BXF: A Progress Report

The automation standard is still in its early stages of adoption. Is it too soon for 2.0?
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Chris Lennon, chair of the SMPTE 32NF-10 BXF Working Group and director of integration and standards for Harris Broadcast
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In the summer of 2009, members of SMPTE’s 32NF-10 BXF Working Group began working on the development of a new BXF 2.0 standard. BXF (Broadcast eXchange format), is a SMPTE standard that allows traffic management systems communicate with automation systems; no matter what their make and model. Version 1.0 (“BXF”) was published by SMPTE in 2008 as SMPTE 2021:2008.

Like most such standards, BXF’s primary purpose is to replace proprietary traffic/automation messaging systems that cannot communicate with other manufacturers’ products, with an open system that can. BXF’s goal is to reduce manual modification of automation schedules. Using a BXF-based system, traffic managers can automatically update the day’s play-out list anytime they book or change the timing of a commercial/PSA.

“BXF offers a lot of advantages to automation systems,” says Chris Lennon; chair of the SMPTE 32NF-10 BXF Working Group and director of integration and standards for Harris Broadcast Communications. “Chief among those are having a common language for communications with other systems; a stan-dardized means of communicating requests for transfer of content from one place to another; and dynamic, near real time communication with other sys-tems.”

VCI Solutions, a Springfield, Mass.-based provider of sales, traffic and automation workflow systems has been a strong supporter of the standard.

“VCI Solutions is excited to be a part of the BXF 2.0 project, which is working towards enhancing the functionality in BXF,” said Karyn Reid Bliss, VCI Solu-tion’s product manager and a member of SMPTE’s BXF working group. “BXF currently offers a consistent method for communicating between systems that will help move the industry forward.”

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John Wadle, OmniBus’ vice president of technology Manufacturers including Avid, BroadView Software, Harris, OmniBus, Pilat Media, Snell and VCI Solutions have certainly embraced the BXF standard, and are starting to offer it in their traffic and/or automation systems. But not everyone is sure that there’s a need to develop BXF 2.0, when BXF in general is so new.

“It’s a bit early to worry about developing BXF 2.0,” said John Wadle, OmniBus’ vice president of technology and a person who helped develop BXF. “I think we should look to creating BXF 2.0 once people have used the first BXF platforms, and have a better idea of what they need from a version 2.0.”

BXF 2.0’S AMBITIONS

It seems incontestible that BXF is a major advance in traffic/automation system management. “BXF is essentially a messaging system that allows everything within the automation and traffic systems to speak with each other,” said Phil Wilton, product manager for automation for Snell. “With our BXF Gateway in the system—essentially a standalone unit that sits between the traffic and automation systems—requests and changes from traffic are translated and then shipped directly into our Morpheus automation system. There’s no need for human intervention, paper logs, or any other form of intermediate step: It’s seamless.”

Like all improvements to a given standard, BXF 2.0 will retain all of BXF’s capabilities, and then go them one better. “BXF 2.0 is a brand new effort in SMPTE, and consists of items deferred or not addressed in the original BXF effort,” says Chris Lennon. “The biggest advance is expected to be a metadata mapping be-tween BXF and MXF (Material eXchange Format). This is in its early stages right now. We hope to be publishing something standards-wise for this by the end of 2010.”

As benign as this may sound, interconnecting BXF messaging and MXF video files is a very big deal. Also created by SMPTE, the MXF standard is aimed at creating a technology-neutral video file “wrapper,” one that contains data on the video’s characteristics (including encoding) and any associated metadata.

“The goal is to create a system where video files basically ‘self announce’ themselves as they move through various stages of the playout chain,” said Rick Stora, product manager for Avid Automation. “This would be a huge advantage for broadcasters, because this data could be used by elements of the system to automatically select the appropriate codecs and other elements during playback.”

IS IT NEEDED?

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Bob Lamb, CTO of Pilat Media There is no doubt that standards take time to develop; especially though a process as rigorous as SMPTE’s. But with BXF equipment just making its way into TV stations and networks, some manufacturers are wondering why SMPTE is working on BXF 2.0 at this time.

“As with all 1.0 standards, there are issues with the first version of BXF and improvements that can be made,” said Arthur Drevnig, director of sales and mar-keting for BroadbandView Software. “But at this point, I don’t think most of our clients are even interested in BXF 1.0. They just want their traffic and automa-tion systems to be able to talk to each other. Will BXF become the de facto standard? Of course, because it provides value but will it happen quickly? I don’t think so.”

“We need time to digest BXF and have some good live implementations and learn from them, then we can go to 2.0 with some knowledge of what works from a practical point of view,” said Bob Lamb, CTO of Pilat Media. “Laboratory experiments need to be turned into practical applications first.”

Right now Snell is focused on rolling out the existing standard. “We haven’t identified anything else that needs to be done to the BXF standard right now to support our current plans for adoption,” said Dave Collins, Snell’s GM of automation. “We deployed systems during 2009 using BXF as the interface to third party systems for media exchange, we are launching our phase 1 BXF schedule integration support at NAB 2010 and are continuing to enhance our system ca-pabilities to support additional features and functions throughout this year. We already have a number of customers discussing their BXF adoption plans with us, and this is helping to accelerate our development plans and could lead to us needing to make recommendations for future extensions to the current BXF specification,” but that’s it.

The skepticism expressed about BXF 2.0 does not mean that manufacturers are hostile to the new standard; especially because it will be backwards-compatible with BXF. Rather, they just don’t see why SMPTE is working on it so soon. “We’ve got too much on our plate right now to worry about BXF 2.0,” said Wadle. “That’s why we are not part of the BXF 2.0 working group, even though we were involved in developing BXF 1.0.”

For his part, Chris Lennon’s attention is on the creation of BXF 2.0 and he doesn’t feel that this upgrade is being rushed. “This is a due-process group, which develops documents, then feeds them through the SMPTE process all the way through to publication,” Lennon said. “Once we complete the items on the BXF 2.0 work list, we’ll take another look, as a group, at what we have versus what’s needed in the industry and re-evaluate at that point.”

Not surprisingly, Lennon’s eye is on the benefits that BXF 2.0 could offer. “I am most looking forward to the BXF-MXF work to be done, and see that imple-mented in the field,” he concludes. “I think it is likely to be quite useful.”