Broadcasters are looking at a changing landscape in terms of technology, market structure, and the interests and loyalties of worldwide audiences. With so many different forces at work, over-the-air TV executives are scrambling to maintain the advertiser-driven model and remain profitable. From a distribution standpoint, satellite is holding its ground for now in terms of live sports, news and special event programming. Such certainty, however, does not surround the contribution and non-real-time TV distribution side of the equation.
The satellite industry has begun its migration to a more hybrid approach, embracing fiber links and ensuring seamless flows of video and data for a wide range of customers. Now, the question is not whether the existing pricing models will change, but how they will be transformed and what broadcasters will require in terms of capacity in the coming decade.
"We see a need for less capacity as we become less dependent upon satellite," says Gil Maxwell, senior vice president of operations and technology at Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. and chairman of the PBS engineering committee. "PBS does not transmit a lot of live programming in the first place. And reducing operational costs is the bottom line here.
"The emphasis from now on is on multicast data delivery. We will be handling everything as data, using IP and doing whatever is necessary to avoid compressing and decompressing video," he adds. "Having said this, I must emphasize that from the standpoint of our existing network topology, satellite is still the most reliable and least expensive delivery mechanism when compared to today's terrestrial alternatives."
A Cohesive And Systematic Migration
The digitizing of the existing NTSC C-band distribution system and the identifying of new mobile satellite solutions that offer the benefits of two-way data communications capabilities on SNG platforms are the top two items on the list for Richard Wolf, vice president of telecommunications at ABC Broadcast Operations and Engineering.
"While we have been transmitting HDTV in 720p format since November 1998, we remain the last major broadcaster not to have a digital distribution system in place for NTSC distribution. Our analog network has been superbly maintained, and for this reason, it is okay for the next 18 to 36 months," says Wolf. "We have been getting our broadcast plant ready and finalizing our digital origination at our broadcast center in New York City."
The current timetable calls for completion of the retrofitting of affiliate digital downlinks by 2005 in advance of the ABC migration from its existing Loral Skynet capacity to Panamsat exclusively in 2006.
"We are going to do this migration in a cohesive and systematic manner. We have derived a slight benefit both from the standpoint of cost and technology by preserving our analog distribution system," says Wolf. "We have not selected our RF systems integration partner yet, and we are just defining our specifications.
For HDTV, ABC uses Tiernan encoding. Tiernan is now a unit of Radyne Comstream Corp. "For the Super Bowl, we used the Motorola Digicipher 2 HD encoding solution, while we had a Tiernan HD encoder feeding a terrestrial link from San Diego to New York," says Wolf.
Wolf has looked closely at a number of IP-capable SNG solutions from vendors such as Swe-Dish, Norsat and Viasat. ABC already uses an SNG data communications system in the U.S. provided by Immeon, a partnership involving Viasat and Loral.
"How do we connect them to our existing newsroom computer system? We want to implement this so the remote suitcase SNG terminal is tied directly into our LAN and voice networks. This type of mobile area network will allow us to deliver scripts and other material as files over the same link as the video," Wolf says.
"The challenge from the engineering standpoint is working within the constraints of a small antenna and providing a link that is stable and robust at the same time," he adds. "Besides IP data, we want to add IP video to the mix as an 'in between' solution as well so that we have the full range of video covered, everything from sat videophones on up to full SNG flyaways."