Video servers ordered by PBS foreshadow era of TV on-demand

Originally published in Current, Nov. 28, 1994

By Steve Behrens

Over the next year, PBS will take delivery of two kinds of video servers--probable forebears of the high-capacity, high-speed digital storage devices that someday will shoot out bitstreams of television onto the infohighway.

''It's the foundation of a set of capabilities we will certainly need,'' says Senior Vice President Howard Miller.

These big arrays of disc drives are a central component of future ''video-on-demand'' (VOD) services. Companies like Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Silicon Graphics are competing to build the servers, and Microsoft and Oracle want to write the software to run them. But the servers are new, rare and expensive enough that some market tests of VOD are going ahead without them. In one experiment, the cable colossus TCI simulated a video server by employing kids (reportedly on roller skates) to fetch cassettes for consumers.

But while few American consumers so far have direct access to video servers, media companies are beginning to use them for other purposes. They will have two jobs for PBS, according to Miller:

The BTS system is due to be delivered imminently, and the Pioneer system next summer or fall, Miller says.

Though both kinds of servers store huge quantities of digitized TV, their differences suggest how public TV--indeed, Baby Bell phone companies and all kinds of TV operations--will subdivide their business into a hierarchy of on-demand services on the infohighway.

Only the most frequently requested programs will be kept almost instantly available in the fastest-reacting but most expensive storage, according to Doug Weiss, CPB's resident techno-seer. In present technology, that means servers like the BTS Media Pool, which stores video in a series of many big magnetic discs similar to those in a personal computer.

Less-requested titles will spill out from cheaper, slower mechanisms like the Pioneer jukebox, which uses a robotic arm to fetch programs from a library of removable 12-inch optical-disc platters. Indeed, the manufacturer wants its product to serve as archive-keeper for front-line servers, says Rich Bauarschi, manager of broadcast marketing at Pioneer New Media.

At the same time, economics and technology also may dictate a geographical hierarchy for storage of programs. Miller suggests that the most popular ones may reside on servers closer to users--at local public TV stations--while the backlist of programs lives at PBS or other big, distant repositories.

''You have to segment,'' says Weiss, who has been squinting into the media future for CPB. A lot of TV will still be delivered in linear schedules, as it is now, Weiss believes. Other shows will find their audience on-demand, near-on-demand, or through dial-up systems comparable to a computer bulletin board.

Gigs galore

Made by Broadcast Television Systems Inc. (BTS), a subsidiary of Philips, the Media Pool that PBS will use for time-zone delays will be capable of holding six hours of uncompressed video (or more than 40 hours uncompressed) on its hard discs, Miller says.

Though costs of hard-discs are falling, this capacity will still be far more expensive per hour than videotape, he says. But the cost is justified by the savings in staffing and maintenance costs.

The server contains six 10-gigabyte Seagate hard discs. A high-speed data commutator reads the discs, putting out seven channels of video simultaneously from a single recording, according to Doug Buterbaugh, marketing manager for Media Pool. Other models will shoot out as many as 16 channels.

ABC-TV will use a Media Pool to dispense commercials and fillers for its complex regional feeds of football games, according to Buterbaugh. The system also could be used in video editing, medical video, or in place of a control-room cart system.

Optical disc jukebox

PBS's other server will distribute instructional programs for PBS Video that are now duped onto cassettes and mailed to institutional customers. Miller envisions schools or colleges ordering copies of programs through PBS Online and then receiving them by satellite at night, when PBS's transponders aren't busy.

The programs will get to schools faster and in higher quality, Miller predicts.

Originally, the device was seen as the back end of the Smart School System, which PBS has prototyped and shown at two PBS annual meetings. The system was a rack of automated components that schools could use to order video materials by satellite from PBS. But Miller says further work on that product--and scouting for a manufacturer to adopt it--is on hold while PBS finishes setting up its two-way VSAT satellite system.

The optical storage system itself combines two technologies for the first time: the mechanism is a cousin of the Pioneer videodisc changer that Miller admired in Japan, where it sends karaoke video to multiple drinking establishments, and the discs are recordable digital optical WORM (write once, read many times) discs similar to those used for archival data storage in offices.

WORM discs are not only cheaper than digital tape for storage, according to Miller, but the disc players also cost a fraction of the price of a digital videotape player.

PBS's initial module will contain six dual-headed disc players tended by robotic arms that can reach up to 500 12-inch discs, each with up to two hours of video (20 gigabytes). Miller says he could imagine adding modules to expand capacity to 500 or 1,000 hours. And human hands can stock the device with rarely ordered discs, further expanding its capacity.



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Market tests by telecom companies demonstrate how ''video on demand'' systems may work, and may give a boost to narrow-audience programs.

Later news: Miller's plans for using the video server for education fall through, but an educational technology company owned by Viacom goes to market with a similar service.


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