The Fox Network is in the throes of readying its operations center and affiliate stations for HDTV broadcasts this fall, and its new approach to HD distribution promises to benefit the network, affiliates and even viewers.
"HD isn't like a TV special that we do once and don't have to do again," says Fox Television technology chief Andrew Setos. "We'll have to live with this forever, and we can't afford to have double crews and different satellites. When we're on the air, we want to use the same facilities and workflow."
It looks like Setos is going to meet that goal. The network recently signed a $16 million deal calling for Thomson to install HD splicer systems at all 194 Fox affiliates around the country. Those stations are currently broadcasting 480p widescreen content, but, in September, they're expected to begin 720p broadcasts. The 720p signal requires more bandwidth, which usually means higher transmission costs for the network and greater equipment costs for the stations. Fox is hoping to change that.
The splicer systems will allow the local stations to receive a more highly compressed HD signal and then insert, or "splice," local HD content, branding and data into the network stream without having to decompress it at the station. Removing that step ensures optimal signal quality because each decode and encode of an HD signal introduces the opportunity for artifacts and other quality problems.
For the network, the use of splicers means greater satellite bandwidth efficiencies and cost savings. HD network feeds are typically done via satellite at roughly 45 Mbps. And, if the Fox network requires multiple outbound signals—for example, during NFL telecasts—that 45 Mbps per feed becomes not only a cost issue but an issue of available satellite capacity. By using splicers at the stations, the network can compress the satellite feeds at rates below 45 Mbps and not compromise the quality of the signal.
Terayon, Thomson and Fox worked on the system for about six months, incorporating a modified Terayon BP5100 splicer with distribution amplifiers, a customized interface and a logo inserter. The splicer was originally built for the cable market so there were also some software modifications to ready it for over-the-air use.
Setos says that the cost for stations currently broadcasting Fox widescreen will be next to zero because all the equipment that operates at 480p can be easily converted for 720p.
The new gear at the stations is only one part of Fox's HDTV effort. The current network origination facility is operating at 480p widescreen, with the standard-definition 4:3 feed derived from the wider signal. The goal is to move to DTV without having to reinvent the broadcast facility.
The network is already requesting that show masters for next season be submitted at either 720p or 1080p on either Sony HDCAM SR or Panasonic D5 tape. Videotape recorders for those formats place the content on video servers for playout. According to Setos, Fox has still not selected a vendor for the HD video server.
Beginning later this quarter, Thomson will roll out the new systems to Fox stations. The goal is to have all stations up and running for the fall season and also for what could potentially be one of Fox's first big HD events: the 2005 Super Bowl.