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What's going on in the world of 'Broadcast' Technology?

The Digital Journey

Posted by whatcast on December 30, 2008

(or… How on earth did we get here, and where are we going now? …)

With the passing years and decades, sometimes it’s good to pause and take stock of how far we’ve come in the world of ‘broadcast technology’ since the introduction of digital electronics.  When I started out in this business, the video / audio signal chain was analogue throughout.  The early control devices that used boards full of TTL logic chips were starting to employ new-fangled microprocessors for applications such as videotape editing controllers.

At that time we (well, most of us) never dreamed that one day the controlling devices themselves (later obviously superseded by PCs and Macs) would one day be capable of actually processing ‘broadcast quality’ video and audio data internally.  Over time the analogue VTR formats were joined by digital ones, and the advent of the Serial Digital Interface was a major step forward in the interchange of digital media.

Then came video compression, making possible the eventual introduction of broadcast video servers; initially these were envisaged more or less as direct VTR replacements for specialist jobs such as playing out commercials and promos.  The interchange of programme material between these devices and the rest of the system was still done at the ‘baseband’ video / audio level, albeit via digital (SDI) connections.

In parallel with all this of course was the development of computer networks.  Once technologies such as Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel became practical (for which read cost-effective), another major step on the ‘digital journey’ became possible.   This was the advent of ‘file based workflows’, whereby clips could be interchanged in their (normally compressed) digital format.  Now the idea of ingesting once and re-using the material both simultaneously and over a longer period of time (employing archive systems) became a reality.

And this is more or less where the ‘state of the art’ for broadcast technology lies today – we are able to build complex, network connected, systems for capture, storage, production and ‘playout’ of media files.  Except of course that all this while we’ve been concentrating on the production of one or two (or these days several) ‘on air’ signals that get fed into a terrestrial transmitter, MPEG multiplex for satellite uplink or cable head-end, and so on.   [As an aside, I’ve often thought that a broadcast facility is one of the most energy inefficient places on the planet – think of all those megawatts of power that get used up to generate a few 1 volt signals].  But what about the ‘brave new world’ of internet streaming, video on mobile devices, and other related areas that we’re informed are ‘the future of broadcasting’?  Well, in the current world economic climate it’s hard to forecast anything, but it seems to me that two points are clear:

1. Predictions about the ‘death of traditional broadcasting’ are rather premature (or at least exaggerated).  Even the most optimistic surveys show that viewing of ‘TV programmes’ via non-traditional means is still a minority (but nonetheless important) pastime in the overall scheme of things.  Many predicted the end of cinema when television came along,  and the mantra of ‘tape is dead’ has been chanted for as long as I can remember.  But we have to consider both the inertia of established technologies and people’s viewing habits, and the fact that ‘old technologies’ continue to advance as well as newer ones.

2. None of the much discussed future ‘broadcast’ conduits and techniques would be possible without the digital evolution that has brought us to this point.   ‘Ingest once, use often’ is really practical at last because we now have the infrastructure to allow acquisition, production, storage and distribution of large amounts of high quality material.  Now we just have to figure out the mechanisms and revenue models to make these new outlets sustainable.

As we near the end of the first decade of the 21st century (now there’s a scary thought in itself),  it seems to me there has never been a more exciting time to be in the ‘broadcast industry’ (whatever that means nowadays).  Here’s to a challenging but interesting 2009!

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