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Changes from Production to Delivery
It’s no secret that the broadcast industry is changing—it’s changing, quite literally, in front of our eyes. From the quality of content to the platform we view it on, from the standards we follow to the methods we use to deliver content, the broadcast industry has never been in the midst of so much change at once.
Tektronix engineer Ian Valentine discusses some key trends that are impacting the broadcast industry, and how Tektronix is helping customers adapt to the changes.
“For the first time in decades, there’s a huge amount of change happening in the broadcast industry, all at the same time,” says Tektronix engineer Ian Valentine.
At a high level, the broadcast industry can be grouped into two primary segments: The Content Creation segment including Acquisition, Production and Post Production, and the Content Delivery Segment, which covers both Linear and Streamed delivery of content to the home. It’s not just one or the other of these segments that’s in transition—there are big shifts occurring in both the Creation and Delivery of content.
The first trend involves a shift from a point-to-point Serial Digital Interface (SDI) connection to an Internet Protocol (IP) connection for moving video around the facility and through Production processes. This switch presents a huge change for broadcast engineers, according to Valentine.
“Really what you have is a situation where broadcast engineers are now having to deal with a network environment as opposed to the traditional SDI, point-to-point single connection. With SDI, what’s on the wire is a single program, but in an IP network environment, those engineers are now having to deal with a lot of content on a single pipe. This means they need to understand the dynamics of an IP network, packetization, new measurements, new synchronization techniques and different ways of accessing the content they want to look at.”
One of the initial aims of converting to IP infrastructure is cost reduction of the broadcast infrastructure. At this early stage of the transition, those savings have not necessarily materialized yet. However, one advantage that IP offers is flexibility in both configuration of facilities and maintenance of the infrastructure as the industry moves towards higher resolution formats. As the predominant formats have changed from Standard Definition (SD) to High Definition (HD) to 4K and perhaps 8K in the future, broadcast engineers have had to update their internal infrastructure significantly, and deal with the associated costs.
“The flexibility that an IP network provides you is to actually be able to reconfigure and reuse large parts of your network without having to do costly infrastructure updates,” explains Valentine. “If you have the right IP network, the shift between HD and 4K should all happen reasonably smoothly, and then in the future, so long as the capacity is there within your network, the shift to 8K will be a possibility.”
However, there’s a barrier to the IP transition in the form of evolving standards. From SMPTE ST 2022-6 and 2022-7 to ST 2110 and NMOS, broadcast engineers must be able to adapt as standards evolve. “I think that one of the things Tektronix has done a great job of is evolving as the standards have evolved. We have been proactive participants in the industry bodies and the associated interops. This means we have learnt about the challenges faced by our customers first hand, which helps us ensure they are protected as standards change and evolve,” says Valentine.
Another major trend at the front-end of the process is the increasing use of wide color gamuts (WCG) and High Dynamic Range (HDR). This trend is different from past format transitions, such as monochrome to color, color to SD, and SD to HD, in that it’s driven less by consumer demand and more by the industry itself.
“One thing we’ve seen starting to happen with 4K or UHD and HDR and the use of broader color space is that it’s less pulled by the consumer, and actually much more driven by the industry itself,” says Valentine. “The industry is at a point where many of the providers need to be able to differentiate their services and the kind of quality that they can provide.”
Enhancing the Visual Experience
The difficulty with this trend is that many of the current instruments in the industry are unable to measure high dynamic range, and a mix of technologies means content producers may find themselves switching back and forth. “There’s SDR (Standard Dynamic Range), and there’s HDR (High Dynamic Range),” says Valentine. “And if you’re a producer, how do you work between those two?”
Tektronix is working to overcome this challenge in several ways, according to Valentine.
“What we’ve done is introduce a set of tools that will help you work in and transition between those two environments,” he explains. “One simple example might be a situation where you’re trying to match skin tones in, say, the 709 color space into something that’s in the 2020. How would you do that across those two color gamuts? You can do that with our instruments, because we can convert between those two for you automatically. Then using familiar tools like a vector scope, you’ll actually see whether the color changes between the two color spaces or whether your vector stays steady and constant indicating that the skin tones are matched. ”
Tektronix also provides new measurements and tools to help with camera setup and balancing in HDR or mixed SDR/HDR environments.
In the delivery segment, one major trend is a transition from linear delivery of content to what’s called over-the-top (OTT). In this particular case, high quality content is not carried along with other premium video or TV services, but is provided to the home “over the top” of your data services. In essence, this describes the transition from a traditional cable TV model to video streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
“If you’re a provider of linear content and you have a network that’s set up to do that, you’re going to end up having to deal with both linear and OTT technologies to deliver to the home,” Valentine says. “Both use different mechanisms to get the content to you. OTT is a technology that’s very complex with lots of opportunities for a lot to go wrong. If you’re a cable network, you’re already encoding all your content to be delivered in a linear fashion. To support the increasing demand for streamed services, you now have to actually re-encode everything to deliver OTT. Then there’s potential for a lot of cost savings if you only had to encode once for either service.”
One of the difficulties with delivering OTT content is that it must account for the available bandwidth of the end user. When the content is encoded, it must be broken up, or packaged, into small chunks (say every two seconds), each of which is then divided into profiles of varying resolution and bitrate. Stitching this all together as bandwidth varies for the end user is no easy task, as Valentine explains.
“Each one of those two second chunks needs to be perfectly aligned so that if you switch between bitrates there is no jitter, jumps, or jams on the picture as it hits the home. So ensuring that all of that alignment is there is really important.”
Valentine explains that while Tektronix provides tools to check this alignment, there are other difficulties to deal with when delivering content OTT—for example, ensuring audio is delivered correctly, ad splice points are in the right place, and blacked out content (e.g. regional sports events) is done correctly, and most of this is done with encrypted content. Since OTT content is encrypted before being sent to the end user, it can be difficult to monitor the actual quality of the asset and the user experience.
“What we’re seeing is there’s a demand for measurement in an encrypted and DRM [Digital Rights Management] protected environment, and Tektronix has actually put a lot of energy into being able to do that,” says Valentine. “We’re now working with the most popular DRM technologies that are out there. We have mechanisms to help customers de-encrypt the content that’s there as authorized users within the network. Doing this allows us to actually tell you whether that content is going to be okay when it gets delivered.”
Being able to ensure a high quality user experience is becoming extremely important in an age when consumers have more choice than ever before. “At the end of the day, the quality of that content is vital to you,” says Valentine. “If you can’t produce content that people can continue to watch without issues, then customer retention and the cost of new customer acquisition will become a problem—especially as it becomes easier and quicker for customers to churn. ”
Tackling the Broadcasting Trends
The major trends impacting the broadcasting industry are diverse, covering both Content Creation and Content Delivery, and significant, requiring engineers to adapt to some big changes. The transition from SDI to IP , the increasing use of HDR and wide color gamuts, and the switch from linear delivery to OTT streaming present both challenges and opportunities.
“These are some of the key trends we see happening in the broadcast industry,” says Valentine. “We’re also seeing how they impact the way our customers work, and how, perhaps, Tektronix can help as they go through that.”