Cable Questions Broadcasters’ Plan to Push Interactive Triggers

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In about a month, the Advanced Television Systems Committee will issue a “candidate standard” for broadcast triggers – tiny bits of code embedded into the TV video stream that will tell smart TV sets to open an app or enable some other interactive function.

The cable industry is not thrilled about the plan.

Andy Scott, vice president-engineering at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, wonders if “this is the right way to deliver triggers to receiving devices.”

“We don’t know how set-top boxes will react to it; they may just ignore it,” he explained. “I[STB firmware] would have to be updated via an Ethernet connection.”  The triggers – as broadcasters envision the plan – would tell smart TV sets (screens hooked into an Internet feed) to pull up “extras” that accompany the video, such as enhanced program information or customized advertising.

ATSC hopes to accelerate the trigger plan, with a goal of approving the standard by summer 2013.  At last month’s Consumer Electronics  Association industry forum, plans were proposed to put the trigger data into an under-used portion of the 3D closed caption portion of the video stream as defined in CEA’s 708-D standard.

Cable operators and program networks have their own plans for interactive program and commercial enhancements and are backing several alternative ventures.  Broadcasters believe that by embedding their triggers into the digital TV video stream, the data cannot be stripped out of the signal.

You can sense the “must-trigger” battle taking shape.

Scott believes that “by putting [triggers] into the captioning service, it will be difficult for people downstream to extract it.”

Although NCTA has adopted “no official position” on the broadcast trigger proposal, the cable group opposed the plan during the CEA meeting. Scott told me that NCTA will work with CableLabs on technology development seeking a way to deliver triggers without using the closed captioning segment of the video signal.  He indicated that a possible “open standard” may be acceptable.

“We’ve got concerns both technically and practically,” he said.“Tunneling this data on a caption stream is the wrong way.” 

A CableLabs executive told me that his organization is not yet ready to evaluate the ATSC proposed standard. Scott pointed out that, despite ATSC’s aggressive agenda, “standards development moves at a glacial pace.”

The ATSC play may face other hurdles. Advocacy groups that don’t want to re-allocate digital bandwidth reserved for closed captioning may challenge it. And some broadcasters and program producers may object to the clutter on the primary big-screen that the triggers could create. 

A CEA executive told me, “Right now, we’re just trying to make it work.”  He conceded that it’s not clear if the software in all smart TV sets can be updated to handle the trigger directives, noting that many manufacturers use proprietary systems for enhanced content displays.

The ATSC plan relies on smart TV sets (now about 40% of the TV market) to recognize a “Triggered Downloadable Object” (TDO), which resembles Java Script, HTML and other Internet coding. The TDO tells the receiver “to put things on any screen,” explains Rich Chernock, chief science officer at Trivini Digital and chair of ATSC’s technical standards group that is developing the trigger plan.

“Since the captions are carried within the video stream, you want them to be tightly bound, to go wherever the video goes,” Chernock adde. “By design, these triggers are very small, under 100 bytes. It’s a very convenient way to carry data. It will make it through a lot of distribution systems since it’s part of the video.”

But Chernock acknowledged that “a lot of people see TV without a broadcaster feed or with data stripped out.”  As a result, his ATSC tech committee is also examining ways to deliver triggers via technologies such as Automated Content Recognition, which senses that triggers are in the video stream through digital fingerprinting or watermarking technology.

And that underscores the battle ahead, as broadcasters seek widely used technology, while cable operators and networks prepare to challenge the ATSC effort to pull the trigger on triggers quickly.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, Md., and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at GArlen@ArlenCom.com.

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