Technology

Syndicated Delivery Gets an Overhaul

Competing HD systems rush to market 8/01/2009 02:00:00 AM Eastern

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."

E-mail comments to
glen.dickson@reedbusiness.com

 

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