There's widespread acceptance that broadcasters will move toward IT-based playout over the coming years. The benefits in terms of lower capital and operating costs, as well as greater workflow flexibility, are just too significant to ignore.
However, the reality is that many broadcasters are unsure about how best to make the transition to IT-based playout. Many station engineers are wary of making a radical move to a completely new production and playout model, due to the obvious risks to business continuity. Many others simply don't have the resources right now for such a bold move.
Hence, there is a demand for a migration path to IT-based playout that is phased, smooth and secure. Before looking at how a gradual transition can be achieved, let's first consider the IT-based playout model, and how it differs from traditional playout.
Contrasting traditional and IT-based playout
Traditionally, television playout has involved multiple hardware devices in a typical playout chain, including a video server, router, master control switcher and channel branding device, which are all controlled by playout automation. (See Figure 1.) Each of these dedicated pieces of hardware is typically costly and demands its own automation interface. It's the norm for these pieces of equipment to come from multiple vendors, and this sometimes creates demanding installation, integration and support issues.
In contrast, the IT-based model involves replacing many of these elements with a single device that combines the functions of a playout server, master control switcher and branding processor. (See Figure 2.) The leading systems on the market offer all the rich capabilities of the traditional equipment, including multichannel audio handling and high-end graphics performance. These channel-in-a-box devices typically provide several days of video storage, with content updated as file transfers originating from low-cost, IT class archival storage. Like the traditional model, the channel-in-a-box can also accept HD/SD signals to allow switching to network feeds or live action. By dramatically reducing the amount of equipment required for playout, the capital costs are significantly reduced with IT-based playout. Automation interfacing and maintenance are also simplified with less hardware.
The simpler channel-in-a-box architecture has significant benefits for multichannel playout. Whenever an additional channel is required, the system can be expanded by increasing the number of channel-in-a-box devices on the network. Naturally, with larger systems, the cost savings inherent with a more streamlined playout path are even more significant. This lower cost for additional channels is a critical issue when revenues per channel are generally falling, and it can make the difference between a new channel being viable or otherwise in a tight market.
Whenever more functionality is packed into a single box, there is often some concern about reliability because a failure is potentially more catastrophic. In reality, feature-rich designs often work in favor of resiliency because critical products are generally designed with exceptional levels of redundancy. Naturally, there are also fewer parts that may fail in the playout chain overall.
Perhaps more importantly, the cost efficiency of these highly integrated products makes it much easier for stations to add levels of redundancy to their system. This can be done by adding extra channel-in-a-box devices to the system to create back-up channels. Indeed, the very different cost structure makes a full, mirrored off-site back-up facility a much more realistic option for many broadcasters.
For many stations, the real need is for a development path that enables them to move toward IT-based playout, without abandoning all their existing investment in hardware and business systems. It takes years for a station to develop effective processes across media management, traffic and sales, with this task made more complex because key systems, like automation and media management, tend to come from separate vendors specializing in these disciplines. Hence, many broadcasters need something quite different from the first approaches to IT-based playout, which were focused primarily on green field site operations, where there is more scope to install completely new hardware and software systems.
This requirement has spurred the development of the hybrid model, which allows co-existence of traditional and IT-based playout. (See Figure 3.) This allows new channels to be added that operate with IT-based playout, while the existing channels are unaffected. The important thing about this approach is that it allows a phased migration path toward new technology, without the high level of disruption caused by a complete technology shift. With a hybrid model, broadcasters can leave their critical business systems alone until they are ready to make changes.
The key to successful hybrid operation is the ability of the IT-based playout devices to operate under the same playout automation as the traditional playout chain. For instance, the server portion of an IT-based playout device can be controlled by the widely adopted VDCP protocol, while the switching and branding functions are controlled by established switching and branding control protocols. This may seem like a pretty unremarkable concept, but the reality is that this is not the norm in the industry, and the impact of this approach is far-reaching in terms of enabling the adoption of new technology among broadcasters.
These hybrid-ready playout servers with integral switching and branding are now available, and they have been shown to work effectively with many of the leading international automation vendors. Importantly, these devices feature uncompromised operation, with high-performance playback of long-form and short-form clips, clean switching between sources, and advanced multilevel graphics capabilities.
To be a practical proposition, the automation integration to these channel-in-a-box systems needs to be mature and richly featured. For instance, the control of switching and branding should include full control of secondary events, with graphic template population directly from the playout automation. Effective automated control of graphics is an important issue because competitive pressures in the television industry are driving the production of larger volumes of in-show and episodic promos to encourage audience awareness and retention. This high volume demands the use of highly automated, database driven graphics techniques.
Ideally, the graphics workflows should be integrated across the traditional and IT-based elements in a hybrid system, with common workflows across work order management, graphics preparation, data-interfacing and playout. This high level of graphics workflow efficiency is important because operating costs are subject to just as much scrutiny as capital costs, with a drive toward leaner, more centralized operations evident across the industry.
The latest developments in hybrid systems will enable IT-based playout to move from an exciting concept to a very real and practical path forward for mainstream broadcasters. It offers the opportunity to realize an IT-dominated playout infrastructure in the longer term, without the high risks associated with a sudden and complete technology shift. By following this way forward, the industry can expect to further reduce its costs per channel, while opening up opportunities for additional low-cost channels.
Michel Proulx is chief technology officer for Miranda Technologies.
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