The view from 2005
In 2000, interconnection got interesting,
and along came Pubster . . .
Two decades ago, public TV switched from rented phone lines to satellite for its interconnection. Now its flirting with the idea of returning to landlines, in the form of Internet2-like hookups [separate story]. That could greatly expand public TVs options just a few years from now. The author just completed his term as chairman of the PBS Boards New Technologies Committee and now heads its Interconnection Committee. As an associate v.p. of Washington State University, he manages KWSU/KTNW as well as the statewide Northwest Public Radio network. David Liroff of WGBH and Bruce Jacobs of KTCA contributed to this article.
Originally published in Current, Dec. 4, 2000
Commentary by Dennis Haarsager
Program Director Anne Foss finished work on her November schedules, pushed back her chair from her desk and looked out the window, across the campus of the technology park where her public TV station moved in 2003, two years earlier.
She used this moment to reflect on the environmental scan she was writing for the stations strategic plan. In fact, her vista told part of the story. Her station was recruited as a desirable anchor tenant here because it successfully married content development and technology.
The station, like most others in public television, had made it through the DTV transition just fine, thank you, although many took advantage of the FCCs "no questions asked" one-year extension. Amazingly, as much as we focused on that new technology five years ago, she thought, many other digital technologies are as importantêeven more importantêto the station than DTV.
Broadband began to take off in 2000. Half of all homes now have a high-speed Internet connection, and the number continues to climb, accelerated by federal programs similar to those that brought rural electrification and universal telephone service decades earlier. A half million homes are now being served by gigabit-per-second fiber Ethernet connections that are 20,000 times faster than a dial-up modem. Interestingly, because of the expense and difficulty of digging up city streets, rural areas and new suburban developments have led the way in fiber to the home.
This new "ultra-broadband," plus high-definition DBS and digital cable broadcasts and high definition DVDs, have skimmed the cream off the broadcast market for high-definition, so stations have generally opted to broadcast multiple standard-definition (SD) channels and mobile/portable data. Annes assistant in the programming department primarily secures content for on-demand delivery.
TiVo, ReplayTV and their cousins are now routinely incorporating huge storage capabilities in digital set-top boxes and receivers. They are all made affordable by the plummeting cost of storage and, along with on-demand broadband video, they have redefined television viewing. PBS research is predicting that next year, for public television and many cable networks, more viewing will be done asynchronously than synchronously. That is, more viewing will be at times convenient to the viewer than at times convenient to the programmer. Were it not for local news, commercial television would be close to that threshold also.
The asynchronous viewing phenomenon is mirrored inside Annes station as well, with the realization that very few programs need to be delivered to the station on a real-time basis for local broadcast. Most programsstill scheduled weeks in advance of local airtimeare now streamed from a central storage facility at a less-than-real-time rate and temporarily cached in the stations storage system, substantially reducing the amount of bandwidth required for network feeds of non-real-time programs for local broadcast.
The notion that every broadcast station would continue to require its own independent, fully equipped master control facility has yielded to the understanding that, so long as the method of delivery was transparent to the ultimate end user, broadcasters could realize substantial savings by sharply reducing the duplication and redundancy in the distribution system.
Reflecting on the remarkable ways her station has changed in a short time, Anne concluded that public television really transformed itself in 2003 with the inauguration of a high-capacity terrestrial network. Proceeds from sales of surplus satellite capacity, federal educational technology dollars, station savings from a wide variety of collaborative capabilities, and revenue from clients in the education and nonprofit sectors financed it.
The network is nicknamed "Pubster"after Napster, the entertainment file-sharing web service that it resembles, albeit on steroids. Pubster uses modern Internet technologies pioneered by higher educations Internet2 collaborative. Any entity can transmit video, voice and data to any other entity on the networkêwithout permission or a toll charge. Real-time centralized program feeds to stations are gone, except for packaged feeds for SD channels such as PBS You and PBS Kids, and timely news and public affairs programs, which comprise a small proportion of the broadcast day.
Because an increasing number of stations have implemented digital asset management systems using standardized protocols, producers now have direct access across the network to content created by their colleagues around the system. As stations morph into digital libraries for themselves and their local partners, viewers, too, are able to access station archives.
PBS began work on this network in 2000. Building on earlier efforts to look at the benefits of a public broadcasting intranet and university public television experiments with Internet2, it soon became clear that replacing the old satellite program interconnection with something more Napster-like would achieve capabilities and savings for stations that went well beyond program distribution.
Now, two years after it was implemented on an ambitious schedule, PBS operates an advanced digital distribution system over a high-capacity fiber backbone ring.
So, what's different?
The schedules for the six channels that Anne programs come to her in template form, usually with suggested interstitial promotions already implemented. The main channel begins life as the PBS common carriage channel, to which Anne adds programming, as she always has. Three others are essentially pass-through channels, so she simply passes them on for insertion of interstitials. Schedules five and six are alternative public television services created in collaboration with other education and community service information providers (e.g., libraries, museums), looking like the Web with full-motion video, high-quality audio and interactive enhancements.
Using Pubster, Anne also has access to the national public television master program database, a comprehensive compendium of available national and local programming. She can instantly call up information on any program in the database. She can preview any of the programs via a low-resolution stream, see its past performance for audience and pledging, get research information on what placement works best, note its length and remaining rights, or decide to purchase rightsêall at her desktop.
If she wants to schedule the program, she simply drags the title to her schedule and drops it there. Promotion materials are automatically sent to her stations webmaster, promotion department and the interstitials producer. Most importantly, the storage address for the program is coded into the schedule so the distribution center can find it.
When work on the schedules is complete, the schedule is uploaded to the distribution center along with her stations interstitials and local programs. A computer at the center then checks for what video it needs to find. At the appropriate time, the distribution center assembles a customized feed and sends it back for broadcast. Annes station has opted to have this done 24 hours in advance for reliability assurance.
This distribution center did displace some master control and traffic/operations jobs at her station. Anticipating this, and knowing that in the new digital environment, stations would need to provide more added value to their schedules, PBS spearheaded a nationwide retraining effort over Pubster using distance learning techniques. All of her stations operators, except for one who retired, ended up in equal or better jobs, supporting production.
Pubster opened up other capabilities as well. She ticked some of them off for her environmental scan:
- Anne and her general manager serve on a number of national committees. More than half the time, these meetings are now done by videoconferencing over the network.
- The stations in Florida and Michigan have formed virtual state networks, lowering costs, implementing best practices and dramatically increasing the amount of local content available to their viewers.
- Station "e-procurement" cooperatives have sprung up for a large number of items from tape to premiums. One of the most interesting has led to centralized automated nationwide software upgrades for both desktops and all the specialized servers that public television uses in 2005.
- Most local stations now serve as gateways for streaming video content for local educational institutions, libraries, museums and arts organizations. This has given them new sources of revenue and also enhanced their value as comprehensive content providers.
- Stations are free to collaborate on projects based on common interests rather than common geography. Annes station is part of a small consortium of stations that produce and market a large number of how-to programs.
- One station has opened up a call center to answer phones and take pledges 24/7, replacing the dreaded phone tree at many stations. Its client stations use common calendaring software, so the operator knows if the program manager is in the office.
- Groups of stations can now buy sophisticated editing equipment and share it over Pubster. They routinely collaborate on editing of programs.
It is, to be sure, a different world, Anne realized. Public TV had to make some major adjustments, and there were some occasional glitches. But the alternative didnt have much of a future. By marrying first-rate content with collaborative technology, public televisions future was bright.
Just then a chime sounded on Anne's PC. She smiled and turned to the screen, clicking on the video instant messaging icona new FirstClass feature her station had offered to employees with children. Up popped a small video display where she saw her beaming four-year-old daughter holding up a white feather.
"Hi, sweetie. Looks like you've been to the park again."
They talked for five minutes about the important differences between swans, geese and ducks, and the bathroom habits of same, before it was time to go back to work.
A different world, indeed.
. To Current's home page . Related story: Haarsager and others join in tests of video transmission over Internet2.
Web page posted Dec. 14, 2000
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.