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Telos and Linear Acoustic: Helping Broadcasters Keep Their Eye on the Shifting Center of the Broadcast Universe

Posted by Jeff Touzeau on Aug 7, 2014 11:22:00 AM

Tim CarrollThe television broadcast industry has become infinitely more complex during the last five years, with producers churning out more content than at any other time in history. Meanwhile, the broadcast landscape has become vast and wholly unpredictable, with consumer preferences driving when, where and how content is consumed. These changes have come upon the broadcast industry swiftly and relentlessly. Less than a decade ago, content producers could safely predict that consumers were watching the vast majority of content on television sets in their homes. But now, with an abundance of smartphones, mobile devices and apps — all of which are routinely relaying broadcast content — the lines on the playing field have changed. And they are anything but predictable.

While the beginning and endpoints of this new playing field are still somewhat discernable despite constantly evolving technical standards, broadcast mediums, consumer device and viewing preferences, the middle points and content distribution methods are murky and less defined. Even though producers are now able to express themselves using more technically advanced tools than ever before — and consumers are able to consume content more conveniently 'anytime, anyplace, anywhere' — this has put strain and uncertainty on the part the broadcasters themselves, who are less visible than the producers or consumers in the broadcast chain. These broadcasters essentially need to create and adapt new content distribution channels and working methodologies where no precedent already exists.

There is a lot at stake for broadcasters, since their role is critical to both the content producers and consumers. The Telos Alliance, and its subsidiary Linear Acoustic, has played an active and innovative role not only in helping define this new broadcast distribution landscape, but also in helping its international customer base understand and overcome the challenges it presents. Over the course of this interview, Tim Carroll, Chief Technology Officer of Telos Alliance, explains how the broader television broadcast environment has changed and how Telos and Linear Acoustic are helping customers navigate and overcome the daunting challenges that now exist.

PART I: THE SHIFTING CENTER OF THE BROADCAST UNIVERSE

What have been some of the primary issues the television broadcast industry has faced over recent years? What has changed and what has remained the same?

When we consider television broadcast as we know it today, I think we can safely say that the loudness and surround problems have largely been solved. As an industry we have been at this for over 20 years, and it's mostly done. More recently, what is happening is that the way we are consuming television has dramatically changed. For example, I have my 5.1 system, but I also have little kids so sometimes I will listen in stereo so I don't wake them. My nieces and nephews, and my younger brother and sister are all consuming television online. We are all doing it differently; there are financial reasons for this, and the technology is making it easier to do so.

Has this made the 'traditional' delivery method of television less relevant?

Well, most of the media says that it is still the terrestrial delivery of television that generates the most revenue per second out of any content. But I think that is an incorrect perception, because nowadays it is so difficult to measure exactly how many people are watching television let alone the methods they are using to watch it. For example, I don’t see our employees bringing a television set to work, but I know that many of them are watching some sort of video at lunch or while they are taking a break during the day. Even my parents are watching TV on their iPads or laptops, which is no small amazement.

What changed for the broadcasters? How does this affect them and how do they now think about broadcast delivery differently?

To start with, the normal tool set that broadcasters have in a linear broadcast chain has been blown out of the water. The same processes we use for a network or television delivery service that is designed to deliver a piece of broadcast content second over second has changed completely. Now, much of the content is chopped up, jammed onto a server and sometimes played back on multiple servers. Also, commercials are inserted on your portable device, oftentimes through an app. In the past, we used to know where to put the loudness meter, but where do we put it now?

This means the content has been more difficult to contain since there is no known 'central point of origin', right?

Yes. The industry has always had its eyes on the middle of the pie, because the middle is where traditional technology business is done at a television facility day in and day out — it’s where all the servers have traditionally been located. You put a processor in there, and at prime time, it affects every sample of audio. You can get your head around that and say, ‘No problem.' But as soon as this center is fractured and audio is coming out from multiple places outside the edge of the pie, it becomes much more complicated and less predictable. We can control that content coming out of the middle of the pie where the central server is located with audio processing technology, but we have no idea where the content goes after that. In some cases, broadcasters are making 8, 10 different versions of a single program to hit all kinds of mobile devices, to hit larger mobile devices, large and small. All of this has pushed us to accelerate our thinking at Telos and Linear Acoustic.

Can you give me an example of how broadcasting is now less location dependent?

Sure. Let’s say I’m Dick Wolf and I am making a program — a police drama. When I am done creating my beautiful HD master in 5.1, it’s ready to go. But from that point on, what happens then is not necessarily up to him or the production people — it’s up to the broadcaster who say, "Hey, thanks for the content, we have to get this through our linear paths without touching it. We’ve also got to send it out to all these other destinations, and we better get it onto YouTube before somebody rips it or sells it." So at the end of the day, it is less about the program producers than the broadcasters. Yesterday, you could often go to whoever owned the television station. But today, that producer's broadcast content could be housed in servers that not only handle data for broadcasters, but the government too. These are now very often secure facilities with armed guards walking around. You have to leave your wallet and cellphone at the door and you are not allowed to bring anything that would let you photograph or record what you are seeing. That doesn’t sound like a broadcaster to me - but this is the direction it’s going.

Can anything be done to remedy this?

We can help these guys get the loudness or the 5.1 correct, but then this garden hose turns into a firehose, and suddenly content is sprayed out across the universe. And if nobody was touching it, our job would be done. But with Internet, it is rule free — essentially the Wild West. So with our normal tools, we have to start thinking outside the box. We need to look at the guts and say, "Hey, we are happy to give you what we put in all the hardware. Amazon, you want to put it on the server?" Because we really don’t want to make the hardware.

Is technological innovation helping resolve these issues or exacerbating them?

It's a bit of cat and mouse. If you go and see a movie today, you might be lucky enough to find a theater and a piece of content that is being played back in Immersive Sound. Now, program producers are saying, ‘Wow — we can do a 360 degree immersive audio experience. But then the questions start coming out: “Hey, can we get this same experience to consumers?” Then the broadcast industry says, "We just delivered 5.1 and now you want us to carry 128 channels to consumers? You’ve got to be kidding me!" But that’s what ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) 3.0 is all about: how do we deliver an entertainment experience like consumers have at a movie theater? I used to say to the home, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the home anymore. If we deliver an immersive experience to the home, how do we ensure iPhone users can enjoy it to a similar degree?

So there is no finite point, because consumers always want more and more convenience. It is the middle that has to catch up, yet this is the part that nobody sees. Everybody sees the end and Hollywood sees the beginning.

PART II: THE SHIFTING NEEDS OF BROADCAST CUSTOMERS

As the television broadcast industry experiences unprecedented change in how content is produced and consumed, the technical distribution avenues have irrevocably shifted. This has presented challenges — and opportunities — for Telos' customer base and the television broadcast industry at large, with opportunities for increased viewership and technical innovation. In Part II of our three-part interview with Tim Carroll, Chief Technology Officer of Telos Alliance, we explore how the 'shifting center of the broadcast universe' has impacted the broadcast community, including Telos' and Linear Acoustic's own customers.

In a volatile and unpredictable broadcast market, how do Telos and Linear Acoustic stay ahead of the technology and best practices of how content is distributed?  

We spend time with our customers, and invest a lot of time on committees that are constantly looking at the future. These committees are usually comprised of people from Hollywood. For example, we have been involved in the ATSC for decades as Telos, Linear Acoustic and I participated before with Dolby. Mike [Richardson, Director of Products at Linear Acoustic] has participated on SMPTE [Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers] and I still do. In some cases, these organizations are documenting the future, but oftentimes they are documenting what has already happened. It is a matter of being involved.

How do you measure the success of Telos and Linear Acoustic?

It is not only profit, but it is also doing a good job. As a business, of course profit is a measure of success. It goes back to Hewlett Packard. Dave Packard once said that the best measure of a company's value is its profit, because it represents the difference between what a company can build technology for and what they can sell it for. If there is a difference, then there is a value to what a company is doing - so profit is a measure of value. The attitude at the [Telos] Alliance is "Great - we will constantly measure ourselves to make sure that we are providing value, but we are also going to do a good job and the money will come." And this philosophy has worked for the life of the company. Our number one rule is "Never give a customer the wrong product just to make a sale."

Given the massive changes in the broadcast market, who are Telos' customers now?

Ironically, many of the customers we have had for years. Our typical broadcast customers are experiencing more change than we are, and their needs and requirements are made apparent to us right away. They are constantly struggling to keep up with the way their content is being consumed today. Initially, they weren't putting pressure on us to help because at the time, many of their internal IT folks were helping them, the same guys who were installing the word processing software and email clients. But all their jobs changed: “What do you mean this has to be reliable 24/7? How many people are going to use this?" Very quickly, the 'old IT guys' became the 'new IT guys'. The new IT teams, which are more immersed in video, have quickly helped the broadcasters change how they deliver content to consumers. But there still remains a huge divide between the IT-oriented broadcasters and the more traditional broadcast people. With traditional broadcast people there is a sense of urgency: top of the hour, second zero, frame zero. Within one frame you expect to see video. I saw this at the Olympics. Meanwhile, many of the IT guys are like, "It's 2 minutes after, we better get this feed started." The more traditional broadcasters would be close to a stroke by this point.

But aren't they both addressing the same concerns?

Absolutely. They get complaints from viewers who are all consuming content differently. They call in and say, "I can’t hear the dialog," or "There is too much crowd noise." Surround is a cool thing, but not when you are listening on an iPhone — people want to be able to hear the voices first and foremost. Also, since they may be listening on an iPhone, the broadcaster knows the name of my local car dealer. So the local broadcaster inserts a commercial right after a national spot, and it comes ripping through the iPhone at completely the wrong loudness because they have no control over it. The local broadcaster, who would normally have had the gear to measure the content, get the loudness right and check it, is now directing the commercial to play over this port on that server. But where is that server? It could be anywhere. The struggle is waiting for the values to catch up across the whole broadcast chain — but this is starting.

Where do we find the solution for these issues?

The standards are a great place to start because they cause people to ask the questions and can become a truly grass roots effort. At Telos and Linear Acoustic, we have spent a lot of time on these standards committees on work that is never directly intended to generate profit. We put the time in and we routinely give a lot to the industry. It is important for us to stay involved, even though sometimes nobody knows where the discussion is going to take us.

But despite the unknowns, staying involved on these committees and giving back is also one of the reasons we are beginning to provide solutions on the consumer side. At one meeting, a producer called us aside and said, "I want to show you something." It was an app that played back content that hadn't hit the market yet. I said, "That’s cool - you’re going to send processed content out of a central location and it will sound great." But then he dropped the bombshell and said, ‘Well, yeah - except, this is what happens during the commercials." I was speechless — but I knew we had to come up with a solution.

We constantly ask people "How are you are watching television?" and asking them to tell us if they are seeing something interesting about a family member who is watching it differently — on a wristwatch for example. Because this has implications and we need to stay on top of this. A fireman has a very difficult job, but he doesn't need to know where to point the hose. This is different because we are not exactly sure where to point the hose. It's certainly not as dangerous, but we really have to pay attention.

What kinds of things have remained the same in television broadcast technology?

Mike Richardson: Because of all the new content delivery and distribution methods we discussed, loudness still remains an issue. Dialog is often getting lost in crowd noise and noisy backgrounds are still an issue. Sometimes, even when consumers are listening on high-end equipment, these problems are made worse. Now, there is certainly a wider range of listening devices that we have in the living room. In the past, we just had stereo speakers and maybe a DVD player. But now, there are 5.1 systems, as well as people talking about watching two-hour movies on their iPhones. So there are a lot of the same problems, but they are all being compounded based on the variety of devices that content is being consumed on.

PART III: PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE OF BROADCASTING

In a television broadcast industry that is currently overwhelmed by uncertainty and unpredictability with respect to content distribution, it remains very difficult for broadcasters to know how they will be prepared to deliver the solutions that will be needed for the content producers and consumers of tomorrow. In Part III of this three-part interview with Tim Carroll, Chief Technology Officer of Telos Alliance, he explains the approach Telos is taking to help its customers understand and overcome the vast challenges they are facing and what kinds of solutions will be required for broadcasters in the future.

How can broadcasters — and by extension your own customers — plan for the future when there is so much uncertainty

Broadcasters still have to get their day-to-day work done and continue to do what they do today. So as much as everything might be different or better in the future, their work still has to enable them to continue doing what makes them money today. This has been drilled into our heads, mostly because of the committee work we've been doing. On the committees, we sit with broadcasters, CE Technologists and CE manufacturers; it is a good mix. We are doing some exciting work on ATSC 3.0, even though we won’t see this begin to take hold in the market for at least two to three years. ATSC 1.0 and 2.0 were a lot of work and there was a lot of waiting, but being involved allowed us to develop solutions to problems we knew were going to occur as broadcasters rolled things out.

What have been the core reasons you have been able to maintain a loyal customer base through all of this?

It is a trust thing, and that's probably why we’ve ended up with personal connections to a lot of these people. I can’t feign to understand what many of these broadcasters go through day to day, in the same way that they shouldn’t have to need to understand what spectral band replication is inside of a codec. They shouldn’t have to worry about that. I trust them to bring their knowledge to the party and they trust us — and believe me, we test each other. There is a good exchange of information and we routinely set needs and expectations — this helps establish loyalty, which is both expected and delivered. If we had not handled things this way, Linear Acoustic or Telos would not have grown the way they have.

In television, they want dynamic range without loudness problems. But without a crystal ball on every television set or how each and every consumer will perceive this, how do we know the difference between good loudness and bad loudness? On the one hand, broadcasters are saying, 'We have to be compliant with FCC regulations and we don't want consumers complaining about loudness issues. On the other, you have Hollywood saying that they don't want you to touch the audio, that it needs to remain pristine. The answer to that problem created a golden opportunity that was the basis of the Emmy Award that we shared with Dolby in 2010. Since then, four years later, we are still implementing the pieces to make this work. Some broadcasters are already using it, while others don't even know it exists. Now, that technology is in every box we sell.

What keeps you passionate about your work?

We love what we do. A couple of weeks ago, we got everybody together for a barbecue lunch and listened to Immersive Audio, just to hear what we might be hearing in our homes as consumers in the next year, or a few years down the road. That is eye opening and exciting.  

We want to help our customers make the right decisions rather than just make a sale. For example, as we rolled out ATSC 1.0 and provided the tools to broadcasters to get them compliant, we have also had to tell them to throttle back the degree to which they were using our processing because loudness issues have gotten better. Being absolutely honest with our customers all the time is refreshing and invigorating. At Telos, you don’t have to say something because you are financially driven to have a certain opinion. It might not generate revenue, but that’s OK. As long as Frank and I own the company, there will never, ever be pressure for somebody to do or say the wrong thing for financial gain. And that makes it great.

I’ll tell you what else makes it great, working with the best, world class engineers and technologists that I have ever worked with. To be in the middle of that again after I left Dolby was great. I am astounded sometimes at what our people come up with. And the culture is open enough to say, "Have you lost your mind? We could never do that!” I think that’s what keeps me going at all this and why there is such little turnover here. At any other company, this just wouldn't be possible.

Topics: Linear Acoustic