Transitioning Broadcast Automation

JOHNSTON, IOWA—In late February, Avid announced its “Final Sale Plan for FastBreak Automation,” the name for the automation system the company acquired when they purchased Sundance Digital in 2006.

Avid’s plan included a list of key dates and events that are important to Iowa Public Television. We purchased our automation under the Sundance banner and made the transition to Avid’s system, and through it all we have been very satisfied. Our long-range plan has been to keep the automation system and the underlying physical infrastructure operational for the next five years.

One of the fundamental reasons for taking this stance is associated with strategic planning at the PBS network, which is currently evaluating transitioning the station distribution model from a satellite-based “push” technology to a terrestrial fiber, cloud-based “pull” technology. The introduction of a pull architecture and services in the cloud provide for some fundamentally different ideas when it comes to designing station infrastructure.

We plan to continue with our current operational methodologies while the broader network system is developed, deployed and debugged. This will then allow IPTV to deploy systems and services within our local station environment that integrate and mesh with the PBS network systems and services. This is one of the visions of operations that I have had for many years working in both commercial network and public television stations.

Now I could easily get into bashing Avid for its decision to discontinue a product that IPTV, along with many other stations are committed to; that is human nature. However, I took the opportunity to review the Avid plan and noted that the company's road map for the product did include an option for support through the end of 2019, which, for IPTV, actually lined up with our long-range strategy. The announcement generated some discussion among the public television stations on the PBS Connect messaging service, which demonstrated that IPTV wasn’t alone in trying to determine how to address this challenge.

After a couple of exchanges with Avid and with the leadership of the PBS Engineering Technical Advisory Committee (ETAC)—of which I am a member—I was able to coordinate a conference call between the senior folks at Avid and a number of the PBS stations that were concerned with end-of-life plan for the automation system.

A couple of very positive things came out of the call. For me, one of the best was an understanding of how Avid came to the decision, and, while it is still an inconvenience for my station, I realized it was a sound business decision and one I would have supported if I were a decision-maker within Avid. The market for automation has changed dramatically since the original development of Sundance. Most of the manufacturers in the space have moved away from selling and supporting an automation layer within a broadcast environment to the “channel-in-a-box” solution where all of the infrastructure and control is within a single box or rack.

All of us have been through the experience of doing what we think is a fairly innocuous update to a component within a system only to find that the update somehow ripples through the system and things stop working and we then spend hours tracing down the issues and making corrections and adjustments. The channel-in-a-box concept alleviates a lot of that since the manufacturer of the system handles all of the updates within the box and hopefully deals with any ripples within the confines of their equipment. Last year, IPTV replaced our Omneon video servers with newer Harmonic (formerly Omneon) servers, and we went through some debugging and adjustments to get the new replacements to work within the our station infrastructure. It was not a huge issue for us, just an inconvenience, but if I scale that up to the potentially thousands of variations that are possible, it is easy to see where the challenges of support come from.

I was also impressed with the interchange between the other public stations and Avid. The questions and answers indicated that there were some opportunities to be explored, including some potential group purchasing of hardware, primarily the qualified Dell servers and software that are needed by many stations to provide for support through 2019. I was able to coordinate a face-to-face meeting at the PBS Technical Conference in Las Vegas just prior to the NAB Show which was well attended and allowed for more exchanges regarding potential opportunities for stations. Since then, Avid has reached an agreement with a distributor to fulfill the turnkey server orders, including all components and configuration. IPTV is still working with the distributor to determine final pricing for our systems to determine how best to proceed.

Given that IPTV has a hardware infrastructure that can be maintained until 2019 and beyond, we are looking at a couple of options. Theoretically, the easiest thing to do would be to upgrade/update our existing FastBreak system to meet the requirements necessary to maintain support through 2019. But even this has some options, depending on whether or not Avid supplies the replacement hardware, and the difference is considerable. If Avid does a complete turnkey, we are looking at investing about $125,000 in the project. If we independently purchase the hardware, the price drops considerably to about $66,000. Now while this sounds great, it does change the dynamic of the support relationship with Avid since it will not offer hardware support on customer-supplied equipment, only the software. This requires a separate hardware support agreement with the hardware manufacturer, which is certainly doable.

But let me share with you something that happened right after I arrived in Las Vegas for the PBS Technical Conference. One of our Sidon servers failed, but thanks to our service agreement with Avid, a fully configured replacement unit was over-nighted to the station and installed. Using our own supplied hardware, we would have had to have the computer supplier ship us the replacement system and then install any necessary software and configure the system. This certainly can be done from a backup of the failed unit but it still adds downtime.

So to my mind, that idea of a single entity providing the fully configured system has some value and that value will be somewhat south of the difference between the turnkey price and the $66K figure.

Another alternative would be to purchase a new automation layer to implement within our infrastructure. While at NAB, I visited a number of providers, including Pebble Beach, Snell, Imagine Communications, Grass Valley and so on. As I noted above, most of the focus in this space is the channel-in-a-box solution, but all the vendors seem to have the capability for breaking out their automation layer to control external systems since for most, that is the heritage of the system.

The potential downside that I see to this alternative in the near term involve the challenges associated with deploying a new control fabric within the established infrastructure, and making sure that all of the components play well together. Of course the operators also face a learning curve to become proficient in the new system, which is a short-term problem.

Of a more strategic concern is the ongoing support for the automation layer independent of the associated hardware. A channel-in-a-box vendor will test and deploy upgrades that work fine for their all-in-one systems that may create problems for a standalone automation system. Likewise, upgrades or updates to the independent systems being controlled may disrupt the automation layer. In both cases what will support be like for the station using the orphaned system?

This is not to say the idea of upgrading the original system and relying on the manufacturer to continue its support through 2019 is without its concerns. Looking down that road, the path seems clear for the first couple of years, but as these systems age and begin to be replaced either by newer channel-in-a-box systems or even cloud services, will the vendor be able to maintain the staff and infrastructure to meet the needs of a dwindling number of users? This is the conundrum that IPTV and a lot of other stations are facing.

Bill Hayes is the director of engineering for Iowa Public Television. He can be reached via TV Technology.

Bill Hayes

Bill Hayes, director of engineering and technology for Iowa PBS, has been at the forefront of broadcast TV technology for 40 years, 23 of them at Iowa PBS. He’s served as president of IEEE’s Broadcast Technology Society, is a Partnership Board Member of the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) and has contributed extensively to SMPTE and ATSC.  He is a recipient of Future's 2021 Tech Leadership Award.