by Pavlin Rahnev, Desmon Goh and Van Duke, PlayBox Neo
Running a television channel, let alone a multichannel international network, used to be a megabucks business. Huge investment was needed in on-site equipment, skilled operators to drive it and a team of technicians to keep it working.
A big shrink in costs became possible with the advance from specialized hardware to software-based systems. PlayBox was at the forefront of that transition, initially offering software designed to control the labor-intensive tasks of television playout scheduling and transmission. We soon followed this with a complete solution running our modular software on proven reliable PC hardware which we have developed and expanded over two successful decades into the current-generation AirBox-Neo 20.
Our Channel-in-a-Box approach was made possible by a steady and ongoing improvement in the affordability of hard-disk data storage. We developed a range of software modules allowing every stage of the broadcast playout process to be supervised via a web browser-style user interface. An eye-friendly layout showed exactly what the operator needed to know to perform a specific task. Additional detail could be accessed by selecting the relevant graphic icon. This proved a highly successful combination of features, today powering more than 19,000 TV and branding channels in more than 120 countries. Our customers include national and international broadcasters, start-up TV channels, webcasters, interactive TV and music channels, film channels, remote TV channels, corporate information channels and disaster recovery channels.
Until the early 2000s, the majority of television broadcast channels either purchased or leased their own production and playout equipment, housing it in an air-conditioned suite and employing at least one supervisor to keep an eye on mechanically intricate devices such as videotape desks and robotic loaders. Channel-in-a-Box simplified the entire operation by being very space-efficient, typically no larger than a single videotape machine, and inherently reliable. The ability to accommodate an entire TV channel in a 1U AirBox Neo-20 chassis or up to four in 3U, also allows a complete second system to be installed to take over in the unlikely event of the primary failing while on air. Main-and-redundant become the aspirational standard for practically every broadcaster. Figure 1 shows the presentation control suite at Nilesat's Cairo headquarters. Nilesat's on-site playout includes 40 AirBox-Neo 20 playout servers in 1+1 configuration.
Responding to customer feedback, we introduced in February 2019 Cloud2TV. This gave broadcasters the option of leasing our software to run on their own choice of hardware platform, either onsite or hosted by a third-party service provider such as a TV playout specialist or a generic data center. Available on a budget-friendly subscription, Cloud2TV offers numerous advantages such as fast channel launch, potentially unlimited scalability and web-based access. Like all PlayBox Neo products and services, Cloud2TV also provides full support for IP workflow – meaning staff can link securely into the system from practically any internet-connected location. The advantages of IP connectivity in today's world hardly need elaboration.
Cloud2TV incorporates an intuitive web-based control interface in a similar style to AirBox Neo-20, including administrator-adjustable rights assignment, TV channel management, action-logging and notifications. Examples are shown in Figure 2. Cloud2TV applications are the main components. Each application functions individually but in close coordination with the others to provide a full set of broadcast services supporting the workflow of an entire TV channel. Specific applications are assigned to content ingest, graphic editing, media browsing with metadata handling and clip trimming, quality control and verification, transcoding, playlist management and audit logging.
Running a digital media platform, whether terrestrial, satellite, online or all three, demands above all things the ability to react quickly to evolving market conditions. An onsite AirBox Neo-20 installation can be expanded at fairly short notice by adding extra units to accommodate additional channels. Another common challenge is the need to support supplementary channels that allow viewers to access additional video feeds relevant to the main program they are watching, or a stadium event lasting a few days or weeks. Cloud2TV allows that level of flexibility to be provided at very short notice without the need to wait for additional hardware to be delivered for installation at a station's headquarters.
The platform-as-a-service approach allows a TV station or network to be deployed on a private cloud for integration with CDN support. This can be scaled to whatever extent is required to reach a regional, national, multinational or potentially global audience. Key strengths of software-as-a-service and platform-as-a-service models are that they allow stations or their parent companies to fund their playout systems as an operating expense rather than a capital expense. The opex approach has obvious advantages for new-start-up businesses keen to control their outlay during the crucial startup period before a steady revenue stream is established.
Making it fly
Being able to choose between server-based systems, software-as-a-service and platform-as-a-service offers television channel and network owners great freedom of choice in investment terms but how does that translate into the real world of channel management and playout? Many media organizations have long and successful experience operating their own onsite AirBox Neo-20 playout systems, with assistance from our technical support team if or when needed. Some have outsourced the playout process to specialist companies offering various levels.
The simplest of these workflows is equipment hosting and technical support, saving the customer space which is often at a premium for broadcasters located in city centers. Customers can then concentrate on providing program files and interstitials such as promos or commercials for pre-loading onto the off-site playout server. These travel over a standard IP network, or in some cases a dedicated intranet, and can be supplemented by live feeds if required. AirBox Neo-20 makes remote channel management of this kind very easy by allowing the broadcaster to control the entire scheduling process from a web browser running on a desktop PC.
Cloud2TV can be operated in essentially the same way or used to extend the capacity or reach of an onsite or remotely hosted AirBox Neo-20. This saves space in what may be a crowded building, it outsources any need for technical maintenance, and it allows capital investment to be replaced by a flat-rate hosting charge or pay-as-you-go rental.
Virtual master control
An additional advantage of Cloud2TV is the ease with which it can be used to coordinate transmission across multiple timezones, exemplified by Akili Networks. Based in New York and Nairobi, Akili chose Cloud2TV as the content management, channel branding and playout heart of Kenya's first children's television channel. Akili Kids! broadcasts a mix of content designed to inspire and educate the country's school-age and pre-school generations. Key requirements included ease of operation for non-broadcast personnel operating the schedule plus the highest possible OTT signal quality.
Akili Networks' president, Jesse Soleil: "The actual launch took place in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Like much of the world, Kenya recommended most of its school-age population to study at home for safety. The PlayBox Neo Cloud2TV model for virtualized global master control and operations enabled us to operate efficiently in this difficult environment. We certainly did not anticipate the pandemic but it proved beyond all questions the robustness of browser-based remote systems management, allowing our employees to work from home. Program uploads and master control monitoring can all be performed from either our New York or Nairobi offices, wherever our core staff chooses to operate safely."
"Cloud2TV allows us to place proven reliable hardware at a local data center in Kenya with full system redundancy and master control remotely managed from our desktops," adds Akili Networks' CTO Vinnie Grosso. "The installed system delivers superior video quality from multi-format files that are encoded for playback on the fly for transmission via Kenya's 50 Hz PAL DVB-T2 terrestrial network. A key priority was to make full allowance for low bandwidth IP links. Cloud2TV allows content to be delivered as digital files to Kenya from anywhere in the world. We create each day's playout schedule by dragging and dropping video files into the playlist well ahead of actual transmission. Cloud2TV automation simplifies major tasks, freeing up staff for creative activity. It also gives us the flexibility to revise the running order of programs and interstitials at very short notice plus the ability to cut to a live source at any time."
Recent years have seen an increase in the number of telecommunication service providers moving into the broadcast mainstream, and indeed the opposite. PSI Broadcasting in Thailand is an example of a company operating successfully both as broadcaster and playout service provider. It recently expanded its investment in PlayBox Neo equipment with the purchase of latest-generation Channel-in-a-Box servers at its Bangkok headquarters. Each server includes a complete suite of AirBox Neo-20 playout software plus TitleBox Neo-20 graphics and Capture Suite ingest management. Figure 3 shows a Capture Suite workflow example.
"We operate a large playout system for our own 1080i television channel and in a hosting role on behalf of third-party channels," says PSI Broadcasting's technical manager Rattana Taipong. "It is based on PlayBox Neo servers which have proved highly reliable over the years. They give our operators all the facilities they need to perform their duties efficiently and effectively, from ingest, program prescheduling and commercials insertion right through to transmission. The whole process can be performed on a fully automated basis while retaining the ability to go live whenever needed. We also subscribe to PlayBox Neo's ASM offering which gives us 24/7 support if needed – fortunately very rare. It includes access to the latest software updates across the entire product range; that is certainly useful as it ensures we are able to react quickly to new interface protocols and file formats."
AirBox Neo-20, TitleBox Neo-20 and Capture Suite form the broadcast playout basis of the recently launched Soul & Pepper 1080i television channel, now available to A1 Bulgaria TV subscribers. The channel is designed to encourage viewers to make the cooking process more enjoyable, enhance their culinary knowledge and foster healthier diets.
"We identified AirBox Neo-20 as offering our playout staff an efficient and reliable combination of creative resources, stress-free control and proven reliability, to provide our partners at Soul & Pepper TV channel with a tool helping them meet and exceed A1 TV subscribers' expectations for a nice TV experience," comments Lyubomir Levchev, senior manager, strategic ICT projects, innovations and wholesale, at A1 Bulgaria. "The solution is very space-efficient with the main and backup playout servers each occupying just 2U. Channel branding is handled using the TitleBox Neo-20 module. This allows titles, subtitles, stills, animated gifs, movie clips, rolling text, news flashes, coming-up-next promos, info-banners and so on, to be created and finessed within a logical framework. It is a creative artist's dream provided it is managed within a predefined style; the module's template structure makes that uniformity easy to administer."
Tracking new developments in television production and transmission has been central to our mindset for the full 22 years since we first began developing what is now the PlayBox Neo range of products, software and services. Each step forwards has been evaluated for its potential relevance and, where appropriate, explored in detail with our software development colleagues.
An enduring requirement over the decades has been the ability to offer existing and potential customers the greatest possible freedom to select systems and services which match their evolving business model, both in features and scale. Equally important is the freedom to integrate third-party devices via industry-standard hardware interface standards and software protocols.
Television will obviously develop as a passive and interactive experience, via external displays and wearable interfaces, creating ever greater opportunities for program makers to engage with their audiences. Efficient channel branding, content editing, scheduling, transcoding, routing and playout look set to remain core requirements.