ATSC 3.0 Audio: The Competitive Edges Sharpen
The process for determining which of the competing audio formats will become ATSC 3.0, the next-generation standard for broadcast sound in the U.S., has revealed a sharper edge in recent weeks. Since both the MPEG-H Audio Alliance — composed of Fraunhofer Institute, Technicolor, and Qualcomm, which are jointly promoting the MPEG-H codec — and Dolby Laboratories, which is backing its AC-4 codec, demonstrated their respective formats at an ATSC event in Atlanta in July, the science has been taking a back seat to increasingly aggressive marketing tactics.
Each camp has made assertions, about both the benefits of its system and the disadvantages of the other. Dolby executives have pressed the point that the MPEG-H side has not been fully transparent on exactly what IP elements are included in the MPEG-H Audio Alliance TV System, underscoring their contention that that system is relatively untested in broadcast environments and presents broadcasters with significant unknowns.
Robert Bleidt, GM of Fraunhofer’s audio division in the U.S., counters: “It is common practice in MPEG to use subsets or profiles of the full standard for particular industry applications. That’s what we do with AAC and what is done with AVC and HEVC in application standards. It is also true that our encoder for the MPEG-H TV-audio system continues to evolve to produce better quality and less complexity, as all MPEG audio and video encoders do over time.”
Bleidt has chided Dolby for not making its licensing fees available. He cites a licensing document, shown within the industry but made more widely available last week, that sets a sliding rate scale from $0.99 for up to 500,000 units and $0.15 for sales of more than 75 million units. Dolby has not made its licensing structure public but told Consumer Electronics Daily that the cost of licensing AC-4 “is comparable to what has been disclosed by the MPEG Audio Alliance.”
Bleidt asks, “If Dolby’s costs are comparable, why haven’t they published them, as we have done?”
Giles Baker, SVP, Broadcast Business Group, Dolby, says that his company has made its pricing available privately to a number of companies in various industries but has not made those numbers widely available. He adds that Dolby offers comprehensive cost solutions, including a three-for-one price for devices that include Dolby technology.
“Including AC-4 in a device that includes Dolby Digital and/or Dolby Digital Plus doesn’t change the price,” he explains. “This means, for many devices, AC-4 is effectively ‘free’ because other Dolby technology is included.”
Both companies are amassing supporters. A press release issued on Aug. 25 by the MPEG-H coalition includes endorsements by Pearl, a consortium comprising more than 200 network-affiliated TV stations belonging to Cox Media Group, E.W. Scripps, Gannett, Graham Media Group, Hearst Television, Media General, Meredith Local Media Group, Raycom Media, and Schurz Communications. Sinclair Broadcast Group has also publicly endorsed MPEG-H as the codec for ATSC 3.0, and Sinclair VP, Advanced Technology, Mark Aitken has been vocal in his contention that it will offer broadcasters a lower-cost infrastructure as part of that broader MPEG platform.
Dolby’s AC-4 has garnered open support from a range of broadcasters, manufacturers, and others. They include Arris, Envivio, Ericsson, Harmonic, Interra, Linear Acoustic, MStar, Sony, Thomson and Vizio.
Familiarity Breeds Support
Dolby also has a substantial ally in the technical ranks of U.S. broadcasting, where Dolby is deeply embedded in the culture and workflow of television audio: its AC-3 format has been the basis for U.S. broadcast audio since it entered the digital-broadcast era more than a decade ago.
Stacey Foster, president/managing director, production services, Broadway Video/coordinating producer, NBC’s Saturday Night Live/production consultant, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, states in a letter addressed to ATSC Chairman Glenn Reitmeier, senior VP of Advanced Technology, NBC Universal, “Our ability to continue to push the envelope in audio production is predicated on the incredible depth and breadth of expertise we draw on from Dolby Laboratories. We would not be able to do what we do with audio without their dedicated assistance.”
Foster’s views are widely shared among broadcast-audio professionals, who have worked on Dolby-enabled platforms for decades and assert that a move away from that ecosystem would be highly disruptive. However, that same base has been voicing concerns about Dolby’s perceived restraint in aggressively advocating its platform, something they contend that MPEG-H is doing with more vigor.
“Why aren’t they in the fight?” asks one frustrated broadcast executive, who requests anonymity, of Dolby’s strategy.
It’s a sentiment that others share, underscoring how foundational Dolby’s broadcast-audio platforms and the company’s support are in their workflow. Baker points out that Dolby has been actively advocating for AC-4 and that, instead of focusing on the competition of the last several months, the attention should be on the three-year-long development that AC-4 has undergone, emphasizing the continuity the industry can expect with AC-4.
“We’re not being complacent,” he says, firmly.
Although both MPEG-H and AC-4 could be chosen to coexist in the ATSC 3.0 standard, broadcasters and equipment manufacturers would prefer, for cost and workflow reasons, that a single codec be chosen.
Dolby is portraying AC-4 as an evolution of its broadcast platforms that are familiar, reliable, and transparent. Says Blake, “Dolby provides all the source-code testing and support to assure that it all works.”
MPEG-H Audio Alliance, for its part, is confident it can win users over. “We’ll have no problem providing support to content creators,” Bleidt explains. “We have a four-stage process that can take broadcasters from start to finish, depending on what they need to adjust their workflows.”
The stakes are very high. The next ATSC broadcast-audio standard will take the industry into the era of UHD video and 3D immersive sound at a time when wireless mobile platforms are rivaling traditional entertainment-distribution and -consumption modalities. In fact, in light of the continuously broadening array of entertainment and information channels in the world, conventional broadcasting is just one of the arenas this audio-format competition will have implications for. But, given its timing, it’s a pivotal one.