Screen Wars: Episode II V.0 - The Stations Awaken

Broadcasters didn’t invent wireless. They invented how to bring wireless news and entertainment content to the public for free, and make money at it. Since the first US wireless broadcast with sound 106 years ago, radio and TV broadcasters have built the largest, most powerful wireless networks in the world and people love it. Wireless is in broadcasting’s DNA. The unique key to its future success is equal bandwidth for all.

Progress in radio and electronics technology, combined with consumer marketing success, brought about mid- 20th century television broadcasting. Technology unique to TV began accelerating in the 1960s. Some might say that significant progress in video technology this millennium is doubling this and halving that every five years. Most progress debuts at NABs.

The biggest technical change in broadcasting seldom noted was in 1982, when the FCC abandoned testing and requirements for broadcast station operator licenses. Until then, federal law required all broadcast transmitter operators to be licensed by passing a written test administered at a FCC field office. A First Class Radiotelephone Operator License verified the licensee’s proficiency in electronics and RF theory and knowledge of FCC rules regulating broadcasting.

About the time the FCC dropped commercial operator licensing, RF was exclusive microwave, 2-way radio and broadcast territory. That and the RF profession competence-testing vacuum created by the FCC propelled the Society of Broadcast Engineers (SBE) into industry prominence with its own certifications exam program.

Many TV RF experts retired without being replaced. Broadcast transmitter operators didn’t need a license, and logs became automatic computer data. Some stations began using outside contractors to maintain their RF plants.

Change Costs Less

The first TV broadcast technology war was the color standard NTSC, the result of competition with a proposed all-mechanical system. NTSC color was an expensive conversion to transmit or receive and for the first few years, color content was as rare as color TVs in homes. Early color TVs cost nearly as much as a Ford, and color cameras, test and production gear cost even more. What made color work was that TV advertisers were willing to pay more for color. It was spectacular compared to black and white, and compatible with it.

Before ENG, there were film format wars at TV stations between 16 mm, Super 16 mm and Super8. Every station had its standard, usually preferred by its lead news photographer. Engineers watched from the sidelines. It all converted to NTSC in the film chain.

The first videotape format war began when 2” quad video went high-band, at about the time the Beatles released their Sgt. Pepper’s album in 1968. A new high-band quad machine sold for about $200,000 then, equal to about $2 million today. Since then, broadcast technology progress has accelerated from incremental improvements to almost-annual milestones. Thus far, most TV milestones have been temporary plateaus at best, such as plasma screens and HDTV.

The Vegas Roll

At nearly every NAB until just after Y2K, new incompatible tape formats and machines were rolled-out by one manufacturer or another. Almost all the roll-outs were technically better and more expensive than the format you just standardized on. The difference between then and now is that then, switching formats could easily cost a facility $100,000 to millions of 1960s - 90s USD, and might require a fork-lift to move the hardware.

Today, switching video formats can be as simple as clicking a different menu setting. “New hardware” generally describes a new computer or network device, all low-cost, all power-packed, all world commodity-priced and available overnight. A bank or retailer in your town might be using the same commodity computing device for an entirely different purpose.

Broadcast video recording and playback image quality is as much improved as it is less expensive. It’s better, faster and cheaper than tape. A DVR is software. DVRs have virtually no generation loss. It brims with previously-impossible digital features and tools and can run on computer, set top box or in a production switcher.

Displays, Images and DVRs

The difference between the worst and best HDTV flat panel displays for sale today, not including High Dynamic Resolution (HDR), might arguably be in the neighborhood of about 5-10%. Before flat-panels, the picture quality difference between opposite ends of the analog CRT TV spectrum was measured on a scale of 1 to 10. DTV eliminated snow and ghosting. Everyone sees studio quality or nothing at all.

When HDTV was introduced, broadcasters were apprehensive. New HDTV cameras cost double or more than SD, as did new HD lenses. Computers could barely keep up with digitized NTSC, and HDTV VTRs were outrageously expensive.

Fast forward 15 years. Except for no optical zoom, an iPhone 6 can shoot, record, playback, stream and share better images than the best camera and tape format the broadcast industry had to offer before HDTV. PCs can record and play perfect HD, making the term “broadcast quality” irrelevant. Clearly higher quality at substantially lower costs is good news to a content-hungry industry recovering from financing DTV and digital transition. Advertisers didn't pay extra for HDTV, as they did with color.

Broadcasting’s Two Most Important Words

The perceived technical sophistication of TV production was once loosely considered by cynics to be a demonstration of dazzling special effects to distract from weak content. Cameras didn’t look all that great. There weren’t many user-friendly analog adjustments to customize the “look” of a production. Every source was interlaced SD, tuned for minimum snow.

Analog technical quality was science and an art, such as great editing without using more than 2nd generation video, or tweaking analog cameras with ‘scope and a Trinitron reference monitor. A great maintenance engineer knew how to match cameras and revive failed VCRs in the middle of a newscast.

Today, technical quality at the origination, distribution and consumer display is defined by the number of pixels, lines, scan frequency and bit depth. Nothing is mechanical. The magic is in the settings. It’s digital -- it either works or it doesn’t. Most flat panel display screens come from the same few manufacturing sources.

Today’s maintenance engineer’s toolbox is a mobile device or tablet. A good maintenance engineer knows how to keep all things digital communicating smoothly and is always thinking of a Plan B for failures.

The art of fine-tuning every pixel of spectacular images for maximum audience attraction is the new TV skill set broadcast engineers and others are mastering. The broadcast edit suite has morphed into a GUI interface filled with virtual racks of the most powerful visual and aural media creative tools in the history of mankind. Engineers monitor everything behind the virtual racks, invisibly keeping work flowing and streams streaming.

The challenge to broadcast stations is filling a growing number of distribution pipes with compelling local content that makes money. Those last two words are the two most important words in broadcasting – “makes money.”

Brave New Wireless World

A related new challenge to TV broadcasters is more screens needing more monitoring and compliance verification whether on the air or over IP. It also means more choices for a wider audience and potentially more revenue. Clearly, broadcasters are moving beyond the transmitter and stick distribution routine, but only its losers are abandoning their FCC channel licenses.

As ATSC 3.0 approaches, it offers broadcasters the option to become a wireless IP extension in addition to its primary program TV channel(s). 3.0 is engineered to bring more value for free to viewers and add new revenue sources to stations. The problem with ATSC 3.0 is that it isn’t backward-compatible with ATSC 1.0. Will there be subsidized $80 boxes to convert ATSC 3.0 to ATSC 1.0 as there were in the DTV transition, so everyone’s big flat-panel TV doesn’t go obsolete overnight?

More Than Free TV

A growing industry of high quality TV sources without FCC call letters, lead by Amazon, Netflix and YouTube and possibly someone down your street you don’t know of, are streaming all kinds of content over the Internet. If the FCC gets its way and redefines the minimum speed of high-speed Internet to be 15 Mbps, bandwidth capable of streaming UHD and better will become a national mandate.

That tower you see from miles away when you drive to a TV station’s transmitter site is what makes TV stations different than the rest of the world. Anyone can rent a big digital pipe, stream content on the Internet and achieve wireless with Wi-Fi. Procuring and distributing technically competent content on the Internet is quite simple. All it takes is money.

The real future of live content delivery will always be tied to the two most important words in broadcasting --“makes money.” If it doesn’t make money, it’s not going to last.

RF is Your Unique Key

Some say over-the-air broadcasting is old school. I say it’s the new way. Everyone wants to cut the cable. Broadcasters own their “wireless” local news, personality and entertainment brands. They “own” RF spectrum and provide equal bandwidth to all in their market for free.

Sponsors cover the expenses, and stations are protected from RF interference by the government. A wayward shovel won’t cut an over-the-air viewer’s service. Stations depend on local RF engineering experience and talent to maintain rock-solid signals with impeccable compliance.

RF distribution is the kernel of broadcasting’s DNA and its future. RF should be in your DNA, too. The world’s largest wireless footprints are what makes local broadcasters unique and increasingly relevant.

The licensed RF infrastructure is already in place for “the next big thing” in wireless, which could well be ATSC 3.0. Few people have better opportunities to work with and learn about professional RF and wireless technology at all power levels than broadcast engineers. It’s your future.

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