation of the famous "Today Show" studio. Since founding Positive Flux in 2009, Larry has assisted media companies in transforming their operations to embrace new multiplatform workflows. He can be reached through the company's website at www.positiveflux.com.