Andy Setos, president of engineering at Fox Group, enjoys his share of achievements. But the recent launch of Fox Network's HD feed tops the list. "This was as exhilarating to me as launching MTV," he says. "It's a fundamental change in broadcasting."
Fox kicked off its HD service Sept. 12, when the network went live with six National Football League HD telecasts, a first for NFL coverage. For the past two years, Fox Sports has been airing major sporting events in widescreen, giving its directors and crews ample time to get used to reframing the action for HD sets. When the HD switch was flipped, the move to 720p wide-screen broadcasts was complete.
Until broadcast, the engineering team at Fox's Los Angeles-based studio was putting the finishing touches on a plant that brings in the game feeds via fiber. It also uses a transmission approach that cuts the amount of bandwidth needed to send out games in HD.
"The other networks have two networks: one for standard-definition and one for high-def," says Setos, an innovator who, as vice president of engineering at Warner Amex, handled tech concerns for MTV. "HD has less facilities, features and feeds than the SD side. Our biggest complaint with HD is that we needed a sustainable business model so we weren't always stunting with HD."
For Fox, two networks aren't better than one. The network now handles all Los Angeles operations in HD and creates the SD feed only as it heads out to stations. Thomson Grass Valley routing gear, production switchers and Profile video servers are playing an important role in handling the HD signals.
In addition, Fox is making distribution more cost-effective without compromising the viewing experience. How? It uses a sustainable business model. "We're doing HD using the same number of transponders we used to send out the games in SD last year," explains Setos, adding that it would cost
$24 million a year to transmit at the traditional 45 Mbps (megabytes per second). Instead, four transponders send 16 HD and 16 SD signals at a cost of approximately $5 million annually.
The savings is a result of the enabler, a splicer system installed at Fox O&O and affiliated stations. HD signals sent to stations at 45 Mbps require the station to uncompress those signals and recompress them to 19.4 Mbps for transmission. Typically, stations need to pull the content into the facility, decompress it, make inserts, then recompress it for transmission. With the splicer, the stations need less equipment, resulting in savings of at least $30,000.
Because the splicer allows the Fox network to send out signals at 19.4 Mbps, it cuts the amount of satellite bandwidth it needs by more than half. Stations then pull the signal in and pass it directly to viewers, using the splicer to insert any local content and branding.
"This avoids recompressing the signal and keeps the quality much like it is at the network," says Setos. About 80% of the nation can receive an HD signal from Fox, thanks, in part, to the splicer.
While Fox is doing its best to compress the signal before it leaves the broadcast center, the opposite is true for the incoming game feeds. Setos and Fox have worked closely with Vyvx for a decade, and the union has paid off.
The provider of fiber-transmission services opened up pipes around the country capable of 270-Mbps transmission, allowing game feeds to enter the Fox facility in a far less compressed state. As a result, Fox works with better quality video and audio. And because the content is coming in at 720p/60 frames per second, there is less chance of overloading the MPEG encoders. That means the all-important picture stays perfect.