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Production switchers: A process of evolution

French service provider AMP recently updated its OB8 truck to HD by installing a Sony MVS-8000 HD/SD switcher and a new HD video panel.

Greater flexibility, lower costs

Broadcast workflows are evolving. Technology has enabled tighter integration of the production switcher with routers, disk recorders, VTRs and other devices. At the same time, the switcher itself is becoming part of an increasingly networked world. No longer a standalone device, switchers can communicate across standard data networks with other switches and even remote maintenance systems. In parallel with these developments, broadcasters are readying for the European introduction of high-definition transmissions.

Within the last five years, digital production switchers have become the mainstay of many live production operations. Offering improved performance and functionality compared with their analog predecessors, the latest digital designs are smaller, lighter and far more cost-effective than their analog predecessors. Just as important, they're far more flexible in terms of configuration than their forebears, and it's easier to enhance their capabilities via software or firmware upgrades.

Switching on to high definition

Equally suited to installation in a studio or OB truck, the latest designs incorporate sophisticated digital multi-effects capabilities and on-board frame memories while supporting tight integration with routers, VTRs and other systems. Continuing advances in digital signal processing mean that current switchers are far more compact while consuming less power than their predecessors of just a few years ago. Improved reliability aside, the benefits are obvious in the confines of a cramped studio gallery or OB vehicle, where electrical and air-conditioning costs can be reduced while saving precious space.

There's no doubt that the biggest influence on live production during the next few years will be the television industry's steady migration to high definition. The falling cost of HD-capable receivers and displays will fuel consumer thirst for better looking pictures. At the same time, program makers are planning their high definition strategies now to ensure that they are well placed to reap the benefits of HD's breathtaking picture quality.

Offering program makers a future-proof platform to create high-quality material with increased viewer appeal and global interest, HD is rapidly gaining momentum as a natural progression from SD. Multiformat switchers are a key component in this evolution, bringing the benefits of HD to live, OB and studio-based multi-camera productions, where reliability and affordability are as important as picture quality.

As well as offering a dramatically improved on-screen look — even when downconverted for SD transmission — HD-created content enhances the global market appeal of any production. Most significantly, the cost of producing HD has already fallen to the point where it presents a compelling business case for any broadcaster, production company or rental operation.

Toward a networked world

Ahead of mainstream service launches, broadcasters are steadily migrating their infrastructures to support HD production. Many broadcasters are evolving in a smooth, incremental process, with HD/SD switchable cameras, monitors and multiformat switchers being seamlessly integrated alongside SD equipment. Latest-generation HD switchers are no larger than corresponding SD models, making it an even more attractive option to introduce multiformat working into a SD environment with minimal disruption.

High definition is rapidly gaining momentum as a natural progression from SD, and multiformat switchers, such as the Sony MVS-8000, are a key component in this evolution.

Local area networks — based normally on 100baseT or Gigabit Ethernet infrastructures — have become a standard fixture in any office environment. They are also becoming the key to simplified, more flexible management of the production switcher, router and other studio elements. Attach the switcher to a PC network, and it's easy to control its functions from any location. System management software running on another networked PC gives virtual control over switcher functions and the ability to adjust any setting from a remote location. With a connected PC, it's easy to prepare all switcher settings for the next job as a background task before uploading the entire configuration in seconds.

This network-centric approach offers other benefits in terms of operational convenience. Still images such as logos and even animated wipes can be created using a standard PC graphics package and uploaded via the server to the switcher's on-board frame memory.

Workflow integration

The latest developments in switcher technology also have given new opportunities for broadcasters and production companies to streamline traditional workflows.

A prime example of this is live coverage of sporting events that depend heavily on slow-motion replay of the goalmouth or trackside action. Reflecting this need, some switchers now offer tight integration with disk recorders that can be controlled directly from the switcher's control surface using the widely-supported Video Disk Command Protocol. Whereas it used to require the services of a separate operator to provide a dedicated slow-motion feed on request, nowadays the producer can simply ask the vision mixer to call up an insert from a connected server.

The falling cost and increased capacity of digital storage have given switcher manufacturers the ability to include generously-specified on-board still stores capable of holding hundreds of frames. It's now practical to pre-load the switcher with all the animated wipes and stills that might be required for a major sporting event, giving producers increased options without the additional cost and complexity of dedicated frame store hardware.

Another key trend is the increasing family likeness of large and smaller switcher designs targeted at different applications. As well as reducing manufacturing costs, consistent design of the control surface shortens the learning curve, as well as reduces staff training costs for broadcasters and program makers who can standardize on a familiar control interface.

Greater reliability

Live production remains one of the greatest logistical and technical challenges for any broadcaster. Reliability and performance are equally vital in a live situation where the loss of a camera channel, for instance, can have catastrophic results. What's more, the rigors of live production and outside broadcast place special demands on the switcher that may be used in hostile environments and extremes of temperature far removed from the confines of an air-conditioned studio.

Fortunately, modern switchers offer vastly improved reliability compared with designs of just a few years ago, requiring almost zero maintenance while offering the possibility of quick, easy software feature upgrades. Broadcasters and rental operations can thus benefit from an improved return on their investment, adding new capabilities to extend the switcher's working life and keep pace with latest developments. Migrating switcher functions to a networked world also delivers exciting benefits in terms of system maintenance. With support for the widely-adopted SNMP protocol now appearing on switchers, it's even possible to keep an eye on system performance from any location.

A look to the future

There's little argument that the production switcher will feature at the heart of broadcast work-flows for many years to come. It also looks certain that operation will continue to be via a bespoke hardware panel, because this is the only practicable means for an operator to access all the functions they require instantaneously. In the future, there will be even tighter integration between the switcher production system and graphics or replay devices, giving operators even more functionality and facilities from the control panel while reducing the need for specialist operators to support the vision mixer in the hot seat with a producer seated alongside them.

This increasing shift towards greater integration, however, should be balanced with the real-world needs of the human operator in charge. Putting one individual in control of many functions that have traditionally been handled by other staff is empowering for the operator, and it's a great way to save on operational costs. It must, however, be implemented so that an additional workload does not compromise the creative judgement of the operator.

Andrew Hotten is product manager, live production switchers for Sony Business Europe.