Over the last several years, the broadcast industry has made a concerted effort to simplify the content playout workflow with better integrated systems. Using what has become commonly known as IT-based playout, or “channel-in-a-box” systems, many in the community have become comfortable with managing even complex, multichannel playout scenarios that include rich graphics, multiple audio tracks, and a mixture of live and recorded content. The development of advanced automation technology for content playout, switching, signal processing and graphics has greatly simplified the back end of the playout workflow.
Although use of advanced automation removes much of the complexity from the back end of the playout, a long list of concerns must still be addressed. This is particularly true in the front end of the workflow. Here, a large number of file formats, codecs and content contribution methods, as well as the need to prepare files for multiple types of nonlinear (VOD) content consumption, continue to create major challenges. Engineers now must shift their focus to upstream processes in order to ensure efficiency across the complex workflow that drives content to an ever-growing number of edge devices. These front-end processes represent a huge undertaking for broadcasters today, and they consume a growing percentage of a facility's available resources — often without providing additional revenues. (See Figure 1.)
The increased complexity in content ingest and preparation, combined with the growth in the demand for nonlinear content, represents a key opportunity for broadcasters — to simplify and automate portions of the workflow to stay ahead of the curve, while remaining lean. A new generation of tools can help broadcasters manage this situation to stay efficient and remain ready to scale as the complexity continues to increase.
Managing all the file formats
Today, nearly all content arrives at a typical broadcast facility in files, and broadcasters need to manage dozens of formats, including multiple codecs and file wrapper formats. All this content needs to be ingested, checked and normalized to match the broadcaster's specific standard and to ensure that all the appropriate information and metadata is present. From there, it has been customary to perform many of the routine signal processing tasks in real time, during playout, such as correcting aspect-ratio errors and avoiding excessive loudness.
As more and more content has been added to the mix, however, this live process has become increasingly more complex to manage and therefore more risky. Using file-based processing, offline, during the front end of the workflow (i.e., before live playout) minimizes the risk and greatly simplifies the workflow. Processing incoming content in this way enables faster-than-real-time monitoring of content, reducing resources necessary for QC and improving overall QoS.
A big key to the success of a file-based system is creating an effective content normalization process to quickly ascertain necessary information about content that is entering the workflow, from both known and unfamiliar sources. For example, files created internally or received via a station's parent network will typically demand a different processing requirement to those received from one of the many file delivery services, such as Pathfire. Any “wild” files must go through a careful file-assessment process before entering the facility workflow. (See Figure 2.) This can be performed efficiently by checking key parameters such as loudness, format and audio configuration to determine the types of processing required to bring the file into the desired format and then automatically transferring this requirement to the processing grid. This file-based normalization process can improve profitability by lowering operating costs. It can also eliminate concerns over errors that are not spotted until they go to air.
Nonlinear content handling
The need to deliver content to the ever-increasing range of VOD, catch-up and OTT television services stretches the bandwidth of broadcasters, who often do not even have the luxury of incremental revenues to offset the additional costs. This makes production of these nonlinear services a huge drain on resources for many broadcasters.
It has become the norm for nonlinear content workflows to operate almost fully independently from the traditional content workflow. This approach worked for a time, but the recent growth in the number of platforms and content that needs to be managed to compete in the nonlinear world has made an independent workflow scenario a nightmare to maintain. VOD programming is no longer something that is just nice to have. It is critical that broadcasters provide this type of value-added service to maintain viewership and compete against the long list of available alternates and Internet-enabled services. The complexity of generating all the necessary multi-platform content — not to mention managing multiple languages, captioning requirements and other issues — have left some broadcasters with inefficient workflows containing an awkward mixture of automated and manual processes.
The fact that most of the content prepared for VOD does not generate large revenues has been a big issue, for obvious reasons. However, some broadcasters are able to capture revenues thanks to ratings services that are now tied to viewership of recorded content. For example, Nielsen C3 enables broadcasters to earn credit for a spot that is viewed as part of recorded content up to three days after the programming was viewed initially. The C7 format goes even further, enabling the broadcaster to substitute different ads from four to seven days after the original broadcast to create additional revenues. This sort of revenue opportunity is a benefit for broadcasters and provides significant incentive to tie the preparation of nonlinear content to the traditional playout process. Using a single, unified system to manage the preparation and playout of all multi-platform content results in not only more efficient operations but also in incremental revenues.
Another challenge of managing the wide range of nonlinear content has been effectively branding the content and using graphics for time-sensitive promotions. Broadcasters are just as eager to brand this material as their live programming to promote viewer loyalty and drive eyes to new programming. The obvious problem, though, is that VOD content is not consumed at a specific time — so tried-and-true tactics such as “up-next” promos are basically worthless. Because broadcasters have tried to be as efficient as possible in processing VOD content, they have often avoided the additional workflow steps required to create separate branding schemes for the nonlinear content, choosing instead to post this content with little, if any, branding. This obviously leaves opportunities on the table.
By using automated VOD mastering and cross-platform branding, this vexing problem is relatively easy to address. A VOD content-preparation system, with tight integration between linear and on-demand content preparation, can improve the flexibility and speed of the production, minimize costs, and enable new capabilities. (See Figure 3.) When a broadcast operation can share content and processes across all workflows, it gains full visibility across the organization of schedule requirements. This means that VOD promo graphics can reference schedule information, such as when new episodes play on the linear channel each week. A smarter process also avoids unnecessary duplication of effort, such as transcoding the same content multiple times.
By using the most modern VOD content generation techniques, broadcasters can satisfy all their needs without taking on additional manpower costs. The technology exists to provide integrated support for cross-platform preparation and branding that can handle even the most complex requirements, such as closed captioning, Nielsen watermarking, AFD and V-chip metadata. Support for BXF to enable smooth integration with traffic systems is also available, as is integration with asset management systems that grab content from generic storage, servers, editing systems and other potential locations.
Broadcasters face many challenges when determining the best ways to manage the huge array of content they now are tasked with preparing and providing to viewers. The challenge of managing a completely separate workflow to process nonlinear content does not have to be one of them. By using unified, automated content preparation for linear and VOD content, a broadcaster can operate a playout workflow that is better suited for present needs — and for the future. With no end in sight to the need to keep doing more to attract viewers, creating an integrated playout workflow that incorporates nonlinear content delivery represents a smart decision.
Stephane Blondin is senior product manager at Miranda Technologies.