The changing nature of media consumption has transformed the broadcast business model. Broadcasters are delivering a proliferation of media-related services to broader audiences via additional outlets and platforms. As the number of offerings has grown, however, average revenue per service has dropped. In a tough economic climate, and with IPTV and VOD services gaining ground, broadcasters face constant competitive and price pressures. And, while trends and evolving technologies continue to shape products, broadcasters are finding that it's more important than ever that their established channel playout operations run as efficiently as possible.

Over the past decade, station groups and origination facilities have considered centralization of operations and infrastructures as a means of reducing the resources — including equipment and staff — required for playout across multiple facilities. In this shift, such organizations are finding that savings promised by centralcasting models can be realized only if the project is guided by business goals rather than by adoption of new technology for technology's sake.

While defining their business goals for a centralcasting model, broadcast groups and origination facilities must evaluate current processes and determine where costs and the greatest inefficiencies occur. They also must maintain as a priority the ability of local stations to maintain their own branding and elements such as sports, news and weather that are fundamental not only to their identities, but also to their community value. In essence, the facility must implement technology and infrastructure that support a balance of centralization and localization.

Multicasting models

Within centralcasting's landscape, two models have emerged. In the first of these, the multi-region facility model, the automation system's sophistication at the hub supports highly-efficient playout of primary content, as well as regional variations, across all sites. Figure 1 demonstrates a centralcasting model employed by a multiregional facility sending feeds all across the country.

Within the facility, external traffic systems provide the automation system with both common and local programming schedules. This centralized control scheme allows single operators to manage several channels from one workstation. While common scheduling (represented by blue blocks) is delivered according to the playout schedule, four different blocks (purple, green, yellow and red) of programming are sent out to fulfill variable schedules for different regions. Each region then has local programming within breaks in common programming (a regional movie interrupted by local news, for example).

The second model, the one that has gained the most interest across the United States, is the distributed “hub-and-spoke.” As the name suggests, the model depends on a central control facility that serves as the hub of operations and maintains control over multiple regional sites. (See Figure 2.) Often, each of these “spoke” sites maintains playout capabilities, complete with local storage, graphics and branding. To keep deployment cost low, station groups have turned to standard IT-based platforms that, in the software domain, have integrated multiple functions ranging from video playback to graphics and video effects, as well as ancillary functions such as insertion of VANC and closed-caption data.

A popular hub-and-spoke implementation is the “store-and-forward” model. In this set-up, the hub is responsible for aggregating content, transcoding it as required, and quality control. Processed at the hub, the scheduled playlist triggers the distribution of long-form programming from the hub over a WAN to edge servers at the spoke sites ahead of the target broadcast time. Though content is delivered ahead of playout, the hub maintains real-time control over playout at the spoke.

Regional sites typically are outfitted with scaled-down automation systems that are largely controlled by the hub, but also capable enough to assume real-time control over local content, playlists and broadcasts. Or, it can even provide disaster recovery services for another station within the group if circumstances warrant. Local storage not only simplifies playout over multiple time zones, but also provides added redundancy and resiliency to WAN interruptions or failures.

Equipped with media management tied into the hub, each spoke also can leverage content transfer capabilities, archive and management systems at the hub. Content can be moved securely and reliably between hub-and-spoke sites in either direction. Thus, whether for programming hours dedicated to local news and sports, disaster events or other operational necessity, the hub site can hand off programming to spoke sites that can perform cost-effective, regional playout with dedicated branding, including promos and snipes. The converse is true overnight and during times when little or no local content is planned. The hub site, staffed by a minimal complement of operators, can control centralized playout for dozens of spoke sites.

Though the degree of centralization differs depending on how the hub-and-spoke is implemented, the benefits of today's centralcasting models are clear. By leveraging file-based content distribution from the hub, the broadcast group can manage a high volume of programming efficiently and realize economies of scale across key playout operations.

The hub delivers file-based content to spokes, thereby not only providing less-expensive and more redundant centralized storage of high-value assets, but also reducing overall time and cost required for processing or repurposing of content for multiple sites. Most of the equipment used for preparation of media (servers, storage systems and other large hardware systems) is situated at the hub, where tape- and file-based ingest, as well as metadata markup, are performed centrally both through manual operation and automated processes, including file transport, technical QC, subtitling, and confirmation of rights and licensing.

Multicasting done right

A successful hub-and-spoke is possible through deployment of automation technology that supports a high degree of centralization while facilitating simple playout of localized content. The key challenge in moving to centralcasting is maintaining the local identity of individual broadcast stations. Technically speaking, broadcasters can only meet this challenge if their automation systems give them the agility to intermingle with shared content from the hub. As automation systems at the hub become better managers of intricate, channel playout scenarios, the rising availability of cost-effective, single-box playout solutions is giving local stations the ability to opt out of central control and take on playout and branding for live local events.

Also critical to a centralcasting model is the broadcast group's ability to move files efficiently across the WAN. It's one thing to move video files from rack to rack; it's another to use many different fiber paths, all with different “ping” times. This inconsistency can be problematic. When complex live programming is distributed across the network, an automation system must be able to trigger frame-accurate insertion of regional content across select sites. By addressing this issue in advance, the broadcast group can determine how, and how well, each station handles “join-in-progress” scenarios and other challenging live situations. Interfaces between automation and file-acceleration solutions can help to ensure that the tremendous volume of programming pushed from hub to spokes arrives reliably, as and when it should.

Advances in automation, file delivery over WANs and greater availability of affordable channel-in-a-box solutions (optimal for spoke sites) are enabling broadcast groups and origination facilities to streamline overall operations while preserving cost-effective playout on the local level. In implementing a centralcasting model, the group or facility also must account for future needs and further evolution of their broadcast and media delivery services. Flexible automation solutions not only facilitate more efficient channel playout, but also provide the headroom and adaptability required for growth and integration with new third-party devices. When complemented by ongoing support and development from the vendor, such automation systems help broadcasters to implement centralcasting models that maximize the value of their channel playout operations.

Neil Maycock is chief architect at Snell.