The Future of Cable Television Audio is Accessible (2020)

By Mark Francisco, Comcast Cable

Television sound hasn’t changed much since its first appeared in the U.S. in 1941. In the 1940s, television audio was broadcast as a frequency modulated (FM) subcarrier to the video program. A stereo subcarrier was added in the 1970s. A secondary audio channel was introduced in the 1980s, primarily for dominant non-native languages such as Spanish. Digital audio introduced surround sound over cable and satellite services in the late 1990s, and over-the-air transmission with the conversion to Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) broadcasting in the 2000 aughts. Twenty years later, despite the explosion of Internet Protocol (IP) and Internet delivery, television audio has made little progress, with the exception of the broadcast of Descriptive Audio or Video Description (formally named as Audio Descriptions) and the expansion of two dimensional audio to three dimensions with object-based audio, the latter of which is only available using IP-delivery and Blu-Ray. The future of broadcast television has been standardized internationally. with the recent release of ATSC 3.0. Its advances include video and audio formats by moving to IP encapsulation, adding high-dynamic range and UltraHD (4K) video, and advancing audio to a novel audio ecosystem, AC-4, supporting greater efficiency, fidelity and personalization compared to current audio delivery.

Since the advent of “talkies,” in the late 1800s, audio has always been an appreciated accompaniment to video. There is a long-standing truism that “sound is more than half the picture”. Despite its ability to convey a story comprehensively (as in radio), however, television sound is seldom delivered on its own.

For 12 million people in the US, sound conveys the entire television experience. Sight impairment and blindness affects a large and growing segment of the population. Congenital conditions, disease, injuries and age fuel the reliance on audio over visual inputs, and these causes are predicted to grow overtime. Conversely, the same is true of those who rely partly or completely on vision over hearing. The need for information, communications and entertainment in video- or sound-only format is increasing.

The desire to advance single sensory experiences is not just a regulatory or moral imperative -- it is good business. Inclusive products yield business opportunities for disabled and abled people alike. Disability is not necessarily a permanent condition -- it is defined by the World Health Organization as a mismatch between the individual’s ability at the moment and the environment with which they are in. Therefore, we may all experience disabilities (and need for accommodation) at some point in our lives.

While much has been accomplished in the pursuit of equivalent experiences for people of all abilities, many opportunities exist. Cable television is a sexagenarian industry with incredible establishment, reach and constraints preventing evolution. This fact can only serve to increase resolve, as disruptive change is possible and can offer large advances in value, equitability and experience.

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