February 2001
Going digital!

Digital coming of age.

Digital is unstoppable.

Whether you or we like it, digital technology is now pretty well unstoppable in broadcasting. Some of, or should we say in reality, most of, the reasons for this are financial but the tide is unstoppable and we felt it about time to look at some of the pros and cons.
No technical contest.

In technical terms, in theory at least, there's no real contest: dubbing or editing without degradation, instant access to the bits you want, ability to edit more accurately or re-edit a known piece knowing only an "in" and "out" point but without needing to wait whilst a tape plays through all of the material, better quality audio (and video) if wanted or the ability to cram in more channels of the same quality within the same spectrum. In reality maybe things aren't quite that perfect, if only because we humans listen to or look at an analogue world and thus don't necessarily relate particularly well to some of the factors that currently come with some of today's digital technology.

Technical plus!

So let's take the pros first. Adjustable non-linear technology can be a terrific aid to a craftsman in both audio and video who wants to get something just right. In the days of disc audio recordings, editing really didn't exist and even after tape (and always with film) the advantages of non-linear capability was significantly hampered by the fact that you lost some material each time with a physical cut as well as having difficulty in getting the exact cut-point. Now with graphical displays along a timeline and the ability to accurately adjust edit points as well as mixes on a trial basis without losing anything, a craftsman has no real excuses for not getting things right. Not of course, given time to do so! Then, if the trouble is taken to develop a proper filing system and electronically label material as it goes onto a server hard drive, it's very easy to recall it -and possible for more than one person to use the same original source at the same time for different purposes.

It also helps the business side!

And of course, some forms of record keeping, can then be much more automated. No human intervention is needed to produce a list of what material has been used, what has actually been broadcast (and go immediately to a time-stamped recording if there is a query from an advertiser or a complaint), where relevant what royalties need to be paid, and via watermarking also ensure that piracy is traceable. It also makes distribution more sophisticated. The central computer can be set up to remotely control station servers and deliver material to them; the station equipment in turn can be set up to opt in and opt out on a pre-organised basis. And what if the human you're using is a bit too laid back or disorganised at times? You could of course have the computer as presenter but so far that route would seem to have limited appeal. But, not going that far, the message-box from the data base can come up with suggestions and hints - or could even stop a back-to-back repeat of the same item, be it a news story or a musical track in error. And of course, should it be felt necessary, back-up copies can be made very easily and printed schedules produced so that, in case of a problem, there is an emergency fallback available. Or even a halfway house for pre-recorded programme distribution. Digital all the way to a CD, which is then, shipped physically where a station prefers this.

Still some cons.

So how could there be any cons. Well, there's that well-known human inability to think of everything in advance which does affect the programming of the computers - as well as adding a certain "edge" to a live show, which may well attract the audience. And when we spoke of improving the product on edits, we noted having the time to do so.
Digital technology can not only aid control but can also enable the lazy or hard pressed to just stick things together without listening to transition points and edits. Result a vastly inferior product - cheap but nasty to all except the accountants. And, as we have already noted in a report on the effects of the "cash" technology that takes out pauses to allow more adverts but may well ruin the pace of a show (RNW Jan 6, 2000 ), the bean counters don't necessarily seem to mind product problems.
Not that we should be too hard on them bearing in mind the numbers using Napster and other technologies to download MP3s. Considering the amount an enthusiast would spend extra on ensuring a turntable was silent for playing an LP, we can't conceive that a single enthusiast would ever use a PC to play music which includes very quiet passages. If anyone does know of a PC cooling fan as silent as a turntable, please let us know and we'll be delighted to retract. For that matter we would note that MP3 itself is a compromise of losing some signal to reduce storage requirements, however well it may be designed to set those compromises to minimise the effect to the human ear. Did we say cheaper but nastier?

Better if we so choose!

But not necessarily so! Given the time and resources, the technology can make the product better. Choosing not to cram too many signals into the bandwidth means that the ultimate technical quality will not suffer. Choosing not to run a station for minimum costs but for maximising returns may well mean the increase in audience more than outweighing the extra costs. The technology then is a tool not a master. And digital offers many opportunities should we choose to take them. .

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