Your Choices

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Wed, 12/09/2009 - 19:00 -- Nick Dager

By George Eyles Head of Sales Digital Media Networks Arqiva Satellite & Media Where we are today? It’s instructive to look at how and why live events are distributed as they are today. Live events screening is still a relatively new activity for most cinemas. However it’s one with great promise.   When live event screening was pioneered cinema owners rightly saw it is an experiment. It would be great news if it worked financially but if it didn’t the exhibitors needed to limit the costs of these screenings. This led to the first live alternative events being received at the cinema by ‘receive only’ satellite dishes and decoded by set-top boxes designed for consumers to receive Pay TV.  There was quite a bit for the projectionist to do to prepare for and keep the event on screen support contracts for the satellite equipment were short term and testing installation and event management were all very ad hoc. And of course all of this made sense – no one knew if live events were going to succeed or fail be a short term flash in the pan or have the potential to grow to be an important new revenue stream.   Live alternative events have proven to provide sizeable audiences and on many occasions during non-peak cinema hours. For these reasons most cinema chains see alternative live event screenings as an exciting development and a growing source of future revenues.   Now that digital cinema and live alternative events are taking-off technology and service providers have developed and are now offering new equipment and services that have the potential to make the exhibitors’ lives easier by increasing efficiency and improving scalability. To receive a live event each cinema needs a satellite dish which is pointed and tuned correctly to receive the event and a receiver which decodes the event broadcast so that it can be fed into the digital projection system for screening.  The main choices facing the exhibitor are: what sort of satellite network will I receive my content from should I choose professional or consumer receiver equipment and do I have to support encryption. In theory satellite broadcasts are available to anyone with the right size satellite dish pointed at the correct satellite and with an appropriately tuned receiver.  There are two main types of satellite platforms: closed networks and open networks. Closed networks usually only allow a closed group of transmission providers to access it this means that exhibitors will only get access to the events those transmission providers broadcast.  Open networks are open to be used by everyone there is no gatekeeper controlling access to what events can be broadcast and what you can receive on your system.  The rights holder would typically work with their transmission partner to define where and what encryption is required.   In addition it is worth knowing that for live events some satellites use capacity which is available as a stop gap measure with potentially limited availability and limited long term commitment.  If capacity is not available for an event it will mean exhibitors may have to retune their equipment or if the capacity become permanently unavailable repoint the satellite dishes at each site.   To receive a live event a satellite dish has to be first correctly pointed at the appropriate satellite.   Presently more than one satellite network is being used to broadcast live events in digital cinemas which presents exhibitors with a number of choices in terms of the equipment they install.  However this choice would not be necessary if the events rights holders broadcast their content on the most popular ‘open’ digital cinema satellite networks.   The best future scenario for both exhibitors and live events producers and rights holders would be if one or more satellite prevails for the delivery of both digital movies and live events.  There are likely to be a number of economic factors that will move the industry in this direction.   Not withstanding the above the exhibitor presently has the following satellite receive dish options: use one or more fixed dishes or point the dish to access different satellites which can be achieved either through a motorised dish or by climbing on the roof and physically re-pointing the dish.   Motorized dishes provide an option for automated dish re-pointing and enable the exhibitor to access different satellites by rotating the dish using a series of motors and control gear to point directly at a satellite.  Such motorized dishes are commonly used by ‘teleport’ operators where dishes are often in excess of 4 meters in diameter and where regular maintenance of the motorised infrastructure can take place.  While this functionality may be desirable the capital expense operating cost complexity and reliability issues may outweigh the benefits of deploying such systems at cinemas.   Fixed antennas are typically installed on a permanent or semi permanent fashion and pointed at a particular satellite.  The correct pointing of a satellite dish is extremely important (and requires specialist equipment including spectrum analyzers) as it affects the reliability of the signal being received.  For instance a badly pointed dish will be more susceptible to interference.  It is possible to re-point a fixed antenna from one satellite to another (as long as there is line of sight to the satellite in question) although this process needs to be undertaken by a trained satellite professional.  A further consideration is that if satellite dishes are to be re-pointed for different events it makes it more difficult to have a single dish option for live events and the electronic delivery of movies (see later note). The choice of receiver is important – choosing a consumer receiver similar to one installed in the home to receive satellite TV is a very low cost option but it does have lower functionality than a professional receiver and while all of this additional functionality is not necessarily needed it does increase the options for how a live event network can be managed which may be advantageous to some exhibitors. Consumer receivers can occasionally suffer from lip-syncing issues a problem inherent to the design of the vast majority of consumer receivers.   This is because these receivers were designed for the broadcast TV market which solves lip-syncing issues with other techniques. Consumer receivers provide for domestic audio and video connections which may limit the quality and ease of integration with 2K and 4K DCI projectors.  These are constructed with industry standard professional interfaces.  This can lead to a requirement for a separate scaler unit which needs configuration and adds to the complexity and can in some circumstances reduce the reliability and quality of the system.   Other functionality that is not typically supported by consumer receivers includes: HD DVB subtitling support for remote management automatic tuning and open standard encryption.  The benefit of each of these to any particular exhibitor should be carefully considered and while some of these functions do not directly impact the exhibitor they have the potential to limit the content choices open to them for instance rights holders are currently unable to broadcast HD DVB subtitling which means that for each language variation a separate video broadcast is required which dramatically increases the event costs. Once a critical mass of sites is able to support HD DVB subtitling event rights holders may chose to take advantage of these cost savings excluding exhibitors without subtitling support from an event. The level of future proofing is also lower with many consumer receivers unable to support the high bandwidth requirement of live 3D or the simultaneous reception of digital cinema packages (feature content) and live events.   In summary the lower cost option limits flexibility reduces quality and increases the complexity of managing the system but if you’re at a stage where these issues are not primary concerns then consumer receivers may continue to be adequate for your business. Typically encryption is deployed when it’s mandated by the content owner or rights holder to protect their content from unauthorised viewing or piracy.  Although to date rights holders have predominantly decided to transmit their events unencrypted this is largely due to the fact that it has been technically and commercially difficult to successfully distribute and screen events using encryption.  It is suspected that the inability to encrypt content has restricted the number and type of events.   Let’s not forget that encryption is quite common in the broadcast and cinema industries where rights Holders value their content and do not want unauthorised access or piracy.   Depending on what the content owner decides it is therefore possible that the live event is either encrypted or free to air.  If the content owner decides to encrypt there are 2 broad choices for them: open standards based or closed encryption.   Closed encryption is often associated with closed networks.  It can be very secure but limits the access of who can transmit their material as a gatekeeper is usually required to generate the encryption keys and provide the broadcast.   Open standards based encryptions allow any transmission provider to transmit and encrypt but also enable all authorised and enabled receivers to receive and decrypt the event.  In either case if the event is encrypted the receiver equipment will require some capability to decrypt this signal.   The choice of what receive equipment is deployed at your premises will define whether you can receive an event. Once received and decoded the live event footage is fed to the digital projector and the cinema sound system. To do this efficiently the receiver should be properly integrated with the digital projection system. There are two main choices here self-installation or integration through your technology provider or systems integrator.   Some live event systems installed with early adopter solutions can be overly complex and difficult to manage compared with the solutions available today. As exhibitors look to provide more live events on more screens it is increasingly likely that they will require systems that are as efficient and as streamlined as possible reducing staffing levels and ensuring that the event screened has high video and sound quality to provide the entertainment experience consumers expect when visiting a cinema. A professional installation means that the satellite equipment is integrated directly and permanently with the digital cinema equipment and protects the exhibitor’s digital projection investment and future live event revenues.