The proliferation of the ‘channel-in-a-box’

Increased processing power from commodity PC platforms matches the demand for multichannel delivery.
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The last 12 months have seen the launch of several “channel-in-a-box” playout systems. What has been the impetus for them, and what was the enabling technology?

There is clearly an insatiable demand for channels. For the content aggregator or broadcaster, channels represent a way to target viewers in demographic groups, with the associated advantages to advertisers. The challenge is how to air new channels on a cost-effective basis.

Early automation systems were complex, and their use was limited to major networks. At the other end of the scale, basic systems that were little more than a simple playlist of files were used to run near-VOD channels.

The new channels must stand out against the hundreds of channels being offered. That demands sophisticated branding at an affordable price; so, that rules out conventional systems.

The complexity of the early automation systems was partly due to the plethora of remote control interfaces. They were always proprietary, and had a wide range of electrical interfaces. The first standardization was in the RS-422 serial control interface, followed later by MOS (media object server).

Anything designed for use in a linear edit suite had remote control — VTRs and CGs — but for many pieces of equipment, remote control was limited to a GPI closure. Just like editing, playout automation needs frame accurate control, but it had to be right first time — no chance to rehearse.

That old world has gone now. Most devices can be controlled over an IP connection. This has radically simplified the physical device interface down to a network interface card (NIC). However, RS-422 remains a favorite for VTRs, switchers and servers. The direct link has negligible latency, is reliable and has stood the test of time. For video servers, the de facto RS-422 standard is the Video Disk Control Protocol (VDCP) originally developed by Louth (now Harris).

The AP-inspired MOS protocol has become the industry standard for network control of video servers, CGs, still store devices and a variety of news production equipment and systems. This same interface can be used for regular automation. Other manufactures publish APIs for control over a network.

Throughout the years, the many graphics systems used in master control have migrated from proprietary hardware to PC platforms. Rather than control a number of similar PCs to create all the different graphics elements, CGs, clip stores and logo generators, it made sense to combine all these functions into one box. It has been no great leap to add the automation controller into the same box, and create a channel-in-a-box. This neatly avoids all the remote control facilities, greatly simplifying the product.

Commodity platforms have lowered the cost of graphics creation, and the increased processing power means that multiple layers of graphics, including tickers, logos, commercials and weather flashes, can be rendered in one device.

The single-box solution has made a timely debut. The demand for low-cost channels has mushroomed as content aggregators and broadcasters add more and more niche programming.

Cable channels and IPTV are obvious customers for these products, but DTV sub-channels are where budgets are squeezed — but the demand for multicast channel is there. Small-market broadcasters can also benefit from the sophisticated branding possibilities that these affordable units can offer.

Are they going to replace conventional systems? Not entirely. Prime-time networks need more inputs and live operation for flexibility. It’s all a question of the complexity of the demands of the channel.