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Intelligent control systems

Figure 1. Monitoring over IP can eliminate infrastructure and staffing duplication. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.

In many television master control rooms and operating centers, operators are becoming overwhelmed with the quantity and variety of information they are exposed to. This is a direct result of having to control and monitor an increasing number of channels.

Video monitoring and control over IP

But it's not just a question of channel numbers. The content has also become richer, with more textual and graphical material. All these elements make the task of video monitoring more demanding.

The solution isn't simply adding more staff. That's not a cost-effective answer. The solution lies in creating a more efficient and smarter control environment.

Addressing the issues

Broadcast equipment vendors have responded with radical new thinking about the role of the operator in today's mega-channel, content-rich environment. The solutions encompass both smarter control technology and new workflows. This fresh thinking is rapidly gaining ground and has proven especially appealing to the newer entrants to television playout coming from the telecoms sector.

One type of solution involves monitoring video images and signals over IP. In the past, this method was considered to be risky — even unreliable — by some. Those concerns were based upon the belief that packet networks were intended for data applications only. However, the increasing prevalence of IP, as well as the reliability of high-speed IP backbones and the addition of IP connectivity to broadcast hardware, is changing established views.

The growth of video monitoring over IP is being driven by the reality that the technology can significantly reduce both infrastructure monitoring and operations costs, especially in distributed control environments.

Let's look at the problems inherent with traditional broadcast monitoring. In a typical environment, the control room operator monitors video images and signal parameters by directly tapping the video feeds at the baseband level, typically at the ingest or end points. These images are then displayed on a centralized video wall by multi-image display processors.

Using graphics-rich control systems

This approach makes sense when all the video feeds are located in the same facility. However, as the network grows, it becomes necessary to deploy these video monitoring facilities across multiple sites. This duplication means recurring investment in manpower, equipment and real estate. Furthermore, a distributed broadcasting environment requires tight coordination among all sites to solve problems in a timely manner.

Also, displaying all of the required video feeds simultaneously to all the facilities at the baseband level plus duplication of network paths requires enormous transmission capacity. Therefore, this method is rarely used. This arrangement also prevents effective centralized system control and can make problem-solving daunting and time-consuming, especially in larger systems.

Third-party integration

In contrast, video monitoring over IP provides easy remote video monitoring in centralized and distributed broadcast environments. It completely avoids the need to duplicate technical monitoring personnel and equipment at each site, which can yield significant cost savings.

Another key aspect in improving network control systems has been the development of more visually rich control surfaces. Such displays provide an engaging and immediately familiar view of facilities, which allows easy tracking of signals throughout the playout path. These graphical views can be geographic, showing an overview facility status, or operational, providing more detailed information. In some new systems, 3-D graphics allow operators to even navigate the facility as if they are walking around the equipment bays and review the system configuration from the desktop.

Streaming video of the signals at key stages provides operators with clear identification of video streams as they pass through the facility, which also assists with rapid fault diagnosis. Alarm conditions can be detailed and even customized based on operator skills or multiple languages.

Figure 2. Integrated baseband and IP monitoring with third-party application integration can provide customized responses based on a variety of inputs. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.

It is important to standardize control and monitoring interfaces so operators know what's happening and can appropriately respond as needed. It's not efficient to have a desktop full of PCs each controlling different devices. These need to be replaced by a single interface.

This single interface should bring together multiple control solutions into one master environment. Control applications from multiple vendors are then hosted directly within this main control system. This allows a single keyboard and mouse to control multiple third-party applications.

Monitoring by exception

More importantly, specific control applications can be triggered by alarms from an associated piece of broadcast equipment. This means the operator is immediately and automatically presented with the appropriate toolset to address that specific problem.

Taking control to an even higher level, broadcasters can now also take advantage of intelligent designs that provide automated responses based on the triggered alarm. This can be as simple as a text message telling operators what to do. Or, fully automated responses including adjustments can be triggered for times when stations are unmanned.

Perhaps even more radical is the concept of monitoring by exception. This is a style of operation that has been developed in response to the ever increasing size of playout systems.

In environments where the channel count is more than 50, the use of traditional monitoring schemes is not an effective way to accurately identify and correct signal faults; there are too many channels for operators to keep track of. Asking operators to just see and control more doesn't work.

Expanding television control rooms and operating centers to house wider and higher monitor walls with additional banks of computer monitors isn't the solution either. Experience shows that beyond their attractiveness, large control rooms with displays conveying images and data from hundreds of TV signals typically lose their effectiveness because operators have difficulty assimilating all the information. They simply can't distinguish faulty signals from valid ones with so many visual elements to monitor.

Even when errors are detected and acknowledged, the sheer complexity of the signal paths and the large number of possible sources or errors can result in embarrassing delays before a valid signal can be restored.

Monitoring by exception is a method whereby the monitoring system continuously monitors all video/audio signals, and the control room operator is only alerted if certain preset conditions are triggered. The network operator can set up logical alarm groupings, alarm filtering and dynamic alarm profiling to define preset alarm conditions offering maximum flexibility.

In essence, exception-based monitoring allows control room personnel to focus their attention on signals that require their input by filtering out of view those signals that are valid. In addition, this scheme provides detailed end-to-end views of the signals that are in error, so rapid resolution is more likely

While this concept is still relatively new to broadcasting, it has been used in areas as diverse as information technology, database management and business metrics, as well as in various industrial and security applications. Although diverse in nature, all these applications are similar in that the amount of data that must be monitored is large. Likewise, in most cases, only a relatively small subset of elements will show errors or deviance from set thresholds at any one time.

In a large volume broadcast playout environment, this method has been proven to reduce the mean time to repair (MTTR) and assist in catching problems that would be missed using the traditional method of human visual monitoring.

Taken together, these new developments in control and monitoring can bring a much higher level of intelligence to the television station control system. Perhaps just as important, the technology brings real financial benefits to broadcasters as they further expand the numbers of channels their staffs must handle.

François Gourvil is product manager — monitoring, control & new media, and Marcel Setiawan is proposal/project manager for Miranda Technologies.