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photo by Erik Dungan



Give a man a fire and he's warm for a day, but set fire to him and he's warm for the rest of his life.
- Terry Pratchett

May 17 , 2004 | For the past six months I have been attached to the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney. I was invited there as a consultant, with a brief that allowed me to redesign the curriculum of a venerable film school, and place it squarely into the middle of the 21st century. Note, I did not say the start of the 21st century - that wouldn't be very interesting, or very helpful. Students at AFTRS will be practitioners well into the middle of the 21st century - certainly through to 2030 or 2040. So it's my job to look forward a bit, and incorporate that forward view into my teaching…

In the earliest days of television, writers like George Orwell in 1984 and Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 projected television as the instrumentality of a totalitarian future - a monolithic entity dispensing propaganda. And, if any of you occasionally watch Fox News, you can see they weren't that far off the mark. But here's the thing: the monolithic days of television are numbered. Actually, they've already passed - though, as yet, very few people realize this.

To understand why, we need to go back to first principles. What is television? Here's a functional definition:

Television is the capture, encoding, transmission, reception, decoding and display of moving images.

This definition applies to the Golden Age of television, and to the present era. Yet the definition of every word in the definition of television has changed, because of the introduction of digital production, encoding, transmission, reception, decoding and display technologies.

First, let's talk about image capture: the means of production have changed. A decade ago you'd need a million dollars of camera, sound editing and broadcast production equipment to create television programming. Today you can capture DTV broadcast-quality content with a $6000 HD camera from Panasonic, which you can then bring into Final Cut Pro and edit on your $5000 Dual G5 PowerMac. For a little more than ten thousand dollars, you can create television programming that would be absolutely indistinguishable from anything created by Warner Brothers or Fox.

Just because you can produce television programming on the cheap doesn't imply you'll be any good at it. You're still going to need a cinematographer who knows how to handle a camera, a location sound recorder who can give you something intelligible to listen to, a sound designer and sound editor, a film editor, a set designer, a broadcast titles designer, and so forth. If you don't have these practitioners, you'll simply create programming that looks as cheap as the equipment it's been produced on. Although equipment has gotten cheap, film and television production remains a craft tradition, and this means that the AFTRS and institutions like it, which teach the craft of film and television production, will continue to have an important role to play.

Next, encoding. Australia and Europe use PAL; North America uses NTSC (which evidentially is an abbreviation for Never The Same Color). Both are analog standards for the transmission of moving images. Analog television of either variety is like the vinyl album - something which you've no doubt heard of - and perhaps even seen a DJ use in a set - but many of you won't have handled them, at least not often. (Here I am at age 41 and I feel like I hail from the era of steam locomotives and buggy whips.)

CDs came along in 1982 and digitized audio, quantized it, turning a continuous waveform into a discrete stream of zeroes and ones. The same thing has happened to television with the advent of digital TV. ATSC - (an abbreviation for Another Television Standards Catastrophe) -specifies the transmission format for television signals in the USA, while DVB is the standard in the UK and Australia. These standards are very similar, though not interoperable. (This represents a missed opportunity which will have grave consequences for broadcasters.) The moving images themselves are encoded in MPEG-2 format. This means that the encoded data stream for digital television is identical to the standard used on DVDs, in almost every respect.

This encoded digital TV signal can be transmitted in any number of ways, and that's where the definition of the word transmitted has changed radically. You can beam it through the air using ATSC or DVB - as they do in the USA, the UK, and here in Australia. So you can buy a digital TV set - an HDTV set, as they're more commonly known - and connect it to your antenna, and receive broadcasts in standard definition - 720x576 for PAL, 720x480 for NTSC, but the signal can go all the way up to 1280x960 - which is very high-definition indeed! A digital television broadcaster can choose to allocate this digital signal bandwidth any way they see fit; they can send you four channels of Standard Definition programming, or a single high-definition stream - each requires the same amount of broadcast bandwidth. The broadcaster could eschew video altogether, and they can transmit a stream of data - pictures, text, sounds, etc. - in place of a video stream. Because the stream is digital, it's got all the flexibility and programmability we've come to expect from digital technologies.

Because it is a digital stream, the MPEG-2 video encoded within the ATSC/DVB digital TV signal can be copied and reproduced faithfully, an infinite number of times, with no loss in quality. We'll come back to this point, but just for the moment let it linger in your minds - and think of all the MP3s you have sitting on your hard disks, iPods, etc. And keep in mind that MP3 is another subset of the same MPEG standards used for digital television.

Ok, so we're halfway there. We've gotten moving images encoded and transmitted. Well, sort of. We conceive of television signal transmission as radio waves moving through the ether, but bits are bits are bits. They could be sent over the air, or they could be a stream of bits on a digital cable system, as with FOXTEL Digital in Australia or any of the major cable systems in the US, or the AUSTAR or DirectTV satellite broadcasting services.

But I overlook the obvious. Yes, I could get my transmission over the airwaves, or over a digital cable hookup, but this ignores the fact that I already have a very high-speed digital data stream coming into my house - broadband internet. Back in Los Angeles I had 1.5 megabits of ADSL, for which I paid the princely sum of $72 a month. (In Sydney I have 1 megabit of wireless broadband in my home, from BigAir, for which I pay $100 AUD a month - about the same amount in "real" dollars.) Back in 1987, when I was working full-time in data communications, that much bandwidth would cost a business $10,000 a month. Minimum. So I guess we could say that the same thing has happened to bandwidth costs that happened to computer costs; we've gotten more and more for less and less.

And that brings us to the discussion of the receiver. The definition of the television receiver has changed as well. If you go to an electronics retailer and buy an HD television set you're paying for two things - one of them is the oversized high-resolution display, and the other is a sophisticated computer, inside the set, which decodes the received digital television data stream and puts it onto the display.

[A side note: the price point of HD television sets is about to plummet because of some chips introduced by Intel earlier this year. It's expected that by Christmas 2004, they'll be selling for under a thousand US dollars. HD sets are already outselling analog sets, in dollar volume (because they cost a lot more than analog sets) but in 2005 or 2006 they'll begin to outsell analog sets both in the USA, in raw numbers of sets sold.]

An HD set is just one alternative if I want to receive digital TV. A few weeks after I arrived in Australia, I purchased a $300 card for my PC (DigiTV PCI) that plugs into a $15 pair of rabbit ears I bought at Woolworth's, and which gaffer taped to the top of my monitor. (It makes for a very pretty picture, let me tell you, because everything old is new again.) With this card I can now receive the five free-to-air digital terrestrial broadcasters in Australia: ABC, SBS, 7, 9 and 10. If I've got the antenna adjusted just so, I get crystal clear moving images on my 17" computer monitor, with incredibly rich stereo sound. My little home experiment in geekdom - more about that in a moment - proves an important point: an HD set really is very closely akin to a modern PC.

Because this DTV tuner card is in my PC, and because my PC has a fairly large array of hard disks - about 300 GB, all told, with about 35 GB reserved for my MP3 collection - I can use my digital television tuner like a VCR, and record the digital stream to my PC's hard disk. (These digital recorders are more commonly known as personal video recorders, or PVRs.) Because the signal is digital from reception to storage, there is no loss in quality, ever. When I record "The Sopranos" - which is transmitted in high-definition on Channel 9 - I can play back in the same high-resolution image transmitted by Channel 9. It is, in fact, the same image, bit for bit.

Even better - and here's where it gets a little worrying, if you're a producer or broadcaster - I can burn a DVD of that episode of "The Sopranos" and it will look as good as if I'd bought the DVD from HBO. There is no difference - the video on HBO's DVD contains the same bits as were transmitted by Channel 9 and recorded by my PC.

This fact is in fact so worrying to the MPAA, the Motion Picture Association of America, that they've lobbied for the inclusion of a "broadcast flag" which will be sent within the DTV signal and which all DTV hardware must read and honor. When the hardware reads the broadcast flag, it must refuse to share that DTV stream across the Internet. (Whether the broadcast flag will forbid burning to a DVD is another question altogether - an open one.) The USA's FCC threw the MPAA this little bone, but it's being contested by public interest groups and is currently spiraling its way through the American court system. (You all know what that means.)

The trouble here is that the MPAA is the motion picture association of America. They have no control over what happens in Australia, Europe, or, rather more significantly, in China. The broadcast flag must be in all DTV receivers purchased in the United States after April 2005. But plenty of people - such as myself - are buying DTV receiver cards well in advance of that date. Those cards won't see or acknowledge any broadcast flag. I'll never have to obey the dictates of the MPAA, in America or not - unless the MPAA manages to convince the WIPO to make the possession and use of these cards illegal - which, given the current state of affairs in the war over digital copyright, isn't entirely unthinkable. After all, they could be used to promote terrorism. Or something.

So while the MPAA is trying very hard to put its thumb in the dike of digital television, the rest of the world will do as it pleases - at least until Free Trade Agreements ties all of us so closely to the USA that we're bound by the same copyright law that rules America.

For now, in Australia, I can do as I please. I can record my favorite programs on my PC. That PC is connected into my home network. When my iBook is at home, it's on the same network. There's also an old Sony laptop at home, running Linux, which serves as the home firewall, gateway and web server. That machine is my interface to the internet, and it utilizes the Windows file sharing on my PC to gain access to the recordings on my PC-based digital television - which it then makes available over the web for everyone else to see - if they know the URL.

Right now those files are so big - about 2 GB per hour for a DTV broadcast in Standard Definition - that it's unlikely anyone would bother to download them. But there's more than one way to skin a cat, and more than MPEG-2 can be used to encode video programming. If I used Windows Media 9 Series, for example - an excellent compression standard for video - I could compress an episode of "The Sopranos" into about 150 MB. It wouldn't look quite as nice, mind you, but with the bandwidth I have at home - and the bandwidth I have at the office - I could watch any of my recorded television shows from my desk at the Australian Film Television and Radio school.

If I didn't mind sacrificing a bit more quality, I could probably get the whole hour of television down to a tidy 50 or 60 MB. Hardly anything at all, these days - it could easily fit onto one of those key-chain sized USB drives. At AFTRS, I'd be able to download the program from my home web server in about seven minutes. That means I'd be doing better than real-time: it means that wherever I go, my TV can follow.

And that brings us to another aspect of the redefinition of TV. If a digital TV is simply a computer that is capable of receiving, decoding and displaying a DTV signal, isn't my computer on my desk at AFTRS a TV too? It doesn't have the card that allows it to receive and decode free-to-air DTV broadcasts, but it can certainly receive a DTV signal that's being transmitted by my web server.

Wait a minute. Wait just a minute. Doesn't that mean, in the context of the definition that we've been tossing around, that I've become a television broadcaster?

Now you start to see where I'm going. Every computer - from the desktop PC at work to my lovely Macintosh iBook, to a handheld 3G mobile phone, to the just-announced Sony PSP handheld gaming and video platform - every one of these devices is potentially a DTV receiver. All they need is the proper software to decode the proper data stream.

Now that I know that I'm a television broadcaster, I've decided make it easier to get to my recorded DTV programming. So, in my vanishingly brief moments of free time, I'm working to string together a suite of open-source software which automatically takes all of the DTV programming I've recorded and makes it available at a variety of resolutions, on my web server, so that anyone can access it, at any time, from anywhere in the world.

Ok, I may be a bit of a geek, in that I'm going to roll-my-own, but that's only because I want to have a thorough understanding of how these pieces work together. You can buy off-the-shelf software for Windows that does all of this. (SnapStream is just one of the many programs in this fast-growing segment of home "media server" software. The transcode package is its Linux equivalent.) You can do it today. You don't need to be a computer geek. You just need to spend a few hours learning how to configure everything to your own satisfaction. And then, you too can be a television broadcaster.

The first thing that flows from recognition of the reconfigured nature of broadcasting in the age of digital television - the thing the became clear to me as I workshopped these ideas with a group of film producing students at AFTRS back in March - is that I have disintermediated the terrestrial broadcast networks. They're simply not needed any more.

Why would I tune my DTV receiver to Channel 9 to record "The Sopranos," when it's simpler and more efficient for me to grab the program stream from the HBO web server or download it from one of my friends who has been to visit the HBO web server?

Once the broadcast networks moved to digital, they became entirely obsolete, because I can get a stream of bits from anywhere in the world that I can get a high-speed connection to the internet - and that means most everywhere in the world. Since I only care about the program, not about the broadcaster, I'll abandon the broadcaster as quickly as I possibly can.

I'm not telling you broadcasting is going to be obsolete. I'm telling you that it's already obsolete. It's a done deal. We've seen the lightning strike, and all we're doing now is waiting for the thunderclap. The only thing holding broadcasting together today is inertia, marketing, and copy protection. Once a programming producer figures out that they can distribute their programming via broadband, it's all over.

Well, guess what: AOL has already started distributing Everwood, a Warner Brothers TV series, via broadband. And the BBC has just announced a test of "flexible TV" - which will allow broadband users in the UK to watch BBC programming when they want, wherever they want to watch it, over the Internet.

That's not to say that I think the broadcast networks have no future whatsoever. But that future is radically different, because, when we redefine television, we create a need to redefine broadcasting. Here are three basic ideas that I've had - which are by no means intended to be exhaustive - about the future of broadcasting as a business. These are the some of the new rules for broadcasting in the age of digital television.

Rule One: Live Rules

Beyond anything else, television is a live medium. Whether it's a footy game, Big Brother Up All Night, the Academy Awards, or the latest terrorist tragedy, TV performs an irreplaceable function as reporter of events-as-they-happen. And although the viewer can and should be able to watch the digital television data stream from any compatible receiver, the broadcaster is, in this case, the producer, creating value by producing the live event. As drama, comedy and factual programming become freely available for download, the broadcaster will transform into the producer of choice for live event coverage. Channel 7 in Australia tried to do this as they switched to a mix of mostly sport programming; but they were a bit too far ahead of the curve - and they didn't make their broadcast content available over broadband.

Rule Two: Aggregate the Advertisers

Historically, broadcasters have functioned as aggregators of eyeballs for advertisers. There's no reason they can't continue to do that. After all, a program's producer will still need to get paid for the programming they create, and they're going to be at a bit of a loss in this brave new world where the broadcasters have all vaporized in a puff of bits. Broadcasters should shift their focus from being aggregators of eyeballs to becoming aggregators of advertisers - they can get Fox together with Ford, for example, to sponsor a series like "24". There's a problem, however: global advertising agencies already do this. Today's broadcaster is going to begin to look more and more like an ad agency, and will be working within that much more competitive market. That said, the inside advantage that a local broadcaster can bring to a global product like "The Sopranos" or "24" is the precise mix of advertising that needs to be cut into a particular package of programming. If Fox or HBO are going to make their programming available, free for download, they're going to want to ensure that they maximize their revenue streams by precisely targeting advertising sales for every potential viewing market. That's a job that the local broadcasters are uniquely suited for.

Some of you might be asking: without audience aggregation, how will we know what to watch? That's what the broadcasters will ask, and will point out that you'll have to winnow through a lot of chaff to get to the grain. (Obviously they haven't been watching their own programs.)

There is an answer to this as well. More and more, the internet functions as a high-quality filter to help us find what we want; I see something and I email my friends, and they email their friends, and on and on and on. The rise of "social software" such as Friendster and Orkut means that it has become increasingly easy to disseminate my likes and dislikes among my circle of friends (who will tell their friends, and so on, and so on). A TV producer can still do a press tour and raise awareness of upcoming programming, but even in the absence of PR junkets, social software ensures that television viewers will have little trouble finding the best of the best. Social software, directed toward media choice, that's something I want to call peercasting.

How does a producer realize revenue in this new world of digital television? When you've got bits on a disk, you can fast-forward through the commercials at the touch of a button. Or perhaps one of your friends will edit them out before he posts the program to his server - and only one person on Earth needs to do this for everyone to have access to a commercial-free version of the program. So commercials will need to change radically. We're already seeing the more advanced advertisers, such as Procter & Gamble and BMW, offering up short films by major directors as a new advertising vehicle. The commercials will need to be more interesting than the programming, or they'll be left on the digital cutting-room floor. Product placement - which is used extensively in "24" and "Survivor" - is another possibility. The road ahead for the producer is unclear - and that means it's prime time to be inventive, creating new forms of revenue generation for television producers.

Rule Three: Respect the Audience

With the advent of the PVR and store-and-forward television viewing, the program schedule is freed from the tyranny of the programmer, empowering the viewer. PVR owners watch 71% more television, on average, because they're watching programs which they're most interested by - not just the programs screening at a particular moment. (They also watch 35% less advertising.) But a program schedule is only useful to the PVR insofar as it is adhered to by the broadcaster. And, sadly, this is absolutely not the case in Australia. I've been asking everyone I know why television programmers here do not begin their programs at their scheduled times - why "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" can run fifteen minutes into the scheduled start time for "Sex in the City", for example - because this cavalier attitude toward television schedules makes it nearly impossible for a VCR or PVR to be used to record programming. This is going to become a more pressing problem when the FOXTEL Digital PVR is rolled out later on this year. (Unless that PVR can adapt to the sudden changes in program schedules - which is not impossible, and given the attitude of Australian television programmers, probably necessary.)

If promptness is a virtue - and it is, in my book - Australian commercial broadcasters (it's curious that all three commercial broadcasters do this regularly, while the two public broadcasters do this only rarely) have been doing little except anger their audiences. When the audience didn't have any alternatives, the broadcasters could get away with it. But now, in the new era of television redefined, they have an alternative. When broadcasters upset their audiences, they'll drive those audiences into alternate forms of delivery - and they'll be cutting their own throats. Respect is more than a nice idea - it's going to be the only way that broadcasters will be able to maintain an audience in the age of digital television.

All of this can be summed up in a very neat phrase: as broadband succeeds, broadcasting will fail. And nothing, short of the economic collapse of Western civilization, is going to impede the uptake of broadband. It will continue to transform our culture, and the delivery of our cultural products. That's very good news, because it opens up a world of possibilities which have nothing to do with the politics and economics of broadcast licenses, and everything to do with creativity.

A decade ago Mark Pesce unveiled the first 3D interface to the internet - the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) - to the attendees of the First International Conference on the World Wide Web. After five years working to create a sustainable ecology around VRML (with limited success), he founded the Interactive Media Program at USC's School of Cinema-Television. In 2000, Ballantine Books published Pesce's The Playful World: How Technology is Transforming our Imagination, which explored the world of interactivity through a detailed examination of the Furby, LEGO’s Mindstorms and the Playstation 2. In late 2003, Pesce was invited to the Australian Film Television and Radio School, with a mandate to redesign the curriculum to incorporate the new opportunities offered by interactive media. He lives in Sydney, hoping against hope that Bush goes down in flames this November.

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