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Syndication's HD Hurdle

With at least nine syndicated shows either already produced in high-definition or switching over this fall, TV stations must invest in software and server upgrades or come up with clever solutions to receive the programs.

Some 1,400 commercial TV stations receive most of their standard-definition syndicated product via DG FastChannel-owned Pathfire, which distributes syndicated shows as digital files via satellite and the Internet through a proprietary server-based network. In the past, syndicators have covered the cost of delivery via Pathfire by charging distribution fees. But moving to high-definition requires software upgrades to the Pathfire system to handle larger HD files, which bear new licensing fees of up to $12,000, as well as integration work with third-party server vendors to facilitate playout. Of course, if a station doesn't yet have a playout server capable of storing and playing back HD content, that will require a significant investment as well.

Even though top syndicated shows such as CBS's The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight and The Insider and Warner Bros.' The Ellen DeGeneres Show are going high-definition come fall, most stations are far from ready to make the switch.

“With the industry's economy the way it is, this is not the best time to force these stations to rebuild their infrastructure,” says Phil Murphy, senior VP of TV operations for CBS TV Distribution. “So a lot of them are Rube Goldberg-ing a solution and waiting for the infrastructure to be created.”

Today, most stations that receive existing HD syndicated shows record a linear HD feed from a satellite to a cache server or a high-definition tape deck. They then have to manually transcode the show, add the commercials and move it to an HD playout server or HD recorder, a process that can take hours.

The ABC-owned stations, which currently air CBS's Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! in high-definition, are likely to stick to some sort of manual process this fall when Oprah goes HD. The ABC station group still hasn't resolved how it will receive the show, which is extra-challenging because it goes out over digital linear satellite very soon after it tapes in the morning. To receive the show, stations have to point their dishes at the satellite and then capture the show on tape.

“If they miss the feed, they miss the show,” says Mike Connell, Pathfire's manager for broadcast integration.

For the bulk of syndicated shows that don't operate on Oprah's tight timeline, Pathfire has developed a file-based HD delivery system called DirectConnect and is working with server vendors to develop HD software solutions that replicate the standard-definition workflow. So far, Thomson Grass Valley, Digital Broadcast and Masstech offer Pathfire-compatible HD software, with more vendors preparing to come online this summer, Connell says.

The major stumbling block for file-based HD delivery is that different vendors' playout servers, while based on the MPEG-2 compression standard, tend to use different file “wrappers” that require the MPEG-2 files on the Pathfire box to be transcoded before they can be played out. Transcoding standard-definition files has become common practice, but transcoding much larger HD files is overly time-consuming.

To address this, Thomson Grass Valley has developed an application called K2 Capture. The software runs $5,000 and allows TV stations to automatically ingest HD programs from Pathfire to Grass Valley's K2 Media Server without spending time on external transcodes.

“It's five to 10 times faster than the previous process,” says Roger Crooks, product marketer for Thomson Grass Valley.


But the total solution isn't cheap. According to Grass Valley, it would cost a station looking to upgrade to HD with the combined Pathfire/K2 server solution around $18,000 for the necessary software and licensing fees. If the station also wanted to interface with DG Systems' new hi-def-capable commercial servers to receive HD spots as files, the cost would be $20,000. So far, only 10 units of K2 Capture have shipped and none have been installed, demonstrating how much further stations and syndicators have to go with this process.

Overall, only 38 TV stations are using Pathfire's new HD service, and all of them are using it to ingest Warner Bros.' Two and a Half Men in high-definition. Tribune pairs Pathfire with the group's Masstech playout servers to stitch files into the GXF (General eXchange Format) file format, distribute them across the group and play them out on Thomson K2 Media Servers.

“There's not a lot of high-definition files being transferred via this system today,” Crooks says. “But I think it's going to take off this year as more programs are distributed in high-def.”

As stations move toward high-def automation, Connell says, “One question that TV engineers should be asking is: Are their file formats compatible with what's being delivered to them? TV stations can change playout servers or they can ask the syndicator to push the show out in a common format.”

New HD playout servers can be expensive, but a nonlinear high-def recorder can be used to house each day's batch of syndicated shows. Vendors were showing such recorders at this year's National Association of Broadcasters convention that cost $5,000 for two hours of recording time, Murphy says.

But the industry is still looking hard for a long-term solution. “For the past year, several of us have been seeking ways to take these programs as files,” he says. “Almost everyone in the industry wants to find any reasonable way we can to pull it off.”

Murphy ultimately would like to transmit syndicated programs in HD via a file-based system over the public Internet. “Economically, that would be to everyone's advantage,” he says, but concedes that sort of solution is probably years away.