Korean Broadcasts of the Winter Olympics Will Be in Stereo and 5.1, Thanks to Labor Disruptions

Strike leads broadcasters to forgo implementation of the immersive-audio MPEG-H format

Three South Korean broadcast networks that had been working toward implementing the immersive-audio MPEG-H format for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics will instead broadcast the Games in conventional stereo and 5.1-surround formats. The decision was due to ongoing labor strife at the networks, according to a source at Fraunhofer IIS, developer of the MPEG-H codec.

Fraunhofer’s Stefan Meltzer: “We would have loved to have immersive sound for the Olympics, but we also understand the broadcasters’ position.”

“Regarding the Olympics and MPEG-H, the Korean broadcasters decided to do only stereo and 5.1 for the Olympics,” says Stefan Meltzer, technology consultant to Fraunhofer. “Due to the strike from September to November at KBS and MBC and the resulting exchange of the top management at KBS, MBC, and SBS, they lost a lot time in preparing for the Olympics. So they decided to play it safe on the audio side and do only stereo and 5.1.”

Unionized employees of MBC and KBS went on strike in September, complaining of political and management interference with news and other programming. The strikes involved 1,130 producers and reporters at KBS and some 400 at MBC, according to published regional reports.

Meltzer points out that the MPEG-H codec has already been implemented into the broadcasters’ operations, used in daily broadcasts on the country’s UHDTV system since May. However, he adds, it is currently used only as a more coding-efficient codec for stereo and 5.1 content, compared with the AC-3 codec on the country’s ATSC 1.0 HD system.

“It is a quite normal approach that you start a new service with the basic features first and [later add] more-advanced features,” he explains, noting that the strikes delayed the networks’ acquisition of necessary operational experience and expertise ahead of the Olympics broadcasts. “New management decided at the end of November to play it safe and do only stereo and 5.1 for the Olympics. Of course, we would have loved to have immersive sound for the Olympics, but we also understand the broadcasters’ position.”

Fraunhofer had developed and conducted a training program for the South Korean broadcasters ahead of the format’s deployment there as part of the country’s launch of ATSC 3.0 as its television-broadcast standard this year. The MPEG-H audio codec was included as part of the Korean standard for terrestrial UHD broadcasts after tests last year. The Winter Olympics were to be the codec’s first major sports-broadcasting rollout.

Despite the setback, says Meltzer, who supervised the training process ahead of the Olympics, MPEG-H remains a part of South Korean broadcasting’s future and will be implemented in other major sports events elsewhere.

“We are in constant discussion with them,” he says, “and there are more big sport events coming up in 2018, which are new opportunities,” including FiFA’s World Cup matches in July in Russia.

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