PBS has undertaken a pilot program to see whether all the pushing of content to member stations might be better (and cheaper) if there is a little pulling as well.
The program involves six stations that will receive content from PBS headquarters via Internet Protocol over satellite. More important, the stations will request, or "pull," the programs they want instead of relying on scheduled delivery via satellite.
Because the delivery is in non-real time and could stretch over many hours, the service will be used only with programming that is not time-sensitive. Live and near-live programs that air quickly (like Newshour With Jim Lehrer) will still be delivered the old-fashioned way: scheduled and in real time.
"We're not streaming video. We're sending the file as a discrete unit," says Chief Technology Integration Officer Andre Mendez. "Even if it took 16 hours for the half-hour program to get there, it wouldn't matter as long as it got there in its entirety."
Stations will be able to browse and request the content stored in Alexandria, Va., by using a low-bit-rate channel. The content, stored as files on Omneon video servers at PBS, is then sent via satellite to a video server at the station requesting it.
"That channel is always open, and, right now, we're working on the requirements for the software that will conduct those business transactions," says Vice President and Chief Engineer John Tollefson. When the system is fully developed and implemented, PBS will have an asset-management system in place that will maintain metadata at the stations so that intelligent and accurate searches for content can be made.
The pilot program was designed about four months ago and is expected to be completed by late spring. The goal is to have the system rolled out to all member stations by 2006.
The new delivery method basically allows content to be delivered like e-mail. Granted, it will take a lot longer to send than e-mail, but some of the benefits are the same. For one, cost of delivery is a fraction of the regular cost of distribution because it requires a fraction of the satellite space.
IP over satellite has been gaining popularity among the major networks. Pathfire's IP delivery system, for example, has already found believers among NBC, ABC, CNN and Warner Bros.
"I think the use of [IP over satellite] is a significant change and that most, if not all, television stations will be involved with this in the future," says Tollefson. "Where we see a major opportunity for public television is, it gives a much more efficient means of delivering content."
The cost saving goes beyond bandwidth. Tollefson says human intervention is also lessened and the method guarantees a quality of service that is unobtainable in regular satellite delivery. If a few packets of data are lost, the system resends only those packets. "We're really getting an improved product and performance with far greater efficiency."