The Changing Face of Master Control

WRAL uses an Evertz 3025EMC 3G/HD/SD master control switcher at its Raleigh, N.C. facility. HAMILTON, N.J.—While the market for master control systems has long been dominated by traditional systems based on dedicated hardware, in recent years a relatively new IT-centric paradigm called “channel-in-a box” has taken the sector by storm.

Traditional master control systems control the router, servers, graphics/branding engine, and other disparate devices. Their operation can be automated, but their appeal is that operators can use a hardware control panel to manually switch channels and content during live programs like news, sports, and special events.

The Channel-in-a-box distills the functionality of many master control components into an integrated playout software solution, which typically runs one channel in a fully automated manner from a compact, off-the-shelf chassis. With their easy scalability and cost-effectiveness, channelin- a-box solutions offer reliable, automated playout of scheduled content. But unlike traditional systems, they’re not as conducive to handling live events.

In light of these operational trade-offs, some vendors now offer “hybrid” master control systems that combine traditional features, like over-rides for managing live events, with more automated channel-in-abox features. And master control may even move to the cloud in the near future. But which approach is right for your broadcast facility?

“Choosing the right master control solution is pivotal and there’s no one right answer,” said Mo Goyal, director of product marketing for Evertz in Burlington, Ontario. “Networks that need to play out a high channel count where the program schedule is very predictable find ‘channel in a box’ solutions very appealing.

“For our large-scale multichannel playout customers, like Centralcast LLC,” Goyal continues, “channel-in-a-box tends to be easily scalable and very cost-effective because it integrates key components like automation, digital asset management, and playout into a software solution running on off-the-shelf IT components.”

Goyal adds that, while the channel-ina- box market is growing and maturing, “we continue to see strong demand for traditional master control switchers based on dedicated hardware, especially by local stations—like WRAL in Raleigh, N.C.— that run a handful of DTV channels. Local stations want to be able to over-ride master control for breaking news or to manually insert commercials into live sports.” One reason the 3025EMC 3G/HD/SD master control switcher appealed to WRAL is its built-in graphics engine for adding logos, dynamic texts and crawls, animated sequences, and other channel-branding elements.

Evertz has flagship products in both markets, namely the traditional 3025EMC master control switcher and OvertureRT LIVE channel-in-a-box for multichannel play-out. Goyal adds that OvertureRT LIVE is a hybrid configuration that gives operators the best of both hardware and software worlds. For example, Evertz provides four additional live video inputs on OvertureRT LIVE so operators can better handle live event broadcasts.

Grass Valley considers traditional master control to be “regular” and integrated, multichannel play-out to be “structured.” The company also prefers the term “platform-ina- box” since its scalable K2 Edge integrated play-out box can handle multiple channels along with graphics and other channelbranding capabilities. The traffic system sends the playlist to automation, which sends commands to K2 Edge with no operator involvement.

“This is a very interesting time in the master control market,” said Graham Sharp, chief marketing officer for Grass Valley in San Francisco. “It’s very transformational with half the customers gravitating to new structured, channel-in-a-box systems because they’re extremely cost-effective compared to the regular approach, which involves buying and integrating a half-dozen or so discreet components.”

A year ago, Grass Valley made a strategic decision to serve both the traditional and channel-in-a-box markets going forward. “So we acquired PubliTronic and packaged their channel-in-a-box technology into the new Grass Valley K2 Edge automated, multichannel, integrated playout solution,” said Karl Schubert, chief technology officer for Grass Valley. “But a station broadcasting a football game still needs a regular master control switcher like Maestro that allows an operator to do manual tasks, such as trigger commercials and rejoin live events, since the exact timings of those breaks can’t be predicted or programmed in advance.” That is why Grass Valley is also committed to marketing Grass Valley Maestro, its flagship traditional master control ideally suited to live news, sports, and special events.

At the 2012 IBC Show, Miranda showed its new iTX Master Control, a hybrid of its iTX channel-in-a-box integrated playout system and its traditional master control switcher, ImageStore 750. The software development to integrate these two products started early in 2012 and a prototype was shown at the 2012 NAB Show.

John Seymour, Director of Broadcast Operations at WWNY TV in Watertown, N.Y. with Ross Video’s MC1. “While Miranda’s iTX offers unprecedented speed of channel deployment, costeffective scalability and space-saving integration of master control components, it’s ideally suited to an automated play-out environment based on pre-recorded material,” said Eugene Plawutsky, product manager for master control, branding and graphics for Montreal-based Miranda Technologies, a brand of Belden Inc. “But our traditional product, ImageStore 750, is better-suited to handling master control switching of live events like football games or breaking news.

“In our IBC demo of the new product, iTX Master Control, we showed iTX controlling an ImageStore,” Plawutsky added. “Broadcasters with a traditional mindset and those with live event applications could now see a way to transition to an IT-centric integrated system. Our iTX Master Control can control the ImageStore as a source and then defer to ImageStore during live events that require an operator for manual tasks, such as triggering commercial breaks.”

According to Plawutsky, another new software development gives the ImageStore 750 a capability called “channel ganging.” For example, if a network is carrying a live football game on seven channels, the operator can switch all seven with a single button press to take them to break and then another button push to go back to the game. The channels can play out the same commercial to all viewers or play out different ads, such as foreign language versions, from different commercial servers, but still all move in and out of break as a group.

With the 2012 NAB launch of its new MC1 master control, Ross Video took an open architecture, card-based approach. The MC1 resides on a Ross openGear blade that slides into a 20-slot openGear frame, with each card controlling one channel. So instead of designing its first master control switcher as a traditional or channel-in-a-box solution, Ross Video took a modular approach.

“Our goal was to give customers the ability to configure master control with utmost flexibility using best-in-class components,” said Brad Plant, assistant marketing product manager for Ross Video, in Iroquois, Ontario. “With over 30 openGear partners putting their technology on openGear cards that can reside alongside ours in the same frame, broadcasters are not locked into buying from only one manufacturer, and can configure and upgrade cost-effectively.”

Broadcasters can mix and match openGear cards for keying and branding, CG, audio mixing, loudness monitoring, EAS, and audio mixing, among a wide array of choices so they only buy what they need. OpenGear can be controlled from a Dashboard v5 client and server interface.

“In recent years, we’ve seen technological and regulatory changes such as loudness and closed captioning compliance impacting DTV broadcasting,” said Plant. “That’s why you need a cost-effective way to expand master control.”

The Ross MC1 is used at WWNY (CBS)/ WNYF (FOX) in Watertown, N.Y. “Master control is the core… of a TV station,” said John Seymour, the stations’ director of broadcast operations. “You need to have this operation run smoothly... and to have equipment that’s 100-percent solid.”

While Snell used to make large, customized master control switchers in the 1990s, today all that functionality has been distilled into an integrated, fully automated 3RU channel-in-a-box called ICE.

Despite its compact size, ICE does everything its predecessors did—with builtin keyers, DVE, router, video servers, graphics insertion, QC monitoring—and more. Karl Mehring, product manager for ICE at U.K.-based Snell Group said, “We added HD/SD simulcasting and the ability to put a configurable delay on a playout channel for use in multiple regions. At the 2013 NAB Show, we’ll introduce support for Dolby- E encoding and decoding and numerous other integrated tools to add commercial benefit to our customers.”

While ICE is designed to run in a fully automated mode driven by Snell Morpheus automation, operators can assume manual control when necessary. One 3RU ICE can control as many as four TV channels, but when integrated with Snell’s flagship Morpheus automation it can scale up to hundreds of channels controllable from a single interface.

“Master control continues to advance,” said Mehring. “Our prediction is that by 2014, the technological barriers to cloudbased master control will be removed. We would anticipate this to be a dedicated virtual private cloud with the up-times you need and will continue to work closely with our customers to ensure that we cater to their needs.

“Since cloud-based master control would be a service to them, it’s likely that broadcasters won’t incur the up-front capital costs of hosting it in their building,” Mehring continued. “Broadcasters that don’t want to change their operating model might want to consider a hybrid between traditional and cloud-based master control.”