by Desmon Goh and Nut Deesamer, PlayBox Neo
US radio channel KDKA went live in Pittsburgh on November 2nd, 1920. Accepting that as the first event on the timeline, broadcasting this year celebrates its centenary. Television and radio now fulfill a vital role in preserving social cohesion, not least at times of crisis. Encouraged and informed by a combination of electronic and printed media, the entire human population united in 2020 against the global challenge posed by Covid-19.
Parliamentary television in particular has proved its value in many countries over the years by making legislative assemblies more transparent to the voting public. It is also a useful resource for news reporters in their everyday role as well as future generations of historians seeking to source from digital archives.
The challenge facing parliamentary broadcasters today is how to expand their audience metrics against an ever-growing number of on-air and online distractions. If the numbers drop too low, even government-funded channels risk losing their relatively high visibility terrestrial or satellite slot and being relegated to purely online transmission.
Viewed from a traditional broadcast perspective, parliamentary TV channels appear to have it easy: pre-agreed session times, experienced participants, pre-cabled locations, proven lighting and remotely controlled cameras. Legislators in some parliaments have the option of using a teleprompter which can be superimposed on the video feed as rolling text. But the reality is far more complex. Parliamentary TV production and presentation demand a high level of flexibility. Crews have to be ready for over-runs, under-runs, short-notice extra sessions, even the occasional attempted coup as happened in 1981 when an armed gang interrupted a vote in the Spanish Congress of Deputies. Recommended practice in this circumstance is stay on air, or at least keep recording, as the result will have historical value whatever the outcome.
In practical reality, parliamentary TV production requires robust and user-friendly equipment operated within a well-defined but flexible workflow. The production process should ideally be achievable on a single platform to save the distractions of switching between multiple workstation screens. An ideal system also needs to give operators fast access to network-attached servers holding archived content.
We have provided production and playout solutions for parliamentary channels in various countries right back to 1999, mainly in Europe and APAC. In each case a key requirement has been to enable a core staff to handle live video and audio feeds coming from one or two main debating chambers plus, at times, ancillary committee rooms. With several sessions in full flow this is equivalent to working with multiple live studio productions.
The solution we have refined over the years is based on a proven reliable platform. This is offered in a choice of three forms: a complete hardware-based system with preloaded software, for on-site installation; an IP-based solution (Cloud2TV) controlled via an ultra-secure link to an off-site partner; or software to run on an existing commercial-grade networked computer.
A typical PlayBox Neo channel branding, presentation and playout system comprises AirBox Neo servers preloaded with software configured from a range of modules to match specific production requirements. A widely used example is the TitleBox Neo module which allows graphics and rolling text to be created and manipulated within the main GUI.
Another frequently used element is CaptureBox Neo which allows content to be recorded from up to four video sources simultaneously. Ingested video and audio are available for playback within seconds of the ingest process starting. All captured content can be monitored and controlled via a streamlined user interface. Audio levels are displayed alongside each video feed as bar graphs showing average and peak volume.
Combining efficiency with creativity
One characteristic common to all TV studio activity is the need to maximise staff efficiency while at the same time maintaining high production quality. Parliamentary TV channels were among the first to use remotely controlled cameras, not just to enhance efficiency but to make the entire process of broadcasting as unobtrusive as possible.
Production AirBox Neo is designed to combine the flexibility needed for live-to-air broadcasting with the automation capabilities of server-based broadcast playout. Changes to a scheduled playlist can be made while on-air without the operator being frustrated by locked clips. Every clip in a playlist can be trimmed or repositioned. Playout commands such as next, jump and shuttle can be performed seamlessly without the need to halt the playout session currently in progress. A single server can be configured with up to four independent players. Four SDI outputs are provided, each assignable to handle program or preview.
Figure 1 is a ProductionAirBox Neo example as incorporated into a Q2 2020 deployment for the Thai parliament in Bangkok. The system we recommended is based on six production servers. Three of these are configured to capture, schedule and transmit proceedings from the 500-seat Chandra voting chamber in the Thai Senate. The other three perform a similar role for the Surian chamber in the House of Representatives. Video can be sourced direct from incoming feeds or via CaptureBox Neo operating as an auxiliary ingest server.
Figure 2 shows the basic structure of the ProductionAirBox Neo GUI. This provides all the information needed to supervise the production and playout process, including alerts if required content is missing. The main operating GUI has a dark grey background optimised for glare-free viewing during long production sessions.
An integral multiviewer (Figure 3) displays the video feeds from up to four HD-SDI outputs alongside bar graphs showing average and peak audio level from up to eight sound channels. Each server can feed via a router to the main transmitter. HD-SDI with embedded audio can also be routed to the control galleries for additional finessing or to be used as backgrounds to studio-based interviews.
Advancing to the next level
ProductionAirBox Neo supports advanced functions which elevate parliamentary television, and indeed general broadcast playout, to a higher than ever level of creative efficiency. These include playlist looping; video transition effects such as cut, dissolve and fade to black; integration of multiple video resolutions and formats in a single playlist; on-air playlist editing and playback of clips while still being captured; video plus alpha fill-and-key output; and the ability to perform +/- 32x shuttle through playlisted content.
Key factors for any new investment in parliamentary TV resources are performance quality, reliability, security, space-efficiency, ease of integration, operational ease and flexibility, economic-ownership, expandability and genuine future-proofing. With more than two decades of experience behind us, we have proved our ability to deliver on every one of these counts plus the all-important element of efficient post-sale support. To paraphrase our US-based colleague Van Duke, we tick every box.