Applied Technology: Multi-Channel in a Box: Cost-effective Multicasting on the DTV Spectrum
Much has happened in the world of broadcast technology since my company, Sundance, designed and installed the first digital, non-linear spot playback system at KESQ-TV in the late 80s. The system utilized multiple Pioneer VDR-1000 re-recordable laser disk machines controlled by spot insertion software running on a Macintosh SE computer. Prior to that time the industry had largely adopted Sony Betacart machines, preceded a decade earlier by Ampex’s ACR-25 cart-based solution for spot playback.
Fast forward 25 years and we’ve time-travelled into the Digital Age of ATSC television broadcasting. With ATSC comes the bandwidth to support multiple HD and SD channels, and the challenge to generate return on investment after the considerable expense involved to upgrade the transmitter and infrastructure to digital, and the additional hardware and software required to support multi-channel playback.
Recognizing the industry need for a cost-effective, full-featured single and multi-channel automation solution, we created our A-LIST BROADCAST HD/SD Automation System. It supports up to four SD/HD channels per chassis, and is widely used by networks, full power affiliates, LPTV stations, and for PEG channel playback on cable systems (Public, Educational and Government channels). We’re also seeing a gradual but constant increase in demand for support of the “New Broadcast” business model which is built on Internet streaming, and which includes establishing an enhanced presence via a Roku channel.
One of our customers, the Lockwood Broadcast Group, based in Richmond, VA, operates four independent HD channels from one A-LIST system chassis. Because we're a Dell OEM partner, it assures our customers the highest level of Priority Support for all our systems. The 3-Year ProSupport plan they chose includes overnight parts replacement and Next Business Day Onsite service if required. Lockwood also maintains 100% redundancy with a second identical backup system that continually mirrors the media content and playlists on the primary 4-channel A-LIST automation server.
They manage their media assets on various storage devices, and utilize RUSHWORKS’ MediaFetch software to pull files from storage to the A-LIST automation servers based on playlist content imported daily from their Wide Orbit traffic and billing system.
RUSHWORKS has integrated lots of advanced automation functionality into its latest version of A-LIST software, which runs on an off-the-shelf Dell PC.
Lockwood Broadcast Group’s seven stations (six in the Southeast and one in Texas) are now receiving a large percentage of their H.264 transport stream files from PitchBlue, and are converting all of them to 1080i MPEG-2 to assure maximum reliability on the air. A-LIST supports MPEG-2, MP4, AVI and MOV file formats, and provides intra-playlist up/down conversion of HD and SD files to match the user-defined output resolutions of 480i, 720p and 1080i.
Another of our customers, the Victoria Television Group in Victoria, Texas, has nine playback channels which are a mix of SD and HD. They’ve elected to limit their A-LIST configurations to two channels per chassis. They record several hours of satellite-delivered programming every day, so they make extensive use of RUSHWORKS A-LIST Event Recorders (servers), which are configured as both 4-input and 2-input devices. They create automated Record Lists, with the Event Recorders, selecting the appropriate routing switcher inputs for the timed record events on the respective channels.
These two customers are sophisticated broadcasters, with demanding requirements to sustain daily multi-channel operations. However, A-LIST was designed to provide a “powerfully simple” and cost-effective solution for a broad range of customers … from sophisticated operators to the most inexperienced users.
The ability for each automation channel to accept an input allows the I/O card to function as both a clip/graphics playback engine and a “live” pass-through device. In both cases the output passes through an internal ‘downstream’ graphics engine, compositing multiple levels of graphics and animation based on the user’s actions. This functionality reduces or eliminates the need for expensive ‘outboard’ devices, placing virtually all the operating functions within one chassis. The compositing layer accommodates the following:
• Branding Logo (BUG) – with AUTO-BUG feature that fades the graphic on and off based on the length of the “live” or playback item(s)
• Two independent crawls, with configurable font, font size, font color, background color, background transparency, speed, and screen position.
One of these crawls can be designated as the “Emergency” crawl, with content managed remotely by modifying an “Emergency.txt” file. This provides on-screen display of crawling text or text with a graphic. The crawls can also display RSS feed information parsed from virtually any selected RSS source. Including:
• Dedicated crawl for EAS, receiving start/stop data via RS232 or IP from EAS receiver
• Display animated graphic (snipe) with transparency and audio
• “Up Next” text overlay
• Date/Time/Temp overlay
• Generic informational text overlay
The expanded feature set includes the following:
• Up to four (4) SD/HD channels per chassis
• Drag and Drop scheduling
• Time of Day / DTMF / GPIO event scheduling/triggering
• File trimming and segmenting, with metadata stored within the file for portability
• Ability to RECORD both “live” (pass-through) and scheduled Events
• Support for MPEG-2, H.264, AVI and MOV playback
• Real-time up/down conversion of SD and HD files
• Selectable output configuration: 1080i, 720p, 480i
• 2D and 3D DVE transitions
• Integrated MultiZone Bulletin Board
• Traffic Import / As-Run log generation (Wide Orbit, Harris, Summit, AdEz, etc.)
• AUTO-LOOP and AUTO-FILL folder drop-ins
• Sub-playlist insertion
• Support for virtually all AV routing switchers
• Stream directly using Flash Media Live Encoder
This aggregated functionality translates into a significant price/performance value, with the price of a single channel SD system, including 2 x 2TB mirrored drives, at $8,495.
As a company we’ve always maintained a commitment to providing solid, reliable solutions with 24/7/365 technical support that assures the highest level of confidence in day-to-day system operations and functionality. We also believe that the combination of price, features and support are what distinguish RUSHWORKS from others; as we continue to help traditional broadcasters as they undergo a significant “makeover” at every level.
The costs for making the digital transition are significant, and while there is the enticement of being able to offer multiple channels with this new digital spectrum, operators can’t afford the “Big Iron” automation solutions of the past. With the volume and budgets of advertisers eroding due to alternate media distribution opportunities, return on investment can only be realized by (a) prudent capital expenditures which provide the necessary infrastructure for multicasting, and (b) by using existing or even reduced staff to manage additional channel operations.
For RUSHWORKS, the keys to integrating all this functionality into a “Multi-Channel in a Box” are the combination of (1) appropriate hardware selection and integration, (2) a proper software development environment (generally called the developers’ SDK), and (3) the vision of how to integrate features and functions so that they perform optimally behind a very simple interface that belies the power and extensibility of the software/hardware solution. This must happen without sacrificing 24/7/365 reliability and fault-tolerant redundancy.
Author’s bio: Rush Beesley is a well-respected technology pioneer in the field of broadcast automation and related workflow enhancements for local broadcasters. He is currently president of RUSHWORKS, a broadcast automation software vendor based in Flower Mound, Texas. For more information, visit http://www.rushworks.tv/.