John McCoskey CTO, Public Broadcasting Service

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is a private, non-profit corporation whose members are America’s public TV stations — non-commercial, educational licensees that operate more than 350 PBS member stations and serve all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa. Like most broadcasters, PBS has to adapt to a new world. John McCoskey, CTO, PBS, talks about the challenges of modernizing this American broadcasting institution.

 

VIA SATELLITE: What technologies are you looking to implement in your broadcast systems infrastructure during the next 12 months?

McCoskey: We have a lot of big projects going on — both in-flight and under way. I think our biggest is related to a project we call Next Generation Interconnection System (NGIS). That is a 10-year project that deals with all aspects of our distribution of content to our member stations. A big chunk of that is satellite transponder leasing. For example, we are going through a big upgrade from an MPEG2 to an MPEG4 satellite distribution across our entire system. We are in the process of rolling out a non-real time distribution, so file-based distribution to stations. We are sending them tested files so they can take them to air at the station level.

 

VIA SATELLITE: What trends do you see emerging in broadcasting during the next year?

McCoskey: I think we are going to see changes and growth in alternate distribution platforms. We are really focused on having flexible workflows, so as new elements become available we can match them up without taking a lot of time or spending a lot of money. On the tactical side, we are very active in mobile digital TV. I think this year will be a critical year for mobile TV, as it is finally getting traction in the United States. There are two significant groups on the station side, which are making commitments to launch mobile TV.

At PBS, we see this technology as really important when you look at things like emergency alerts and messaging. We just finished up a pilot we did with LG that used the mobile DTV technology platform for delivering emergency alerts directly to tablets and mobile DTV enabled phones. This was not just traditional text message type of alerting, but rich media. For example, we had a station that did an example of a tornado, where you can alert the fact that there was tornado in the area, but also send a radar image and evacuation routes as rich media along with it.

This is something we kicked off after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan because we heard from our broadcast colleagues, such as NHK, that the one infrastructure that really did not go down as a result of that tragedy was the broadcast infrastructure. In Japan, about 90 percent of the phones have mobile DTV capability, and it was a way for people to connect, to hear what was going on and get emergency messaging and alerts and so forth. From a mission standpoint, it is a really important thing to do, and that is actually moving forward through the standards process. So, the ATSC standards organization is engaging on this, and we expect to see a standard come out from that.

 

VIA SATELLITE: What is happening with ATSC on the strategic side?

McCoskey: The ATSC is working on their 2.0 and 3.0 standards. The 3.0 standard is one that says, ‘let’s start with a clean slate and look at where broadcast television should go in the next generation.’ The efforts there are going to show some really interesting opportunities to take broadcast television to a very different place. It is almost the same as going from analog to digital.

Related to that is an initiative that kicked off last year, and really had some foundational meetings at the NAB show — an organization called the Future Broadcast Television. This is an unprecedented collection of 13 founding members from around the world who are all committed to creating a single worldwide standard for next generation TV. It is the DVB folks in Europe, U.S. broadcasters, Brazil, China, Korea, Japan, etc. A lot of countries are looking at the next generation of television. Can we converge on a single worldwide standard? We see that as a challenge, but the advantages are really strong and important.

 

VIA SATELLITE: How long might that take to come to fruition?

McCoskey: The group has just formed. I think they realize that this is something that is going to have to gain traction quickly. I believe it will be a couple of years before something happens.

NHK in Japan has been working on a technology they call Super Hi-Vision. This is actually an 8K-resolution television, 16 times the resolution of HD. They will demo that at the London Olympics. That kind of technology is going to flow into this future broadcast television initiative. NHK is fielding this in the next decade. It is interesting stuff.

 

VIA SATELLITE: What impact is over-the-top (OTT) broadcasting and streaming technologies having for traditional broadcasting?

McCoskey: It is a big part of what we do now. We are seeing a lot of growth and are finding it to be more of an opportunity than a threat. What we are finding is that we have viewers and users that want to consume content on new and different platforms. We want to be there on those platforms so they can consume it there. What we are finding is that it is additive. We are not seeing cannibalization or erosion of our over-the-air consumption. We are finding that our over-the-air consumption is up. Demographically, we are finding ourselves reaching viewers and users online and on mobile devices. We also have evidence that many of those are becoming broadcast viewers because they have found PBS and did not know a lot about the content we had. I see OTT as a wholesale arrangement for us. We provide that content to NetFlix and Hulu and all the various players on a wholesale basis. We have a large streaming population on the web and on mobile devices. To put a scale on that, in 2009, we were streaming 2 million videos a month. Now, we are streaming more than 150 million videos a month. Our online viewers are watching full shows, so not five or six minutes viewing. It is challenging in the sense of having more distribution points, but we are reaching a larger audience because of them.

 

VIA SATELLITE: With the emergence of the iPad (and other tablets) proving to be serious devices to watch video content, what is your strategy in this area?

McCoskey: From a business standpoint, a large percentage of the non-broadcast streams are going to smartphones and tablets. For us, it is an important recognition that we have people that want to and are consuming content on those devices. Revenue is a little difference for us. This is not about selling advertising; it is about reaching consumers and children. We can monetize around that content, but it is more important that we are meeting mission obligations with that. We have also been using these new platforms to drive awareness of member stations in their local communities. A lot of the videos that you watch on the national platform can be localized based on the viewer’s location. Driving online traffic and viewership to our local stations is really important to us. We actually have about twice as much video online that is local station generated content than we do national content. This is an important and large outlet for getting local content that resonates in their communities, and using our platforms to help do that.

 

VIA SATELLITE: Could you tell us how you handled the transition from SD to HD?

McCoskey: PBS was the first U.S. organization to switch to HD distribution. We have been doing that since the mid-1990s. In fact, PBS won a technical Emmy award in 2010 for pioneering work in digital workflows, which we are pretty proud of. So, we have required HD submission from our content users for several years now. Everything coming into the pipeline is HD. There is still some legacy SD content that makes it to air occasionally, but from a new production, and a submission from our content producers, it is all HD and has been for a few years.

 

VIA SATELLITE: What technical and business challenges do you hope PBS will overcome in the next year?

McCoskey: We are dealing with the same things that other media organizations are dealing with — we are constantly challenged to do more with less. We are seeing an increase in the scope of our distribution on non-broadcast platforms. We have been working to take on those additional distribution paths without growing the size and expense of our operations in a significant way. A lot of that is about streamlining our workflows and depending more on automation. We are getting to the point where we want to have normal paths and automation be almost completely hands-off, so people get involved only when you need an expert’s eye or a decision to be made. If things are working as they should, and the content is clean and looks good, we want to be hands-off, so it is automated and it does not take a lot of resources to manage it.

Overall, the challenges we are facing — both us and our member stations — is around the capital refresh cycle. Equipment used to last up to 10 years, now it is lasting four or five years, and in some cases even less. Dealing with that increasing pace of capital refresh is challenging. It is particularly challenging for public TV stations this year because they have lost some funding sources that have typically helped them with that capital funding. It is causing some challenges.

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