League Technology Summit: DTV Audio Group Meeting Lauds Accomplishments, Acknowledges Challenges

The DTV Audio Group’s Monday morning conclave on the first day of the SVG League Technology Summit underscored a number of challenges facing broadcast audio, in sports and in general. DTV Audio Group executive director Roger Charlesworth broke the meeting’s broad rubric of “The Future Of Television Audio” down into key challenge areas, noting in particular that many important decisions about how audio is used for sports in a multi-device environment will actually be made by consumers rather than by professional and corporate entities. Regarding this “second wave” of technology choices, Charlesworth said that the most critical decision that the professional audio community had to make was whether to be passive observers or active participants in a complex future media landscape.

Past And Present
Much of the rest of the event focused on various aspects of that future. A presentation by Mark Brunner of Shure outlined very recent events in the wireless domain, including the DTV transition that saw the 700-MHz band repurposed, unlicensed wireless microphone operators essentially brought out of the shadows by the waiver of FCC Part 15 rules, White Spaces device rules finalized, and two geolocation databases implemented and interconnected, with a third one pending.

Brunner pointed to impending auctions of additional spectrum, as well as the fact that smartphones and tablets were using exponentially more bandwidth each year, which could result in the redeployment of as much a 100 MHz of bandwidth available for wireless operations over the next 10 years. At the same time, despite the fact that only about 10 percent of Americans rely solely on OTA digital television, it remains a critical political demographic and as such not likely to be a source of new spectrum anytime soon.

The industry’s response, Brunner said, should be to maintain awareness and participate in public comment opportunities presented by the FCC and other government agencies regarding disposition of spectrum. “Industry participation is vital,” Brunner concluded.

Closing The Expertise Gap
In his presentation entitled Closing The Expertise Gap, Charlesworth led an at-times spirited discussion of training and resources for the next generation of broadcast audio professionals. Specifically, he pointed out how the apprenticeship model of training has been sidelined by the risks of letting trainees learn on the job in the understandably risk-averse environment of network broadcast sports. There is, Charlesworth said, the irony of more demand for trained operators but at the same time fewer resources for them to be trained with, a situation that has the potential to slow down the adoption of new technologies. He cited as an example how European broadcasters have more quickly integrated platforms such a digital routers than their U.S. counterparts have.

Several audience members commented that the existing academic infrastructure was only useful for conveying basic concepts, not for preparing graduates for the actual exigencies of the industry. One network executive indicated that in his experience he’d been able to find only one of every 100 candidates sufficiently knowledgeable enough to hire.

Representatives of two major networks at the meeting approached the issue with combinations, including recruiting from regional networks and local stations, and increased budgets for in-house training. However, one network exec noted, of those candidates who do express interest in post production and field audio, most are attracted to entertainment positions rather than broadcast.

However, others saw progress. Representatives of at least one for-profit school specializing in professional audio training in the audience commented that they offered specific programs tailored for broadcast audio. Kurt Heitmann, SVP of sales & marketing at CP Communications, stated that his company was developing a dedicated training vehicle in conjunction with Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT intended for broadcast sports audio training program. Charlesworth pointed out that the DTV Audio Group’s online training initiative has been very successful.

An executive from NBC enumerated several recent accomplishments in the broadcast audio field, including the standardization and implementation of loudness metering and management, and the inclusion of metadata in the workflow process. However, he also pointed to coming challenges, including what formats lie beyond 5.1 and issues around transcoding, mobile digital television (MDTV) and video descriptive services.

Consumers In Charge
Several attendees bemoaned the lack of consumer enthusiasm for discrete 5.1 audio as well as the difficulties many viewers encounter when trying to properly set up 5.1 playback systems at home. But others pointed out that the next generation of viewers, weaned on video games with multichannel sound, will expect 5.1 and even more complex broadcast and streamed sound formats. One network executive summed up the situation by pointing out that consumer awareness of multichannel sound for broadcast has to become as ubiquitous as it is for Hollywood types of content. Citing the rise of the second screen, he concluded, “We need to create a frictionless consumer experience” around sports sound for broadcast and streaming to mobile devices, even as he acknowledged that consumers’ platform choices are more diverse than ever, making the establishment of strategies to address them even harder.

One overarching theme that emerged from the meeting was that broadcast audio as an industry has to take its cues more from consumer behavior than ever before, and that to meet those challenges they would need to collaborate with consumer and manufacturers organizations to an even greater degree. That would represent a significant change in tack from the traditional collaboration around standards and protocols that would usually be relegated to working groups within professional organizations. More than anything else, the meeting underscored just how much things are changing.

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