The ability to monitor and archive as-aired content has long been an important function for broadcasters, but it has taken on even more urgent and critical dimensions in today's increasingly digital world. Facing growing competitive pressure to convert to fully digital operations and provide high-definition offerings to their ever-more discriminating viewers, broadcasters have moved quality of service (QoS) and quality of experience (QoE) to the top of the priority list. Proactively monitoring and viewing what goes on the air, exactly as the audience sees it, is the only sure-fire way to determine whether a broadcast is meeting a station's high-quality standards — and to take quick corrective action if a video or audio fault does occur.
One system, many applications
In addition to quality assurance, a dedicated system for content logging and monitoring can be indispensable to many different functions within the broadcast organization. (See Figure 1.) By providing an archive of aired content over a specified time period, the system enables a station to validate compliance with federal regulations, such as closed captioning, or back up its agreements with performance rights organizations such as ASCAP and BMI.
Also, stations can validate to their advertisers that commercials ran as contracted and use the archived video to respond to viewer inquiries. The ability to retrieve and export selected video clips enables broadcasters to repurpose content for a wide range of uses, such as posting to a Web site, and even turn the content into a revenue generator by making it available for sale.
Finally, content monitoring plays an important role in competitive analysis by allowing broadcasters to make side-by-side comparisons of their own programming with that of their competition.
Beyond videotape: the digital revolution
As compelling as these benefits are to a broadcasting operation, they are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve using the traditional means of recording and archiving. Until recently, broadcasters have relied on cumbersome manual processes and videotape to capture aired video. These systems not only lack spontaneity but are fraught with inefficiencies.
The delays inherent in a tape-based system make it untenable for fault detection and quality assurance. In this setup, error resolution is typically a reactive process initiated by customer complaint calls. After spending time viewing videotapes to locate the fault, the operator must manually dub off the tapes in question and circulate them to the engineers, who can finally start working to resolve the issue — perhaps hours after the original complaint came in. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that this is not an optimal strategy for maintaining QoS.
The good news for broadcasting operations is that videotape-based monitoring systems are becoming extinct like most other analog- and tape-based processes in the broadcasting environment. Digital, file-based video monitoring and logging solutions are turning best practices on their head and making fault detection a proactive exercise in which errors are found, identified and corrected before they turn into customer complaints.
This new breed of logging and monitoring system harnesses a broadcaster's standard computing environment to deliver a new degree of immediacy and efficiency to the tasks of locating, sharing and saving video. By using high-density storage strategies such as RAID, the digital systems occupy a tiny fraction of the footprint left by yesterday's huge cabinets of videotapes. Advanced streaming technologies make it possible for the system to pull in video from a variety of sources and then transport the clips for viewing over computer networks using familiar Web browsers. (See Figure 2.)
In order to deliver on its full range of potential for quality assurance, compliance and validation for advertisers and other customers, a digital content monitoring and archiving system must offer some important baseline functionality. The key building blocks for an ideal video monitoring and logging solution include:
- Effective video compressionThe system provides efficient video compression so the content can be delivered through a typical IP network and viewed over a standard platform, the PC, without a significant loss in video quality. Furthermore, it supports an industry-wide compression format, such as Windows Media 9, which is more efficient than earlier compression standards like MPEG-2. The system must allow the broadcaster to choose from several levels of compression based on available network bandwidth and requirements for video quality on the monitor screen.
- Modular scalabilityThe system needs to expand easily to monitor many channels as the station or cable provider expands its offerings.
- Multichannel displayThe system displays multiple video streams simultaneously on a single screen to enable side-by-side comparisons and other types of video analysis. (See Figure 3.)
- Support of standard, intuitive user interfacesIn order to run in an existing IP network, the system comes bundled with its own Web server and offers easy, ubiquitous access from any Web browser, anywhere. Likewise, the interface enables broadcast engineers to work with the video using the commands they're used to, such as fast-forward, rewind, stop, pause and play. Also, the system displays EPG information exactly as it would appear in its native format, with easy-to-use checkboxes for selecting specific programs or channels to record. (See Figure 4.)
- Robust searching capabilitiesAn effective monitoring system includes a searchable database, with closed captions acting as keywords on which operators can search for and retrieve video clips.
- Comprehensive fault detection and alertsBased on thresholds established by the broadcaster, the system will continuously scan multiple channels and automatically detect common transmission faults, such as black screen, low or missing audio levels, missing closed captions and even macroblocking errors. (Macroblocking has been particularly troublesome for broadcasters and cable operators alike because it traditionally has required human intervention to spot the on-screen anomalies.) Once a fault is detected, the system automatically triggers an e-mail alert notifying the operator and providing a link to the video clip demonstrating the problem. Another option is to interface with the station's network management system to issue alerts based on SNMP traps.
- Multiple scanning and recording optionsThe system provides variable scanning based on the broadcaster's specific requirements (e.g. fast scanning for a large channel lineup or slow scanning after a problem is detected in order to focus on a particular sub-lineup and narrow the search for troubleshooting). In addition, the system provides the option of selectively recording specific channels or even specific programs based on date and time as displayed by a downloaded EPG.
- Easy data importThe monitoring system enables easy import of external data to support video access and analysis, such as downloading of Nielson ratings information for side-by-side competitive analysis of multiple news broadcasts or importing of a station's own as-run logs for quick identification of video segments as they have actually aired.
Although the rush to convert to digital operations is placing unprecedented stress on many broadcasters, the emergence of new digital and file-based technologies is helping to ease the burden and create new efficiencies and opportunities to increase QoS.
Digital content monitoring and logging systems provide a win-win situation for broadcasters and viewers alike. For broadcasters, these solutions deliver powerful capabilities for proactively tracking and correcting video faults, maintaining compliance, performing competitive analysis and providing accountability to advertisers. Perhaps the biggest winners are the viewers themselves, who will ultimately benefit from television and cable reception that meets their expectations for dazzling and error-free HD viewing.
John Hooker is product marketing manager at Volicon.
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