Ascent, CBS and Warner Bros. Create New Syndicated Delivery Platform

Ascent Media Group, CBS and Warner Bros. Entertainment appear to have addressed years of complaints by broadcasters about the need for an easy way to receive syndicated high-definition programming by creating a new distribution platform that will pump Warner Bros. and CBS syndicated shows to some 800 stations, starting later this year.

The new service, announced jointly on Wednesday afternoon, could potentially replace the Pathfire satellite-based delivery service which Warner Bros. and CBS have long used to deliver standard-def syndicated fare. Pathfire, which was acquired by ad-delivery concern DG FastChannel in 2007 for $30 million, has enjoyed an entrenched position in the syndication distribution market with a system that delivers shows as digital files to “catch” servers at some 1,400 stations. But it has been slow to implement a new platform for high-definition content, and the solutions it has proposed have required significant financial investment from stations. That has left most stations who are receiving HD syndication today to resort to a labor-intensive, manual workflow, where they record linear satellite feeds onto hi-def tape decks or servers.

Ascent Media and GDMX, Warner Bros.’ digital content distribution arm, have already enjoyed a working relationship since 2004 in delivering syndicated services for a number of clients. They say the new system, which CBS will also use to distribute its syndicated fare, will “provide a cost-effective, optimized and streamlined platform” that will handle both HD and SD programming using better compression techniques and more storage. The service footprint will include a guaranteed minimum of 800 stations, including the top 100 domestic markets.

"Broadcast stations need a simple solution for receiving both HD and SD programming, and syndicators require a cost-effective solution for getting their syndicated content to the largest number of stations,” said Jose Royo, CEO of Ascent Media Group, in a statement. “This new platform leverages the strengths of Ascent Media and Warner Bros. to meet those needs. Warner Bros. is a leader in syndicated HD programming and has been instrumental in designing the platform and incorporating feedback from stations. We are excited about the potential of this new platform to enable rapid innovation and address the content management challenges of distribution of syndicated content."

Del Parks, VP of operations and engineering for Sinclair Broadcast Group, says that the joint solution from Ascent, Warner Bros. and CBS has been in the works for some time, and will consist of a single box that receives a single HD version of a syndicated show using MPEG-4 compression. That content will likely have to be transcoded in some way to be played out on Sinclair’s existing MPEG-2-based transmission servers. Parks says his understanding is that stations won’t have to pay for the new hardware, though they may elect to buy a backup system at a cost that would be “very reasonable.”

“Sinclair is absolutely behind it, and we’ll do anything we can do to help them along in this process,” says Parks. “It’s really vital to our broadcast television industry to have the ability to get syndicated programming in hi-def.”

Parks notes, for example, that local stations that don’t yet receive Sony’s Seinfeld in HD are at a competitive disadvantage to cable network TBS, which airs the same show in HD.

Parks says that Sinclair stations probably wouldn’t need Pathfire’s system to receive syndicated fare once the Ascent/GDMX system is in place, although they would continue to use Pathfire to receive standard-def network news content delivered by CNN and ABC.

“I’m really excited about this new service,” says Parks. “We’re customers of CBS and Warner Bros., we buy their content, so to have them distribute directly to us is perfect. The Pathfire system worked beautifully for the SD stuff. However, it is not HD. And they knew three years ago that they needed to move to HD.”

Calls to Pathfire for comment were not returned at press time.