Syndicated Delivery Gets an Overhaul
Competing HD systems rush to market
By Glen Dickson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/3/2009 2:00:00 AM
After years of complaints by broadcasters that they need an easier way to receive high-definition syndicated content, two competing systems that promise to solve the problem are readying for deployment, perhaps even in time for the new television season in September. Both aim to replace a labor-intensive, often-manual workflow where stations record linear satellite feeds onto hi-def tape decks or servers, because existing file-based syndicated delivery systems can't yet handle large HD files.
Warner Bros., CBS and Ascent Media, who announced in May that were teaming up to launch their own MPEG-4-based HD/SD delivery platform, are testing a new "catch server" that they hope to deploy to some 800 stations this fall. And DG FastChannel, which previously counted Warner Bros. and CBS as the two biggest customers for its Pathfire syndication delivery business, has unveiled technical details for its new HD Digital Media Gateway (HD DMG) platform. DG FastChannel is rolling out HD DMG to 150 pilot stations, with the goal of installing the system in more than 1,000 stations by early next year.
Broadcast engineers say the competition is good, but add that they fear the overly aggressive rollout plans might result in technical glitches. Most say they have gotten few technical details on the new systems and haven't yet seen the hardware in person, which makes them skeptical about the systems going live this fall.
"One of my concerns is we end up with two unsuccessful solutions," says Dave Converse, VP and director of engineering for the ABC Owned Television Stations. "I'm hoping we have two successful businesses out there, or more."
Converse says that DG FastChannel/Pathfire has already contacted him about dropping off the new box at ABC's Fresno station KFSN, though he hasn't seen the actual hardware yet. He has heard fewer details about the new HD platform from the Warner Bros./CBS/Ascent Media joint venture, beyond some conversations with CBS executives at NAB and a few subsequent PowerPoint presentations.
"I haven't heard anything more specific about the rollout and integration schedule," Converse says. "That might be why Pathfire is in a hurry to get something delivered and installed before that service hits the street."
DG FastChannel says it will be marketing its new HD catch server to studios like Sony and Disney as well as network news services as part of a new turnkey service that will also include satellite transport. Built in partnership with Dell, the HD DMG can receive SD and HD content and support both MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 H.264 advanced compression. It has three terabytes of storage, faster processing with dual quad-core CPUs, and a number of features aimed at improving station workflow including embedded splice, rewrap, transcode and direct connect to play-to-air servers.
DG/Pathfire will initially deliver HD shows as MPEG-2 files encoded at a high-quality bitrate of about 54 megabits per second, says CTO Greg Smith. Once the full footprint of boxes is deployed, the company will switch to MPEG-4 distribution, which should only require a third of the bandwidth. Since DG will be using its own satellite capacity to deliver HD shows instead of transponders leased by Warner Bros.' digital distribution arm GDMX and CBS, conserving bandwidth with MPEG-4 is not as big a priority, it says.
DG executives admit to being surprised by the decision of Warner Bros., CBS and Ascent to go it alone; the executives say they were in discussions with the trio leading up to NAB about using its new HD platform. DG FastChannel EVP, Sales and Operations Neil Nguyen says he wishes he could still count Warner Bros. and CBS as long-term customers, but will instead focus on shopping DG's new, independent platform to other studios. "We accept our responsibility in the process for not recognizing that it was not going well or that there was such a disconnect where our two key content-owner clients were looking for an alternative solution," Nguyen says.
Dave Folsom, chief technology officer for Raycom, says the decision by Warner Bros. and CBS to break away from Pathfire, which he first heard about at NAB in private meetings, also took him and many other broadcasters by surprise. Since then, Raycom stations received a formal notice of the plan in May and participated in a customer survey in late June to help define requirements for the new system. But Folsom hasn't received any comprehensive details.
"Other than bits and bytes, I don't know what to expect," Folsom says. "So making a September deadline for some Warner product seems very difficult."
Station automation and server vendors, which need to integrate their products with the new HD catch servers to replicate standard-def workflows, also haven't been given units to vet. "I'm assuming it's a competent box, but I haven't seen one yet," says Rick Stora, product manager for Avid's Sundance automation business, of the Warner Bros./CBS/Ascent box. "We'll be getting one here and testing it against our system, and hopefully we can get that all done before they start showing up at stations."
Grass Valley, whose K2 Capture Service software handles faster-than-real-time transcoding of files between Pathfire boxes and its K2 servers for a few dozen stations, also has yet to test the Warner Bros/CBS/Ascent box. However, Ed Casaccia, Grass Valley's director of product marketing for servers, doesn't expect big problems.
"The issues of doing it in HD are largely the ones that were there in SD," Casaccia says. "It's transcoding, in that the transport codec and the playout codec are not the same."
GDMX began testing the catch server for the new Warner Bros./CBS/Ascent platform, which is code-named Pitch Blue, last week. According to Derek Powell, senior VP and general manager of GDMX, if the testing goes smoothly, Warner Bros. is still confident the new platform could be deployed in September.
"If things go fairly well, and all of the project tasks line up accordingly, making a September time line is going to be doable," says Powell, who estimates that it would take about a month to roll out boxes to 800 stations. But he emphasizes that the joint venture won't move forward until the box has been thoroughly tested: "We're taking this project very diligently to make sure we get it right the first time, so we don't have to deal with problems downstream."
Some station sources suggest that Warner Bros. is in a rush to get the new box deployed because some of its contracts with Pathfire for distribution are expiring this fall, while CBS has another year to play with. But Powell says that GDMX has a deal with Pathfire to keep distributing its content until the new platform is deployed, and that it is motivated to expedite the rollout because stations are clamoring for more HD content. "There is a sense of urgency to support the syndication distribution folks for this season, but it's more from a business requirement than a contractual requirement," he says.
CBS, which has been delivering syndicated shows like Jeopardy! as linear HD satellite feeds since September 2007, isn't in a huge rush to start pumping shows through the new platform, according to Bob Seidel, CBS VP of advanced technology. "Warner Bros. is a lot closer to airdate than we are," Seidel says. "We're probably a year out at least from needing to have systems rolled out, so we don't have quite the same urgency they do."
The Warner Bros./CBS/Ascent box features separate inputs for Warner Bros. and CBS satellite feeds and two terabytes of usable storage, enough for several days' worth of content. It will have the ability to output either HD or SD, based on stations' requirements.
According to Seidel, the new box will automatically receive MPEG-4 feeds of HD shows in linear fashion based on instructions sent to the box from CBS; i.e., a 30-minute show will take 30 minutes to record. But the box will also have an Internet backchannel to repair files, as well as the ability to insert last-minute commercials, a key feature of standard-def Pathfire boxes.
Moreover, the new box will have the ability to play shows directly to air under the control of a station's automation system, something Pathfire boxes didn't do. While Seidel won't recommend that practice to CBS-owned stations, because it lacks redundancy, that feature was requested by many broadcasters. It gives smaller-market stations that haven't yet purchased an HD playout server for commercials and syndicated content the option to use a single box to get HD shows on-air.Says Seidel: "That was a consistent request we heard from stations."
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