Keeping up standards


Dick Hobbs. TV-Bay Magazine
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by Dick Hobbs
Issue 95 - November 2014

A couple of days ago, both the esteemed editor of this magazine and I were guests at an awards ceremony, in the romantic environs of the Wembley Hilton. The evening was a tribute to the democratising effect of the dinner suit.

Receiving a lifetime achievement award richly deserved was Dr David Wood, who has devoted much of his career to the EBU. It was something of a shock to see him in black tie, rather than the lurid and loud coloured jackets he usually favours.

I have known David for 20 years or more, and know him to be a witty and urbane man who is always well-informed and good company. His acceptance speech was several orders of magnitude more funny than the comedian who had been booked (presumably at some expense) to host the evening.

Davids diplomacy skills have long been devoted to working with a broad range of partners on developing standards. When he said it took about nine years to reach international agreement on HD I felt his pain. But it did make me think about the whole idea of standards. And, quite frankly, why we are so bad at them in this business.

Any telephone, anywhere in the world, will talk to any other telephone. How did that happen?

I travel quite a bit, and when I arrive in a hotel room anywhere in the world I can be reasonably confident that I will be able to connect to the internet. I either plug an ethernet cable into an RJ-45 socket or the wireless thingummies in my laptop talk to a box somewhere. Connection takes a second, and then it works.

I visited the very nice people at Timeline Television recently. They run the broadcast services at Parliament. Currently, much of their output is recorded on Sony SX tapes. Try taking one of those to another facility and see how far it gets you. The Red camera is still the hot choice. But what you get out of it is a chain of ones and zeros. Without the right codecs and LUTs loaded onto the receiving device, it might just as well be a very large Excel spreadsheet.

The digital era is making matters much worse. MXF was hailed as the solution to file compatibility until people tried to use it. Then they discovered that the standard had ended up so broad that two devices could justifiably claim to be XF compatible but be completely unable to talk to each other.

On 1 October this year, all the main UK broadcasters were set to refuse any piece of content that did not arrive in their own format, developed by DPP. I have spoken in these pages before of the DPP which I think is an excellent body, and their work on a digital delivery format is remarkable. But already there are dark mutterings that, while it might work for British broadcasters it is not right for other markets, and so the prospect of a reasonably universal standard goes out the window again.

Why is the good work done by DPP not eagerly embraced by other nations and other suppliers? I suspect that in large part it is the not invented here syndrome. Which is a shame.

As I noted earlier, it took David and his colleagues nine years to reach agreement on HD. Nine years is an awfully long time, and while that may have been acceptable in the past, I really do not see how we can do that any more.

Just think for a moment what technology you relied on nine years ago. If it helps you place it, 2005 was the year Apple launched Final Cut Pro 5. Tape was still everywhere. Harris was still Harris, and Grass Valley had a green logo.

Now imagine what your technical requirements will be in nine years time. Nope: me neither. Could be anything.

Technical standards are almost certainly a good idea. It is great to be able to know that we can swap content and signals and not worry about anything just like we did with SDI or line level audio. But we have to be much more agile to cope with continual changes. So how do we get good standards very quickly? Do we do it with fewer committees? Do we find ways to accept de facto standards really quickly?

We can do this. Quicktime is so ubiquitous that we can be forgiven for forgetting that it is a proprietary standard. Apple designed something, Final Cut Pro used it so a lot of other people looked at it, and it became so widely used that we regard it as a broadcast standard. But, as I occasionally say to frighten people, Apple could change it tomorrow and break half the broadcast systems in the world. We are reasonably confident they are not going to do this.

David Woods work deserves a lasting tribute. Better than an acrylic trophy and a steak dinner would be a more sophisticated, more dynamic approach to creating and promoting good standards.


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Contributing Author Dick Hobbs.

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