The Advanced Television Systems Committee in the United States has promoted to a candidate standard a new specification for Interactive Services. The A/105:2013 standard is a lengthy specification with some similarities to the European Hybrid broadcast broadband TV standard but needless to say intended primarily for the American market. It is a rather strange document that does little to promote the proposition. Despite the apparent detail it is still insufficient to define a compatible receiver specification.
“Consumer demand for video has resulted in an increasing number of paths to deliver content to viewers,” said ATSC President Mark Richer. “The ATSC 2.0 Interactive Services system allows the broadcaster to connect broadcast programming with additional services related to that programming.”
The ATSC 2.0 Interactive Services system allows the broadcaster to connect broadcast programming with additional related interactive services. It allows for the extension of these services to second screens and the delivery of resources over an internet connection.
In addition to services already part of traditional terrestrial broadcast television, services described in the standard include personalisation, service usage reporting, receiver access to web servers and support for automatic content recognition.
As a draft standard it is fair to say that specification is necessarily specific rather than a description of the sort of services that it might enable. In other words it is written by engineers for engineers.
The proposed standard makes for a rather uninspiring read, even in the terms of such documents. The 140-page specification is pretty opaque even to one skilled in the art, and there are not many of them. For anyone tasked with implementation, such as a receiver manufacturer, it is far from sufficient.
For a nation that has been promised interactive television for two decades and generally been disappointed by the result, it is difficult to see how this will ignite optimism for an idea that has been written off after too many false starts.
The proposed model is based on approaches that have pioneered in Europe for over a decade and the standard refers to the work of the European DVB project, which is something of a concession for a proposed American standard.
Unfortunately there appears to have been little study of how such systems have been implemented in practice.
There is a diagram that show how it supposedly extends the work of the HbbTV initiative and the Open IPTV Forum, from which it clearly draws inspiration.
Like most such standards the ATSC interactive services specification is literally the work of a committee and not necessarily any better for that than a de facto vendor specification.
For instance, there is a long section devoted to what is termed personalisation, that refers to downloadable questionnaires supposedly intended to capture the profile, demographics and interests, or ‘PDI’, of a user. These are described in exhausting detail, with specific questions such as ‘What is your gender?’, ‘What age bracket are you in?’, and ‘Are you in a paying job?’ and ‘What part of your county are you in?’ with nine options including North West, North Central, and Center.
These are all specified in the English language, or at least a strange form of interrogation that might pass for casual social intercourse among geeks with few friends. It is not entirely clear who these questions are aimed at — presumably people that live alone, perhaps for obvious reasons.
The proposed standard then goes on to specify service usage reporting. Notably it states that the default will be to opt in usage reporting, unless the user opts out for each service provider, where the method of disclosure “is totally optional and need not involve the on screen user interface.” No potential problems there then, even if the proposed reporting mechanism was fit for purpose.
Then there are notifications. These apparently allow a broadcaster to use the internet path to send notifications to television receivers, “which will be presented on arrival regardless of which channel is currently selected for viewing on the TV receiver”. Aside from the obvious issue of whether this will be acceptable to either competing channels or their viewers, the mechanism for implementation is hardly scalable. It envisages that whenever a receiver is on it will continuously poll servers for all subscribed notification services.
There are links, which are essentially triggers that can be broadcast to provide a link to a prompt to download an application. This fundamental feature is given cursory treatment with insufficient detail to allow an interoperable implementation.
In contrast there is a long section describing second screen interactions, although even this is unlikely to be sufficient to implement a workable solution.
This is followed by a section on watermarking a fingerprinting approaches, envisaged where a receiver only has access to an uncompressed audio or video stream with not signalling information. Many companies have attempted to build businesses around proprietary approaches to automatic content recognition, no doubt supported by intellectual property portfolios. There is no indication as to which particular system could be employed in practice, so it remains largely theoretical.
The ATSC notes that compliance with the standard may be covered by patent rights and that one or more patent holders have indicated terms under which they may be prepared to licence their claimed intellectual property.
There are more fundamental problems with the proposed standard, not least whether it really remains relevant. Broadcast television, as opposed to channels delivered by a service provider, generally as part of a pay-television proposition, is only directly relevant to a minority of viewers in the American market.
While there may be some merit in specifying simple signalling that could be carried in the streams of any delivery network, there are many challenges facing the broadcast television model. It is far from clear that the proposed standard delivers sufficient benefits to broadcasters, let alone receiver manufacturers.
The HbbTV specification that has been adopted by some broadcasters in Europe and elsewhere has the benefit of simplicity and a reasonable level of support from receiver manufacturers. The candidate ATSC standard attempts to go beyond this but falls short defining an implementable specification.
A candidate standard is the stage before becoming a proposed standard, which will then be considered as a full ATSC standard.