Transmitters & RF Components Global Viewpoint – April 2019

Winds of Change at the 2019 NAB Show

Visitors searched the 2019 NAB Show exhibit halls, technical sessions and conferences for valuable clues to make the best high-stakes bets on the changing future of broadcast TV.

Two 2019 NAB Show themes were "Every Story Starts Here," and "Serious About Storytelling? So am I." Okay, I changed the last two words. Here's my highlight reel.

Some annual NAB Shows debut a single new product or technology that becomes the must-see, game-changing vibe that swirls across the convention floor like a fog machine. The 2019 NAB Show vibe was an ecosystem of game-changers throughout production and broadcast workflows. Nearly all were software. 

Software In = Software Out

Anything that is not hardware but is used with hardware is software. Broadcasters create, copyright and own distribution rights to their content (software) just like computer software companies and writers own their content and codes. Both industries focus on creating reliable, high-quality software for their audience and they use computers to manufacture it.

In the beginning it took technical talent and hardware to create computer and TV software. Today, along with requisite talent, it mostly takes software to create software and much of that is done on COTS. Content will always be king, and the markets for both computer programs and TV programs expect a high QoE and high QoS. The new broadcast industry focus is on creativity and data management. The chains of big iron and wire are gone.

In addition to filling in behind cameras, fixing things with duct tape and putting out fires, broadcast engineers need T&M gear to ensure content flows smoothly. It is the only way to verify every frame of content data is compliant as it is captured or created, and to verify data integrity as it moves and arrives with perfect reliability at its destination in perfect audio/video sync when it displays. The best day in a TV station's engineering department is when the phone doesn't ring.

Walk the Walk

No one person can see everything at NAB. Exhibit hours allowed scheduling 50 exhibit meetings, one each half-hour. I did a touch-and-go in about 30 other exhibits that caught my eye when meetings ran short. From Monday opening to Thursday closing, there was time to diligently investigate less than 5% of the exhibits. That's why everyone who visits NAB gets a different view.

My must-see list spanned from the latest in e-sports and its variants, SMPTE 2022 and its variants, 4K, 8K, NDI, HEVC, wireless everything and new ways to monitor everything, to Rohde & Schwarz 5G TV, and the Comark tower-mounted transmitter. 

Comark’s new TV tower-mounted ATSC 3.0 transmitter doesn't need an air-conditioned transmitter building.

Comark’s new TV tower-mounted ATSC 3.0 transmitter doesn't need an air-conditioned transmitter building.

The growing trend among exhibitors was the ‘Software as a Service’ model to avoid the usual capital budgeting delays. Some solutions can be outdated by the time CapEx money is available to spend. Others can become obsolete before they are fully written off.

Visitors were also abuzz about the Vizrt purchase of NewTek, and the downward trend of wired baseband.

Talk the Talk

One long-time exhibitor and industry leader recognized the COTS with software trend. Imagine Communications is leaving hardware to integrators. The noted ‘big iron’ innovator and manufacturer, was previously known as Harris Broadcast, Bosch Fernseh, and BTS among other names. Bosch Fernseh debuted 1” Type B videotape at the 1976 NAB Show. Sony and Ampex introduced 1” Type C videotape at the same show.

It took three people to lift a Type B or Type C VTR and the formats were incompatible. That was ‘format-wars’ then, before Betamax vs VHS. Now there are dozens of IP-valid TV delivery formats that are easily and transparently converted from one to another, locally or in the cloud.

Today’s Imagine Communications has moved from selling dedicated hardware to managing the new sales opportunities broadcasting ATSC 3.0 offers, by providing new business solutions for stations broadcasting it. The key to ATSC 3.0 is its marriage to the internet and the new sales and marketing opportunities the combination spawns.

Over the course of TV history, local TV ad sales have changed about as much as the 11 O’clock news, weather and sports format. It hasn’t. TV sales people have always sold time based on eyeballs. ATSC 3.0 advertising sales is about selling targeted impressions that may be unique to each viewer. Imagine Communications is positioning itself to help broadcasters understand and manage the huge change coming to local TV ad sales departments.

Except for transmitters, towers and tripods, the 2019 NAB Show demonstrated that computers, computer technologies and software are the foundation of nearly all new broadcast solutions. Accelerating digital video technology can be both good and bad news.

My watch needs a 'Touring NAB' mode.

My watch needs a 'Touring NAB' mode.

Soon Only Not Yet

For example, one of the Broadcast Engineering and IT (BEIT) Conferences in the ATSC 3.0 track reported that because ATSC 3.0 was used to broadcast the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, ATSC TVs sold there will not be compatible with finalized American ATSC 3.0. This is because South Korea locked-in the ATSC 3.0 specification as written well before the 2018 Winter Olympics. TVs built for the South Korean market were described in the session as “post-prototype, pre-production.”

ATSC 3.0 field testing in the US is revealing several technical details in need of adjustment. The problem is that nearly any ‘adjustment’ can make the final ATSC 3.0 format incompatible with earlier versions. The goal of all ATSC 3.0 testing as it occurs in Dallas, Phoenix, Chicago, Cleveland, and at WRAL is to drill deep to verify every detail in all the data in all the pipes, signaling and streams contained within an ATSC 3.0 TV signal. Everything must communicate and respond as expected. The first issues identified included Digital Rights Management and IP security.

At one ATSC 3.0 BEIT conference, I asked “When I visit Walmart, when will I have to walk around stacks of bargain-priced ATSC 3.0 TV sets as I do today with 4K TVs?” The best guess was the 2020 holiday season, but everything depends on the results of thorough field testing. When ATSC 3.0 is once finalized, tuner chips will be mass produced and boatloads of new NextGen TVs will sail for the USA. As of today, it’s a work in progress.

In the meantime, more local TV stations are building-out ATSC 3.0 transmission capabilities, and more markets are discussing and agreeing on local lighthouse stations for the transition. Repack is providing nearly 1000 TV stations the opportunity for a relatively inexpensive jump-start to upgrade to ATSC 3.0 capabilities without paying for an all new RF transmission system.

A new Omnitek monitoring GUI included a Picture Brightness meter.

A new Omnitek monitoring GUI included a Picture Brightness meter.

Simplified T&M

Traditional, oscilloscope-like waveform and vector displays tend to overwhelm new operators. The overall T&M trend was to not overload operators with TMI unless they want it. Across the T&M new-product spectrum, from handheld devices to remote IP probes, modern GUIs are designed to provide operators the choice of as much or as little information as necessary.

Many new displays for camera shading and CCU adjustments provide content pictures with false colors that are easier for operators to note at a glance than a ‘scope. HDR and WCG require a keen awareness of limitations that are easy to see with false colors.

Speaking of WCG, also known as Rec. 2020, one manufacturer told me that the best flat-screen picture displays today only show about 81% of what’s allowed in the Rec. 2020 specification.

Market Rules

Most new technologies are solutions. ATSC 3.0, HDR and WCG technologies are challenges. Together they represent a big blank canvass almost ready for TV artists to make program and sponsor content more powerful and exciting in previously impossible ways. The industry is working hard to test and finalize the transmission standard and waiting for the flood of inexpensive consumer receivers capable of ATSC 3.0, HDR and WCG.

HDR and WCG are the best new creative tools since HDTV because it expands the picture dynamics universe, and provides a significant visual improvement at any viewing distance. ATSC 3.0’s immersive audio provides more sound-experience handles to control the feeling sound gives viewers. ATSC 3.0, HDR and WCG provide more ways to better connect with the audience.

The FCC’s ATSC 3.0 rules require TV broadcasters to transmit at least one SD channel for free. Will stations broadcast 4K, 8K or 16K for free? The market will decide when enough screen resolution is enough and who is willing to pay for it. Half the viewers are watching mobile devices anyway.

Some industry leaders want to change broadcast TV from a ‘lean-back’ experience to ‘lean-forward’ experience like the internet. All I want to change is the channel and volume. I trust the content provider to get everything else right. I get all the ‘lean-forward’ time I need in front of computers and smartphones.

TBA at the 2020 NAB Show

The 2017 ATSC 3.0 Central Hall lobby pavilion featured a bright red Ferrari. Last year it featured a cool self-driving shuttle bus. This year’s feature was a model railroad going in circles.

The 2017 ATSC 3.0 Central Hall lobby pavilion featured a bright red Ferrari. Last year it featured a cool self-driving shuttle bus. This year’s feature was a model railroad going in circles.

Repack Phase 2 concluded the day after the exhibits closed, on schedule. Transmitter and RF hardware manufacturing and deliveries are on track. Delays are primarily due to the limited number of qualified tall-tower crews and weather. The remaining phase deadlines cut the time between phases from months to days. Phase 10 is scheduled to be complete three months after the 2020 NAB Show. How will that work out?

The 2020 NAB Show exhibits will open on Sunday and close Wednesday mid-afternoon. The NAB said the idea is to attract visitors that can’t take weekdays off. Expecting quality one-on-one time with anyone or anything at NAB on its busiest day ever will be the worst bet in ‘Vegas. By then, we’ll know how this move affects the traditional weekend of focused technical seminars many engineering visitors attend to stay ahead of the curve.