Automating multichannel playout

Be sure your system can meet today's and tomorrow's needs.
The SBS playout center in Chiswick London uses one operator to conrol multiple channels.

When automating multichannel playout, many solutions are available. On the world stage, it takes on an even broader, more complex meaning. Broadcasters design, configure, implement and operate multichannel playout in as many different ways as manufacturers design, develop, sell and install multichannel playout.

Multichannel playout can mean a terrestrial station with two, three or more HD and SD channels. It can also be a satellite delivery-to-home system (DTH). Cable systems are also known as multichannel operations in which 100, 200 or more channels originate from one facility. Uplink facilities and master control service providers add yet another dimension to automated multichannel playout.

Single-channel operations are harder to find nowadays. Only small broadcast operations such as LPTV, public access and education still operate single-channel systems. Many broadcast facilities today originate more than one channel. As the economy continues to sour and the competitive landscape changes, TV networks are searching for new ways to generate revenue. With the switch to digital television, they now have the opportunity to operate multiple channels from their facility.

Many broadcasters are consolidating by combining and centralizing their production, news, traffic, sales, programming and engineering operations to save on costs and increase profits.

Types of multichannel playout

Multichannel playout is defined by differentiating factors. For example:

  • A multichannel playout operation is a single facility or multiple facilities that broadcast more than one channel on-air.
  • Multichannel playout operations span from simple pass-through channels or origination channels to complex master control origination channels.
  • Simple multichannel playout may be performed by large and advanced video server systems with preproduced media.
  • Each broadcaster approaches automating multichannel playout differently. There is no one correct solution.

Automating multichannel playout today

When it comes to staffing for multichannel playout, consider the following scenarios:

  • One operator controlling/monitoring just one channel;
  • One operator controlling/monitoring a few channels;
  • One operator controlling and monitoring many channels; and
  • Few operators controlling and monitoring many channels in a tiered control configuration.

In centralcasting models, multichannel playout can be at the video/audio playout level or the control and monitoring level. Not all centralcasting facilities play out audio and video from their central hub location. Some only control and monitor from the central hub facility while the audio and video are actually played out locally. Here are some control room configurations:

Lights-out automation

  • BXFa single master control room for a single-channel operation;
  • IPTV and mobile TVa single master control room with shared and/or transferable control/monitoring in which control of channels can be moved from master control room to master control room within the same facility;
  • SOA and workflow managementa single master control room for the control/monitoring of multiple channels within a facility or on a LAN or WAN network in a centralcasting configuration (most commonly used outside of the United States.);
  • The bottom linea tiered multilevel control center for the control/monitoring of multiple channels ; and
  • peer-to-peer control in which automation control is shared among a group of channels from the same owner over a LAN or WAN network, also known as peer-to-peer centralcasting.

There are a variety of automation types, master control room configurations and operator topologies being used to deliver content. Table 1 outlines the broadcaster level and the various types of factors most associated with these broadcasters.

Channel-in-a-box and hybrid solutions are becoming popular because of current economics and the commoditization of broadcast automation. There has been a steady increase in interest for hybrid and channel-in-the-box solutions for multichannel operations, especially in green field configurations. As new multichannel business models like IPTV, mobile TV and terrestrial SD and HD begin to appear, the demand for low-cost and integrated feature-rich hybrid and channel-in-a-box solutions will continue to grow.

There are four types of automation systems in the market today: standard, combo, hybrid and stand-alone video servers.

The standard type is the premier, legacy automation system most used for third-party device control. These systems are typically used for single and low-count multichannel configurations. Standard systems operate between two to 16 channels. Some can scale to higher numbers without major changes.

A combo system is a video server with built-in automation. This type is most common at smaller broadcast stations in which a simple master control operation is needed for playout. Combo systems are becoming more common with new startup channels and local broadcasters who have little or no graphics requirements in master control. Sales are booming right now because of their low cost, ease of implementation and HD playout.

A hybrid system is the next-generation automation system. It consists of a video server with an automation system built-in, plus everything else needed to handle a complete broadcast channel operation. What differentiates the hybrid system from a standard or combo system is that it is a channel-in-a-box solution. Like typical third-party device control with standard automation systems, the hybrid system has an array of third-party devices integrated into the automation system itself. Features such as character generators, keys, logos, routers and switchers are commonly a built-in functionality of a hybrid system. A hybrid is more of an IT platform automation system that is well-suited for new multichannel operations. IPTV, mobile TV, satellite uplink facilities and cable facilities are a good fit for hybrids.

A video server multichannel playout solution may not include automation at all. Several large multichannel operations do not use standard, combo or hybrid automation solutions. There are two reasons. First, the facility may only be uplinking pass-through channels with no physical control of the interstitials and the programs. Second, large facilities may have multichannel video servers using a simple playlist to control playout. Many broadcasters preproduce their media content for playout. In this scenario, no additional branding or tagging is required. This simple way of broadcasting multichannels is often seen in satellite and cable systems.

Lights-out automation

Broadcasters today are looking for more solutions that provide smart multichannel automated workflows that require fewer operators. At some point, there will no longer be a person in master control. Traffic will be responsible for the metadata, schedules and as-run logs. Production will be accountable for the physical interstitials and programs. IT and engineering will handle the maintenance and upkeep of the automation software and hardware.


The Broadcast Exchange Format (BXF) is the next big step in advancing workflows between traffic and master control. As the standard becomes more popular, expect to see traffic departments playing a larger role in the control and monitoring of automation systems. Improving and advancing operations, procedures and workflows will be required in those areas upstream of master control. Traffic, using BXF capabilities, can help maximize the profits for broadcast operations by having the ability to make real-time changes. BXF messaging allows traffic departments to react to missing media scenarios in real time, thus lowering revenue losses.

IPTV and mobile TV

Automation vendors are discovering that IPTV and mobile TV will require the same high-end broadcast products they produce for broadcasters. Likewise, IPTV and mobile TV companies are just now realizing the need for more advanced systems with rich master control capabilities. Initially, IPTV and mobile TV operators relied on inexpensive and mostly inadequate solutions for playback. Now they are looking for more professional broadcast systems to deliver their content. These new business model broadcasters are slowly beginning to align themselves with mainstream broadcast technology for ingest and playout.

SOA and workflow management

In shopping for an automation system or in upgrading an existing system, there are two other factors to keep in mind: a service-oriented architecture (SOA) and workflow management. With SOA and workflow management, a broadcast facility is designed and configured from end-to-end to be as efficient as possible by giving operators limited control of the decision-making process when the system is online. Good automation systems with an intelligent SOA can question operational requests made by operators. An SOA provides a built-in intelligence that can make split-second decisions to help secure the fundamental operation of a broadcast system.

The bottom line

One size does not fit all, however. Broadcasters need to find a solution that meets their specific needs. The total number of broadcast channels is the first factor to consider. For example, there's a difference between a broadcaster with hundreds of channels and one with 20 channels. Automation systems are an absolute must for multichannel playout operations with hundreds of channels.

Find the right configuration and automation system for your facility. This may entail a variety of configurations within the same facility, depending on cost and client requirements. Do a risk assessment to determine the uptime requirements, features and cost capabilities for your operation. Look for companies with more, not less, built-in functionality, options and features. Consider built-in features like transcoding and A/V formats.

Scalability is a key factor when selecting an automation system. It is especially important for the smaller channel count operations who have between two channels and 20 channels. Be sure you know the costs and implementation requirements of adding new channels to a system.

Development roadmaps are important. Understand the development direction the automation company is moving toward. See if the vendor's plans closely match where your operation is going.

At the end of the day, the more automated a broadcast facility is, the more efficient it becomes. Economics will continue to drive the need for modern broadcast automation systems. Properly used automation saves on costs, provides a better on-air look and maximizes profits. BE

Sid Guel is CEO of Broadcast Automation Consulting.