SBE’s Snelson on TV in an IT World

JoeSnelsonCropWe called up Joe Snelson to congratulate him on his recent re-election as the president of the Society of Broadcast Engineers, and to talk about 4K, file-based IP video, and the state of broadcasting in general. In addition to his role as president of SBE, Joe is the Vice President of Engineering for Meredith.


WS: A lot has changed since you started in broadcasting – especially in the last five years with the introduction of IP technology.

JS: A counterpart of mine once said any equipment vendor that is making equipment without an Ethernet connector on the back of it is doomed to go out of business. Even the inner workings of broadcast gear is that way. I can hardly think of any engineer who isn’t somewhat IT savvy today.

WS: Broadcast used to occupy a very specialized world, but we now occupy this larger world that includes RF as well as the Internet and all the other platforms being consumed. Do you think broadcast is fundamentally changing?

JS: Yes and no. Where you have to be careful is, for us broadcast engineers, our specialty is being able to produce product for the masses in a high quality manner. It’s not like watching video on a social network. On a steady consumption basis, we take the product and material delivered by artists, the professionals that are well respected by the masses, and we get it out on media in a high quality, professional manner. We are broadcasters, one to many, to the masses. But more and more that means we have to think beyond the stick.

WS: What does that mean for the broadcast engineer today?

JS: A broadcast engineer starting out today who wants to have a career for the next 10 or 15 years needs to think in terms of diversity of distributing content. Yes, we may have one big stick – an antenna. But there are multiple ways of getting content out. I look across the group I work for, and we take advantage of all those areas to get our content out there – Facebook, online, on-air broadcast -- whether it be delivering our product to outlying areas using translators or the Internet.

WS: We’ve been following recent developments in ATSC 3.0. What is your position on ATSC 3.0 as an update to the current ATSC 1.0 standard for over-the-air television?

JS: I am actually involved in ATSC activities as we explore the migration from ATSC 1.0 to this new format, ATSC 3.0. A lot of that is still a work in progress, but we recognize that the key is to make it broad enough to allow the embracing of all these new technologies coming along – like 4K and immersive audio – for as much as you can plan for them today. We don’t have hover boards yet so we’re not dealing with that, but you never know. Our goal is to preserve the future of television because we’re sure not going back to the 25-inch tube TV sets in the home.

WS: That’s a tough job, trying to develop a television broadcast standard that will stand the test of time.

JS: It has to be done, though. The original ATSC system that we have in service today has served us well, but technology has changed such as compression efficiency and transmission robustness. As we look to changing from ATSC 1.0 to 3.0 we want to ensure as much future proofing as we can in a developed standard. Compression efficiency will allow us to squeeze higher resolution and/or multiple content streams into the same number of transmitted bits we use today. We also want a robust signal that can be received under various conditions whether it be indoors, outdoors, fixed or mobile.

WS: We see a number of education classes on SBE’s website that deal with file-based workflows and IP video (and by association IP audio). What are a few things you want broadcasters to keep in mind when they move to IP architecture?

JS: When you get into digital processing and routing, you have to balance quality, bit rate and latency. In live events especially, a good broadcast engineer will know which compromises to make. If he’s setting up a remote and there’s going to be an intense dialog exchange back and forth between the studio and the field, a lot of delay is going to get irritating. If it’s just a simple back and forth between a reporter and the studio, he might not be so concerned about the amount of latency.

It’s like the old triangle of good, fast and cheap. Pick any two. You have to do that a little bit with digital video. But the beauty of it is that now with the hardware that’s available, you can do high quality audio production from a remote over a very simple Internet connection, assuming there’s enough bandwidth.

WS: But more content is expected to fill the pipe, right?

JS: Right. There’s 4K and 8K and those Ks will keep increasing. But compression efficiency is also getting better. Right now we’ll range anywhere from 12 to 18 megabits/second for an HD signal, depending on format and a few other factors. You can basically do half of that with new compression technology, and still come out with the same quality.

WS: That makes for some difficult decisions for anyone updating their facilities today and trying to future-proof technology.

JS: The key to broadcast is still how to maintain quality in sound and visual, and our goal at SBE is to train people so they are aware of quality standards and are able to maintain them in a plant. Because the thing is, if you go out and buy equipment, it may possibly still have BNC or XLR connectors on it. Will that change? Absolutely. When? I don’t know if my crystal ball is glowing enough to tell me when I’ll no longer be putting BNC or XLR connectors on the cable but we all know the use of Ethernet cabling into the areas of audio and video is ever increasing. There will always be technology in transition. That will never change.

WS: Joe, thanks for taking time out to talk with us, and congratulations once again on your re-election.

In addition to his role as the president of SBE, Joe is the Vice President of Engineering for Meredith, and also happens to have a Wheatstone D-10 digital audio console that is used for automated news production at Meredith’s station in Las Vegas.

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