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Keeping up standards
by Dick Hobbs
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.
David’s 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 conﬁ dent
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 ﬁ le compatibility until people
tried to use it. Then they discovered that the standard
had ended up so broad that two devices could justiﬁ ably
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
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
ﬁ nd 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 conﬁ dent they are not going to
David Wood’s 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.
98 | KITPLUS - THE TV-BAY MAGAZINE: ISSUE 95 NOVEMBER 2014