WGBH and Sony Partner on Cloud Workflow

WGBH’s PMM service launched April 1.

BOSTON—When it came time for PBS flagship station WGBH in Boston to replace an aging master control, Chief Technology Officer Stacey Decker felt that the station needed to move in a different direction. Replacing old technology with newer versions of the same technology could cost in excess of $1 million with full knowledge that the cycle would be repeated several years down the road.

With all of the financial constraints facing public broadcasters, Decker began to look for new tools that could be flexible with content, could share content in different ways and that in the final analysis would allow PBS stations to focus their resources on content. In other words, he sought a solution specific for public television and that could be expanded to member PBS affiliates facing the same challenges.

From this vision there emerged a partnership between WGBH and Sony Electronics resulting in the launch on April 1 of a cloud-based service entitled “Public Media Management.” The launch followed a one-year pilot program and currently is live on two channels owned by WGBH with its Springfield, Mass. station WGBY about to go live. New Hampshire Public Television will be the next system to deploy PMM.

WGBH and Sony are currently in discussion with PBS affiliates to enlist stations on a national level. Their marketing to affiliates emphasizes not only the technological advances but also the financial advantage to cash-strapped PBS stations. With no upfront costs and only a monthly charge, stations are able to better allocate resources to content—Decker’s goal when he envisioned cloud-based master control.

John Studdert, vice president of sales and marketing for Sony, and Fred Wood from Sony Enterprise Workflow, Content Management & Media Cloud Solutions, explained the basic workflow:

PMM serves as a replacement for master control both at the WGBH level as well as at the level of subscribing station.

PMM originates at the WGBH Network Operations Center in Boston. At the NOC, national PBS content is captured and sent to the cloud after automated QC, close-captioning and addition of necessary metadata. That material may be transferred from the PBS servers in Washington, D.C. or live-buffered content. PMM utilizes Dalet AmberFin wrapping in ASO-3 to PBS standards. Once on the cloud, assets become available to local affiliates.

The cloud storage, though, also allows for transcoding of material for desktop or mobile platforms as well as potentially for content on demand. Thus opportunities exist for social media linkages as well as e-commerce. All of the cloud content and transfer is managed by Sony’s Ci Media Cloud service, which provides automation, multiple levels of redundancy, as well as 24/7 exception monitoring of low-res video at station level and network monitoring. Security is ensured by the fact that Ci runs atop Amazon Web Services, which is known for reliability and security. The Ci platform software embeds Aspera file transfer acceleration as well as simple content browsing capabilities.

At the local affiliate level, the local node leverages a number of technologies and third-party products already familiar to station operators. But content will be delivered via IP rather than by traditional methods. Still, PMM is not a replacement for local expertise. Decker noted, “We felt it important for stations to continue to have a role in technology. Not doing so would handicap the station.”

A local node would typically be outfitted with a component rack and software with configurations unique to the individual station’s requirements. At a local level, traffic is managed by Myers ProTrack software, a standard in the PBS world. Content is downloaded in anywhere from three to 10 days in advance and stored on Harmonic MediaDeck 7 broadcast servers. Depending upon configuration, local servers may hold up to 30 days of content. Local content program, branding and interstitials can of course be inserted. Crispin automation runs the system, as it does in many traditional master control setups. Sony turned to Utah Scientific for its 20 input/output 3G routing, Wohler and Evertz monitoring, Cisco Catalyst switches and Tripplite KVM system. Individual node workstations run Sony’s Ci Cloud software while the Aspera file acceleration used at the NOC level facilitates 100 Mbps transfer to the local node.

Wood pointed out numerous advantages to local stations. Primary among these is the availability of the entire PBS library and evergreen material without the need to store locally. The Myers ProTrack software is aware of rights. System Watch software reduces the dependency upon local engineers with monitoring both at the NOC and node levels.

WGBH’s PMM service comprises a Network Operations Center (NOC) at the WGBH facility in Boston; a content distribution cloud; and a PMM Standard Node on the PBS station’s premises.

All along, both WGBH and Sony representatives emphasized that PMM was developed as a system to facilitate better resource allocation for the 100-plus PBS affiliate stations. While no one can accurately predict the future, it is almost certain that public broadcasting budgets will continue to be squeezed. Centralization of services not only reduces operating costs but also provides new opportunities for content delivery.

WGBH Vice President of Communications and Government Relations Jeanne Hopkins was excited about the future prospects. In fact, she observed a number of PBS affiliates utilize database services from WGBH for viewer and donor management.

The very nature of IP communications and cloud storage portends the ability for two-way communication. In the future, local stations will be able to upload their locally-produced content for storage, encoding, closed-captioning via the NOC and with metadata-embedded rights management available for broadcast by other PBS affiliates.

Decker stressed the fact that PMM is a system designed with the unique requirements of public broadcasters in mind. Some 95 percent of PBS content is national, and live local cut-ins are less frequent, generally during pledge drives and local stations produce varying amounts of content. But without advertising, delivery focuses solely upon program content with audiences loyal even to evergreen content. And PBS affords local stations opportunities to tailor content to their respective markets.

Thus, PMM can allow stations to build their own program streams using the consumer- metaphor of “it’s as easy as programming your DVR.” New opportunities that arise from PMM go even beyond wider distribution of local originally content. PMM, with its Sony Ci Media Cloud Tools, can serve social media as well as the creation of potentially monetized on-demand delivery. Any content can potentially be pulled from the cloud all contingent upon rights. Among the common critiques of PBS by individual viewers is the thin availability of PBS content available on-line. PMM and the technologies associated with it possess the technological capability to deliver to viewers, pending working out the business and rights models.

WGBH Chief Operating Officer Ben Godley summarizes the goals. “With PMM we can minimize the expenses of master control and focus on our mission of community engagement, providing content when, where and how audiences want it as we move into the future.”

At the PBS TechCon just prior to the NAB Show, Sony and WGBH presented the PMM package to participants and met with individual stations regarding their potential adoption of the program. Future months will determine adoption rates but WGBH and Sony anticipate wide acceptance among PBS affiliates.

Pricing information for affiliate stations is not available. “We work closely with the member stations to determine the right pricing model for their business. The goal of PMM is to be very flexible and to make it as easy as possible for the member stations to integrate our service,” Studdert said.