NAB 2008: NBCU Tackles Digital Downconversion

Las Vegas -- NBC Universal is making moves now to ensure that its television programming continues to reach standard-definition cable and satellite viewers in the proper format after high-powered analog broadcasts cease in 2009 and cable and satellite operators will start carrying a downconverted version of the network’s HDTV signal to support viewers with analog sets.

NBCU teamed up with stations groups Hearst-Argyle Television and Tribune to promote the use of Active Format Descriptor technology, which will ensure that cable-headend equipment and set-top boxes display the downconverted signal in the aspect ratio that producers originally intended.

Without the proper use of AFD information, viewers could see postage-stamp-sized pictures on their 4:3 sets or suffer from graphics designed for wide-screen pictures being cut off during 4:3 display, NBC executives said.

AFD technology is being demonstrated by several broadcast vendors at the show, but NBCU, Hearst-Argyle and Tribune formed the “AFD Ready” initiative to increase awareness of the technology and to promote its use throughout the entire television industry. NBCU executives highlighted its importance in a press briefing at the 2008 NAB Show here that outlined the remaining challenges -- and opportunities -- of the digital-television transition.

“We’re trying to get AFD in the entire chain, included our promotion and production partners,” said John Eck, president of the NBC TV Network and Media Works. “We’re protecting the consumer, who may not be aware that they’re only seeing part of the picture.”

As a practical basis, the effort may have more benefit to NBC’s affiliates than its owned-and-operated NBC and Telemundo stations. Like ABC, NBC plans to use fiber-optic links to continue to deliver its own downconverted, 4:3 standard-definition version of the HDTV feed from its owned stations to cable operators in their markets after the Feb. 17, 2009, analog turnoff.

But affiliates may choose to simply broadcast a single HDTV signal, which cable and satellite operators will have to downconvert, either through headend equipment or HD set-top boxes, to enable analog TV sets to display the picture. Cable operators have to do so through 2012 in order to comply with the Federal Communications Commission’s digital must-carry rules.

That is where the AFD information becomes important, particularly for protecting graphics, logos and bugs in both programming and commercials. Eck gave the example of a recent HD commercial for Nike that displayed the truncated tag line, “ust do it,” when shown on a 4:3 set.

Complying with AFD information will be relatively inexpensive for cable operators, according to Ian Trombley, executive vice president of media-distribution services for NBC Media Works, who said the hurdle is more awareness than capital investment.

“We need to make sure the IRDs [integrated receiver/decoders] are AFD-ready,” he added. “We want to make sure we get the industry rallied behind this.”

More than 20 companies are supporting the initiative, NBCU said, and an AFD demonstration is available in the DTV Hot Spot in the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The involvement of Tribune and Hearst-Argyle in the AFD initiative is not surprising, as engineers from both station groups have been vocal over the past year about the need for AFD support.

“We want to work with our cable and satellite partners to ensure that SD legacy customers have the best possible viewing experience after the DTV transition,” Tribune Broadcasting chief technology officer Ira Goldstone said in a statement. “Without an AFD standard, broadcasters are forced to choose between downconversion formats that compromise on graphics placement and shot composition or that result in undesirable black bars within the display. Tribune supports the rapid development of AFD-ready integrated receiver-decoders and set-top boxes to optimize the viewing experience for everyone.”

For complete coverage of the 2008 NAB Show, click here.