Streamlining Channel Origination

Channel origination has gotten more complex. Channel or program origination is what we have traditionally called “master control”. The evolution from master control to program origination began as cable and satellite providers entered the market. Their multi-channel operations centers were more like program delivery control centers than the more traditional broadcast master control. In the early days of broadcast television, the master control room had a lot of the same functionality as a production control room. The master control switcher received audio and video feeds from studios, external feeds, direct from camera, audio announce booths (voice over) and both audio and video tape machines. The master control operator was responsible for all the audio and video transitions to air.

The master control system had all the same, if not more, monitoring—plus, the monitoring, testing and measurement equipment for quality assurance. In addition to switching between sources, the master control switch can key titles and graphics; the master control system has its own character generator/graphics systems. The master control operator essentially ran a live show.

Master Control Changes

Today, master control has changed. It once provided live switching to air, plus had the responsibility for all playout. This has transitioned to the job of an operator ensuring that tapes are loaded correctly into robotic tape libraries and more recently that files are loaded into servers. Traffic schedules and playlists are confirmed and checked for errors before the operator imports them to the automation system and playout server. The operator maintains the traffic and transmission log.

These master control systems require the same amount of equipment and support including space, power and environmental conditioning as production systems, plus all the infrastructure and supporting terminal equipment. Adding redundancy means doubling up on equipment and introducing another layer of complexity in system design and management. All this space, power and heat are considerable and contribute heavily to overhead costs.

Most master control operations are still manual. The syndicated network feeds arrive by satellite and fiber. They are either recorded to tape in advance for delayed broadcast or received as a file delivered into a server that gets put on removable media for playout. The schedule is delivered separately and needs to be integrated with the traffic log. Other programming such as interstitial materials, commercials, PSAs and bumpers also arrive separately and require preparation and packaging before insertion to air.

A Workflow Transition

With the introduction of automation, the entire workflow has changed. The automation systems now control routers, graphic devices, master control switchers, and playout VTRs and servers. However, the automation system comes with its own hardware, software and interfaces adding rather than reducing the system. The automation system requires a considerable amount of design and engineering to interface with all these devices. Multiple protocols, RS422, RS232, GPI triggers and APIs are available to control these devices. There are many new and different “black boxes” to convert and synchronize these protocols and enable a wide range of devices to interface with the automation system.

The next major change to master control systems was server technology. This has had an impact on streamlining some of the workflow while adding more equipment to the master control systems.

In the transition from SDI to IP, systems and devices have moved to servers and an IP-based architecture. All program content, commercials and interstitial content, other than live or direct-to-air feeds, is loaded into the playout server. The operator then imports the playlist from the traffic system. However, the server still outputs to a master control switcher, which performs the integration of live feeds, titles and clips from the character generator and graphic systems. The automation system controls the playout server as just another device. There are still numerous devices and systems upstream and downstream of the master control switcher.

With the transition to DTV, all “Over the Air” stations have been pushed into becoming multi-channel program originators, in many ways similar to cable. Each channel has unique program streams with individual branding, cross promotion, interstitials and commercials. This means each channel uses separate devices. The automation now has to manage multiple traffic schedules, playlists, systems and devices.

The operator’s role consists mainly of managing systems that integrate the live and packaged program segments to air. In the current world of multi-channel program origination, this begins to get complicated for the master control operator. The workflow is managing multiple traffic schedules with many devices feeding different program content, branding and interstitial material into the broadcast chain.

Channel originators are constantly looking at ways to streamline their workflow. While this means optimizing the use of automation to find efficiencies in operations, there is always the matter of systems and devices. There is also a greater need to reduce the number of unique operations and devices necessary to deliver program. Fortunately, newer devices are more powerful and have feature sets that allow a consolidation of functionality into fewer devices. The master control switch can play small clips, and run animations and graphics. Many can also do the squeeze back commonly used at the head or tail of a program.

Bringing it All Together

The next iteration of this consolidation and automation is aggregating more functionality into fewer devices. In the IP-centric and file-based eco system with file transfer between devices, there should be less SDI encode/decode between devices. Many advances have been made in layering and splicing IP streams without having to decode back to SDI for titles and graphics.

The channel-in-a-box technology is addressing many of these challenges. These devices consolidate much of the functionality of master control playout in a smaller footprint. From a facility perspective, this can reduce the amount of space, power and environmental conditioning support needed. From an operational perspective, there is one screen needed to operate and manage a channel.

Using the channel-in-a box in a backup scenario, this can be used for a completely redundant system, in a small profile easily managed from a desktop locally or remotely. The channel-in-a box is also a cost-effective solution for startups, and corporate or institutional organizations, where their energy is better spent focusing on content and not program origination.