Getting HD Syndication Up to Speed

Updating local station equipment for hi-def is a challenge
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While most forms of high-definition television programming have taken off in the past year, high-definition syndicated content continues to lag.

Since Sony Pictures Television's Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! went hi-def in September 2006, only one new syndicated show, Warner Bros.' Two and a Half Men, has launched in the hi-def format. That pales in comparison to the more than 20 new national HD networks launched in the last year.

The primary obstacle to providing more syndicated shows in

HD is that the file-based server systems that are used to ingest and play out standard-definition syndicated content have to be upgraded to handle high-definition content in the same automated manner. Some stations may have a cache server capable of receiving HD syndicated content, but haven't yet invested in an HD-capable server for playing out HD syndicated shows and commercials.

And most stations that do have an HD playout server are still looking for a way to receive HD content via satellite as a compressed digital file and then seamlessly transfer it to their playout servers, as they already do in the standard-definition world.

A major problem is that transcoding is often required to prepare a piece of content in a file format compatible with a given vendor's playout server, and that transcoding simply takes too long with large high-definition files. So stations that currently air Jeopardy! and Wheel in HD are manually recording a scheduled, linear satellite feed onto a hi-def tape deck or server, then playing it out from there (a process known as “digital linear” delivery).

The extra work involved has made local affiliates reluctant to take on more HD content, says Dave Converse, VP of engineering for the ABC-owned stations. “It's an additional complication, as we don't have a streamlined way to handle it,” says Converse. “So, it's incremental work.”

Pathfire, the company that delivers syndicated content via satellite to file servers in some 1,400 stations, is trying to solve the problem. It has worked with Thomson Grass Valley to develop software that takes the individual show elements stored as files on a Pathfire cache server, such as opens, closes, show segments and commercials, and stitches them together as one big MPEG-2 file on a Grass Valley K2 playout server.

“It brings in the MPEG and just unwraps it, and sends us the EDL [edit decision list],” explains Charlie Dunn, director of product management for Thomson Grass Valley servers. “Then we join it together and create one logical clip. Automation sees that, and it's just like you ingested one long tape into the server.”

The HD file-transfer process, which was successfully tested by Tribune Broadcasting this fall for Two and a Half Men, doesn't require an external transcode that might be two times slower than real time. Instead, the software upgrade, marketed by Thomson as the K2 Capture Service for $5,000, puts the syndicated content into the GXF (General eXchange Format) file format used by Grass Valley servers and transfers it to the K2 at faster-than-real-time speed.

Pathfire has also worked to make such file transfers possible with servers from Digital Broadcast and Masstech. Tribune, which currently carries Two and a Half Men in HD at 13 stations, uses a Masstech server and Rhozet software at its Indianapolis technical hub to pull HD files of the show from Pathfire and stitch them together into a GXF format file. Grass Valley K2 servers then play out the show at local stations.

The Thomson Grass Valley solution would work fine for local stations, says Tribune chief technology officer Ira Goldstone. But Tribune wanted to be able to use its existing Masstech system, which lets the automation system look into the Pathfire box, see that a piece of content has been delivered, and automatically transfer it to the Masstech server without requiring manual intervention (Thomson says it is working on a similar capability for the K2 Capture Service).

Pathfire is working with other server and automation vendors to create such HD file-transfer capability, says Rick Young, Pathfire vice president of product management. He expects more syndicated shows to launch in HD over the next year. About 20 stations are currently receiving and broadcasting Two and a Half Men in HD, including the Tribune stations and Capitol Broadcasting's WJZY Charlotte, N.C., and WRAZ Durham, N.C. Another 20 plan to do so by early 2008, says Paul Saccone, senior vice president of Global Digital Media Exchange (GDMX), the Warner Bros. unit that distributes all Warner Bros. syndicated content.

E-mail comments toglen.dickson@reedbusiness.com

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