Broadcasters Embrace Electronic Delivery, Downplay Over-the-Top Alternatives

Leaders in the Hollywood post production industry gathered in Rancho Mirage, CA, last week for the 17th annual Hollywood Post Alliance Tech Retreat. The event features in-depth presentations of the recent “hot” technical topics, and started off with a well received day focusing on “snowflake” workflows-that is, unique workflows developed to accommodate a range of projects, from films such as Tron: Legacy and The Social Network to TV shows including Justified and Community.
Perhaps one of the most surprising conclusions of the assembly of approximately 500 production and post experts was that 3D TV is dead in the water. This conclusion came at the end of a fascinating broadcasters’ panel moderated by Ericsson Television VP of Technology Matthew Goldman and featuring Art Allison, senior director, advanced engineering, NAB; Tony Cole, VP, ABC broadcast operations and engineering; Jim DeFilippis, SVP, DTV Technologies Fox Technology Group; Jim Kutzner, chief engineer, PBS; Mark Rushton, senior director, broadcast sales, Roundbox; Del Parks, VP Engineering & Operations, Sinclair Broadcast Group; Bob Seidel, VP, engineering, CBS Networks; Jim Starzynki, director & principal audio engineer, NBC Universal.

At the end of the panel, one audience member had a question: “I haven’t heard any of you mention 3D TV. Why not?” The answer: “The consumer electronics industry didn’t consult us when it decided to launch 3D TV.”

“The CE industry ignored a 3D system that would be backwards compatible, leaving us with frame doubling or another [transmission system] that would split the screen into a checkerboard,” said DeFilippas. “When the day comes that the CE comes up with a backwards-compatible approach and we’re able to work within the ATSC to define standards and produce content in an efficient and cost-effective manner, then you’ll hear about 3D from us.” NAB’s Allison agreed, noting that real-time delivery of 3D content is “impractical.”

HPA Tech Retreat organizer Mark Schubin reported on Nielsen research that showed that consumers’ interest in 3D in the home dropped after they actually saw 3D TV, a first for new technology advances in the field. Later, Jerry Pierce displayed a photograph of CEA president Gary Shapiro, who is an enthusiastic supporter of his industry’s technologies and products. “Gary Shapiro said at CES that 3D TV has been over-hyped,” he said. “Then you know it’s been over-hyped.”

The most resounding statement was a show of hands: When attendees were asked to raise their hands if they had bought a 3D TV, fewer than 10 people (out of a technophile audience of 500) did so.

Over-the-air Broadcast? Alive and Well

What did the broadcasters find relevant to discuss? NAB’s Allison was bullish on over-the-air broadcasting, minimizing the impact of trends towards OTT (over-the-top) and cord-cutting. “Internet connections are resident in broadcast devices,” he pointed out.

ABC’s Cole reported the growth in electronic file delivery of promos, commercials and PSAs. Next up at ABC: electronic file delivery of all programs. “It requires an infrastructure upgrade in New York and Los Angeles,” he said. “It’ll be the an‘ingest once, distribute many’ model.”

PBS chief engineer Jim Kutzner enumerated major initiatives, including moving to an automated file delivery and beginning to narrow down multiple submission formats. Non-real-time file delivery to all stations is in alpha testing. PBS is also changing the distribution codec from MPEG2 to MPEG4 in the next year and building a Disaster Recovery Site away from Washington, D.C. Three PBS stations are now on-the-air with Mobile DTV, with 20 more by mid-2011. With regard to Mobile DTV, PBS is “assessing our place in the ecosystem,” said Kutzner, who noted that PBSKIDS is the No. 1 site for streaming children’s content.

Roundbox’s Rushton reported that more than 70 commercial call letter stations are on-air with Mobile DTV today, and that ATSC has a new candidate standard for non-real-time content delivery. The challenges that remain include content rights for Mobile DTV distribution; creating enough devices; education in the marketplace; and fixed and Mobile DTV non-real-time applications. “Opportunities exist for the broadcast industry to cooperate with an agreed upon set of services,” he said.

Calculating Spectrum Efficiency

DeFilippis used his time to speak his own personal opinion on the current spectrum war between broadcasters and telcos. “TV is everywhere and we’ve grown up with it everywhere,” he said. “TV doesn’t need anti-virus protection or software updates. The Internet is sexy, but it has a half-life of 18 months, whereas the TV set is an investment over the long term. There is a notion that broadcasters are spectrum hogs and to that, I say bunk.” He proposed a “new metric for spectrum efficiency”: viewers per hertz. “Broadcasters can deliver 1 million viewers per hertz and it scales infinitely,” he said. “[The telcos] have LTE which is using 10 megahertz for 150,000 simultaneous views. So broadcasters have a one-million-to-one efficiency ratio. We have to give due consideration to the [mobile] technology, but we must defend our right to the spectrum.”

Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Parks emphasized the importance of OTA reception to local network affiliates ratings. “This drives the core of our business,” he said. “The rationale for the spectrum grab is that 90 percent of the country gets its TV by cable, FIOS, U-Verse or satellite. But it’s a highly suspect figure and a flawed conclusion. Currently, there are still over 11 million US households served exclusively by OTA broadcast.” He reported that Sinclair’s Baltimore and Minneapolis markets have, respectively, 5 percent and 18 percent OTA households.

Also weighing in on the spectrum wars, CBS’ Seidel said the broadcast network looked into alternative broadcast architectures to improve spectrum efficiency in the TV bands. “But very little spectrum could be retrieved,” he said. “Broadcast spectrum is fully utilized. Reclaiming broadcast spectrum in the major metro areas will not be possible.” CBS is very active in mobile, he continued, with many of its classic TV shows available for download or streaming. NBC Universal’s Starzynki was among several broadcasters who touched upon progress in implementing the CALM (Commercial Advertising Loudness Mitigation) act, and reported that nine out of its 10 O&Os are broadcasting Mobile DTV along with five Telemundo O&Os

The TV Business in the Toilet

Pete Putman, president of ROAM Consulting, underscored the tilt towards mobile devices, noting that, at CES 2011, “TV prices have fallen through the floor.”

“The television [receiver] business is in the toilet,” he said. “People want to buy tablets and smartphones, not TVs.” That includes 3D TVs; Putman pointed out a Nielsen report that stated that “76 percent of respondents probably or definitely won’t buy a 3D TV in the next 12 months.”

The biggest media company on the horizon is, in fact, Netflix, which showed strong growth in Q4 2010. “Netflix now has 20 million subscribers,” said Putman. “Based on current trends, it should surpass Comcast by mid-2011.”

Best Practices for 3D Subtitles

Despite the thrashing that 3D TV took at the Retreat, the event wasn’t without presentations related to 3D technology. Jonathan Jenkyn from Screen Subtitling spoke about the challenges and solutions for subtitling for stereoscopic media. In discussing how the human eye perceives depth, he noted that binocular cues are actually weaker than 2D cues. If there’s a conflict between those cues, the 2D cue wins.

That paradox is at the heart of why subtitling for 3D content is tricky. “Why can’t you subtitle the same in 3D as 2D?” he asked. “The title would be on the surface of the screen, but when the depth comes out of the screen, the 3D material would cause a paradox, with the resultant headaches and nausea.”

One tack is fixed parallax captions/overlays, as was done in director Robert Zemeckis’s 1999 A Christmas Carol. “It’s no longer a paradox for the viewer’s mind,” he said. “The issue here is that the subtitle is now a very long way away from the material, so the audience has to look at the material, then look at the subtitle. This constant refocusing of the eyes is very exhausting.”

The solution? “Screen recommends that the subtitling matches the parallax to the scene action, with the same parallax as the focal or foremost object,” said Jenkyn. “Requirements are sub-pixel resolution in parallax and X/Y positioning. The issue is that it breaks the subtitling style convention and there’s resistance to changing traditional subtitling conventions. The audience’s learning gradient is unknown with regard to 3D subtitles. We do know that the more 3D you watch, the easier it is for you to forgive bad 3D.” But the bottom line is that 3D subtitling is still no easy task. “It takes four times as long to do a 3D subtitling process as a 2D one,” said Jenkyn. “Can it be done automatically? It can if we use disparity mapping, a computationally intensive task. But when you push broadcast quality material through disparity mappers, the result can be fairly poor.”

Stereo 3D: A History Lesson

Schubin discussed alternatives to two-lens 3D, including 2D-to-3D conversion solutions, virtual cameras and single-lens stereoscopic systems including Sony TDG, ISee3D and SoliDDD. He also described chromostereopsis and the Pulfrich illusion, which are “less than fully stereoscopic systems.” Chromostereopsis takes advantage of the fact that our eye lens focuses on one color at a time, and red seems to be in front of blue. “The real world often matches this, with blue skies in the background and flesh-toned, red/brown animals and people in front,” he says. “Many animated cartoons used nothing but chromostereopsis, and there are Chroma Depth glasses that enhance that otherwise weak effect.”

For the Pulfrich Illusion, one eye is darkened; the dark eye sees what was and the clear eye sees what is. The choreography is crucial, pointed out Schubin, who said “the ideal subject is shooting a carousel – and the sensation is absolutely stereoscopic.”

As odd as it sounds, both of these techniques have been used for recent productions. The Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour and the Rose Parade used the Pulfrich technique to good effect. Likewise, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week also used the Pulfrich method. “View shifting, or wiggle-vision, is 3D for the one-eyed,” said Schubin, who said the V3 View Shift iris-shifting lens adapter [more info: is widely used. “It requires constant motion and, if not subtle, it’s annoying. If subtle, it’s nearly invisible.”

Schubin also drew upon his vast historical knowledge to dredge up some ancient artifacts from 3D history, including the first stereo transmission in 1881, from the stage of the Paris Opera, and an older form of 3D, microstereopsis (the patents have since expired).

SoliDDD CEO Neal Weinstock described his company’s single-lens 3D system. The company is creating glasses-free 3D technologies, from capture to display. “Single lens 3D began in 1948 with the Dutch Veri-Vision system,” he noted. “Its success popularized 3D and got people in Hollywood interested.” Weinstock went through quite a laundry list of single-camera 3D solutions throughout the past five decades, including those used for The Stewardesses,Friday the 13th Part 3D, Jaws 3D, and other films.

“The problems with the classic designs were many,” said Weinstock, who enumerated keystoning, vignetting, sensor utilization, stray light bounces, repositioning focal length and focal distance of prime lens, light sensitivity, and eyeballing alignment. “Among the basic advantages of single lens 3D is no lens alignment issue, lighter weight, smaller package, and that it’s theoretically easier to rack-focus.”

In addition to stereoscopic 3D, other topics touched on at the HPA Tech Retreat included over-the-top TV, advanced solutions for content piracy, HDSLRs, file-based mastering, and the new role of LTO-5 technologies in media workflows.

Need PR? Put it in ‘the Cloud’

Talking about the benefits of cloud storage, Ingo Fuchs, senior product marketing manager at NetApp, tried to cut through the fog. “Cloud storage offers efficiency, improves physical asset utilization, with lower CAPEX and OPEX,” he said. “It offers flexibility with near instantaneous availability of resources, and de-emphasizes running IT infrastructure and allows users to focus on the core business of creating content.”

He noted the huge amount of marketing hype surround cloud storage, as well as issues related to security. “If you want to put a new spin on a product you say it’s got ‘cloud’,” said Fuchs. “People are attaching this to old products. Second, having your content in the cloud but doesn’t mean your content is away from your facility. It can be a private cloud.”

But the real focus of his presentation was a pet peeve: standards. “Industry standards are important,” he said. “Insist on industry standards, not on vendors who lock people in to their solutions.” He encourages HPA Tech Retreat attendees to “actively engage with emerging standards” by joining the Storage Networking Industry Association SNIA’s efforts.

Networked TV Sets

In a panel on Networked TV Sets, Putman asked panelists Dan Holden, Comcast fellow/chief scientist; Dani Grindlinger, director, product management and operations, advertising, TiVO; and Jeff Cover, VP, technology and corporate development group, Panasonic, whether over-the-top TV was a fad or a trend that attendees should be concerned about. “Does it spell the end of physical media?” Putman asked. “Are consumers predisposed to use a full keyboard and search engine to find video?”

All three panelists were keen to make the point that their companies have already created a networked TV environment. “OTT is an ambiguous term, associated with a cable competitor utilizing MSO video infrastructure to reach customers,” said Comcast’s Holden. “A better term is connected or smart TV with Internet connection. Comcast has working relationships with TiVO, Panasonic and other CE manufacturers. We build and support applications, including Xfinity Remote, FanCast and Interactive program guides. There’s also a community or social aspect to TV that’s huge. Comcast owns Fandango, Daily Candy and Plaxo.”

TiVO is also big on partnerships, noted Grindlinger. “TiVo is a broadband-connected device,” she said. “We have integrations with Netflix and Amazon. We’re also partnering with Best Buy and will have a branded connected TV, moving away from the DVR. We’re able to be source agnostic. We associate metadata from incoming sources, so if you’re searching, you can find all of those regardless of the content source. TiVo’s new interface is graphical and more about browsing and discovery.”

Panasonic’s Cove stated that, “We think it’s going to be linear TV for a long time, as well as IPTV – simple and easy to use in the home. Viera was created to be a living room experience. Now we have VieraConnect, with SDKs available.”

The 18th Annual HPA Tech Retreat will take place February 13-17, 2012, in Indian Wells, CA.