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Frank SchönbergerApr 4, 20244 min read

MPEG-2: Growing Old Gracefully

The TV broadcast market has been dominated by the AVC/H.264 video codec for more than a decade, while coverage of HEVC/H.265 is currently increasing and VVC/H.266 is already waiting in the wings. However, there is an older standard that is still widely used and is refusing to disappear: MPEG-2.

The driving force of digital television

In the mid-1990s, the foundation of today’s digital television was laid by developing standards like DVB, ATSC and ISDB for terrestrial, cable and satellite transmission. Until the early years of this millennium, the prevailing resolution of TV broadcasting was SD (Standard Definition). The accompanying video codec of choice was MPEG-2 (ISO/IEC 13818-2/ITU-T Rec. H.262).

With the introduction of HDTV (High-Definition TV), MPEG-2 started to lose market share and AVC/H.264 became – and still is – the leading video codec for TV transmission. Because of these extended resolutions, the underlying video codec changes make sure to match the strict bandwidth restrictions of TV broadcast. Today, HEVC/H.265 is the preferred codec for UHD/4K (Ultra-High Definition), and the next-generation broadcast format VVC/H.266 is poised to target 8K transmission and beyond.

However, it remains a big surprise that after so many years, MPEG-2 is still used in digital transmission for TV broadcast.

Why is MPEG-2 still relevant in TV broadcast?

While the OTT and streaming market evolves at an unprecedented pace, MPEG-2 continues to be deployed in over-the-air transmission around the globe. It is the major format for SD TV production in countries and regions that include Europe, Africa, Japan, Australia, South America and the Middle East. MPEG-2’s small processing footprint is key for countries that are forced to rely on outdated infrastructure for TV delivery on both the production and consumer sides, because it would be too expensive for renewal. Older generation consumer electronics devices still cover a not insignificant portion of today’s viewership. As an example, although declining, SD television sets are still common in many countries worldwide.

The huge benefit of MPEG-2 in TV transmission is that it is technically mature, i.e. no further development is required or expected. All the hardware, including studio equipment, transmitters and  set-top boxes, as well as the corresponding infrastructure, is still in place, though no longer being updated for MPEG-2. As such, for those with MPEG-2 based workflows in place, maintenance costs are pretty low and no new investment is required.

Another reason for its ongoing popularity is that MPEG-2's last US patent expired in February 2018, allowing companies to distribute broadcast software and sell hardware without risk.  This dramatically reduces the royalty fees for a product or service compared to other codecs like AVC/H.264 and HEVC/H.265.

There are more advantages for over-the-air broadcasting of MPEG-2. It is still widely used for transmission of live events because its encoding latency is significantly lower (a fraction of a second only), compared to modern and more complex codecs like AVC, HEVC and VVC, which can carry delays up to a couple of seconds. Although the codecs developed this century are much more efficient and provide a higher compression ratio, MPEG-2 obviously still has compelling reasons to continue serving markets.

MPEG-2 is a far cry from being a dying technology in the TV broadcast market. This is why the MPEG-2 software codec is available in MainConcept’s Live Encoder as an option for DVB-based workflows.

Deploy the industry-leading MPEG-2 encoder in a live use-case

MainConcept’s reputation as a leading codec provider started with our MPEG-2 codec that was developed about 30 years ago and is still used throughout the professional production and broadcast market. For broadcasters who are still obliged to produce MPEG-2-based DVB content for new live projects, MainConcept’s Live Encoder is a cost-efficient alternative to expensive and often excessive hardware boxes. As a pure software solution you select hardware that is exactly right for MPEG-2 video encoding – regardless of whether this is an on-premise server or in the cloud. And if you need to be future-ready for HEVC/H.265 and VVC/H.266, you can simply deploy the Live Encoder on a high-end system with more CPU power that is able to handle complex processing jobs.

MainConcept’s Live Encoder is the ideal software platform for DVB MPEG-2 content creation for TV transmission with low maintenance costs and future-proofed for all the latest codec standards.

Apply for a free, fully featured trial version of MainConcept’s Live Encoder. It is available for Windows or Linux. Our professional team of Customer Care experts can support you during the whole evaluation process.

Against all the odds, MPEG-2 has preserved itself in TV broadcast far longer than anyone expected. Its reliability and reach throughout the past few decades has reassured broadcasters around the globe that MPEG-2 remains an industry workhorse. The codec has proved its worth, continuously overcoming obstacles without the need for additional and unforeseeable investments.


Frank Schönberger

Frank Schönberger has been with MainConcept for two decades focused primarily on product management. With deep knowledge of customer requirements and engineering methodology, he is dedicated to collaborating effectively across Sales, Marketing, Product Management and Engineering to ensure MainConcept brings users the technology they need to achieve their vision. A graduate of RWTH Aachen University, Frank studied languages, teaching, history and politics.