Content management is a key part of the broadcasting workflow and nowhere is this more apparent than in the operation of playout. Ensuring the right content is played out at the correct time and with accurate details is essential. Reliable, virtualized broadcast playout solutions are critical—and they’re here.
One company that has been developing the software for such virtualization is Cambridge, U.K.-based Pixel Power. Originally known for its powerful graphics and branding solutions, the company had the foresight some years ago to appreciate how its technology could be used beyond the production of on-screen content.
“The transition from the graphics side is about how we perceived an industry trend in terms of a need,” explains Ciaran Doran, executive vice president, sales and marketing for Pixel Power. “Take promo production as an example. There is often a need to produce a large number of variants. Maybe up to 50 versions of the same promo. The old way would have seen post-production produce all the finished versions and then place them in a queue for playout. Using our technology, that operation is automated, which allows the production of multiple versions of trailers and promos with accuracy and high productivity.”
The technology allows a broadcaster’s team of graphics designers to concentrate on creative work, designing new campaigns and brand material rather than repetitive, manual end-board re-works.
This switch to the new way of working involves building a graphics template—that had been agreed to by all departments—that contains all relevant elements. Those elements—visual content, voice over, time, day—can be pulled automatically from the relevant files and drawn into the template and the resultant file inserted into the playlist.
“By using an agreed template, the material will appear in the right format, the right font, the right color, the right position on the screen and so on,” says Doran. “What’s more, by retrieving the information from data in the EPG or schedule, then you have actually pulled what is coming up next with its date, time and any relevant information. So, if what is ‘coming up next’ changes, then you are displaying the correct information at that right time. In effect, you have evolved from a post-production function to a just-in-time function.”
So, how has this technology evolved?
“When we first started doing graphics and branding software there wasn’t the computer power available off the shelf. So, we built our own powerful hardware to drive the software applications. Now, with the huge expansion in the IT world, we’ve got COTS (commercial off the shelf) hardware that is powerful enough for us to simply buy-in and drive our software.”
“But,” Doran adds, “there is more to consider. If there’s COTS hardware available, then software has to be developed that can run on anyone’s server, and the server can be in the broadcaster’s facility, in a remote office or it can be run in the public cloud.”
Doran explains that by building the software from the ground up, functionality could be included that allows broadcasters freedom to use specific features or blocks of features as required with flexibility that was never possible before.
“For example, it’s the same software regardless of whether you have the machine sitting in the rack next to you or in the public cloud. It’s the same license. And we do not discriminate in any way between where you use that software and that license.”
If a broadcaster wants to start off with its own hardware, Pixel Power will charge the same for the license even if later there is a move to COTS hardware or deployment in the public cloud, they will even help with the transition.
Doran continues: “Replacing bespoke hardware with COTS and using a pure software platform offers very real benefits to before. New features can be more easily deployed over the lifetime of an installation as they are needed. As one example, we deployed the latest NDI codec within a short period at the end of 2017 for a customer who said we’d really like this facility. That’s one benefit of our common platform—we don’t have to worry about what hardware is being used—and, more importantly, neither does the customer.”
Another significant benefit of the Pixel Power technology is the provision to acquire or use specific features of the software as and when required.
“Many users of traditional hardware only use about 60 percent of the features for 40 percent of the time,” states Doran. “So why install a solution that’s a permanent feature when it’s either never used only just used occasionally? With a flexible software solution like ours, a broadcaster can get access to a feature that is not needed all of the time, it can add on that facility for a determined length of time—whether that is by the quarter or by the hour. Our software is very granular and very flexible—indeed our pricing models include pay-as-you-go, pay-per-feature, OPEX or CAPEX.”
One broadcaster that has seen the benefit of the Pixel Power developments is Virgin Media Television (formerly TV3) in Ireland.
“In an increasingly competitive market, the broadcaster wanted to increase the vigor and prominence of its branding and promotions across all its portfolio including SD, HD and multi-platform outputs,” says Doran. “Recognizing that this could best be accomplished through automated conforming and fulfilment of graphics, the company investigated our solution.”
The result was the introduction of Pixel Power StreamMaster BRAND. The system, which comprises the latest software solution running on COTS hardware, manages content across multiple channels and formats and delivers the power of the graphics engines. Using a single workflow and schedule, the system enables the automatic selection and insertion of the right graphics version at the right time and the right channel, as well as managing the squeeze-backs, and allowing different branding content in the SD and HD streams.
“Virgin Media purchased StreamMaster BRAND to enable it to deliver graphics and branding right at the point of playout. So instead of preparing a fully finished graphic, or sequence, the creative department creates a template on which all the elements are then built moments before going to air. This ensures that any changes in the schedule results in new graphics prepared accordingly.”
Another customer is Sky Creative Agency within Sky Television. It implemented Pixel Power’s Factory automated production technology using the well-known Clarity graphics platform and Gallium Workflow Orchestration.
Sky’s commissioning tool provides all the data required for Factory to track and produce promo versions from the assets provided by the broadcaster’s creative and design teams. Using its own compositing, DVE and graphics capabilities, Factory generates all the versions completely automatically. Because it is driven by the information entered into Sky’s commissioning tool, which in turn is linked to their scheduling system, errors in transmission times, channels, sponsors and so on, are eliminated.
“Sky started out with its simpler promotions, but were soon able to include the highly complex Sky Sports promos and other services,” reveals Doran.
Once Factory receives a set of instructions it generates all the versions, faster than real time, and delivers them as technically compliant files to the broadcast MAM system.
“Using Gallium FACTORY, Sky can create hundreds of different versions of the same promo,” explains Doran. “Once the ‘creative’ completes the compelling promo in 10, 20, 30, 45 second versions, Gallium FACTORY uses a database to fetch all the correct and relevant information to create the multiple versions of Now, Next, Later promos.”
Although all Pixel Power software solutions can be used on hardware at the broadcaster’s facility, it can also be deployed at a remote data centre or be used in the pubic cloud. And that raises the question of security.
“Broadcasters have taken this seriously and are continually bringing in that expertise. Look at the number of jobs that are being advertised for both IT engineers and cybersecurity individuals. Cybersecurity is a very real issue in many fields and broadcasting is no different. In many parts of the world, broadcasting is political power and we have seen in recent times how hacking into those systems can do an awful lot of damage,” points out Doran.
Although Pixel Power doesn’t currently offer cybersecurity, the company which recently acquired the business—Rohde & Schwarz—has built up a huge cybersecurity division to support customers in all its markets.
The two companies will remain separate entities, with the Cambridge operation now known as “Pixel Power Ltd. – A Rohde & Schwarz Company.”
“Rohde & Schwarz wants to protect the Pixel Power brand and benefit from it,” notes Doran. “What we are achieving is way ahead of others and we have strong sales growth these last few years. But despite being technically advanced and having a long and trusted reputation, it is sometimes difficult for a major broadcaster in one part of the world to say, ‘yes you are ahead of the game, but you are a small company based on the other side of the globe.’ Rohde & Schwarz helps us to give us that stature to move into new markets.”
Doran concludes: “The transition from SDI to IP in the last few years is simply changing from one form of transport stream to another—but the key is that it enables us to virtualize the software applications. All our solutions, whether a simple graphics tool or a full master-control/automation/playout suite with sophisticated branding can be virtualized. Virtualizable software applications enable new opportunities, such as hardware on your doorstep or in the private or public cloud. And using the cloud creates a paradigm shift because it changes the way in which broadcasting can take place.
“If you can operate applications from the cloud, then you don’t need a bespoke facility. You can use less expensive office facilities and as long as you have a fast-enough pipe to wherever your data is, wherever your content is, wherever your playout system is, then you can manage all of that in a cloud-based system. This will be the major transition in broadcast playout over the next 10 years. Broadcasters are already discovering the enabling potential of virtualizable solutions and preparing to move to less expensive locations. With technology like ours, you can manage content from just about anywhere.”