Van Duke, Director of US Operations, PlayBox Neo, considers successful responses to the needs of the fast-evolving broadcast industry.
Television broadcasting as an industry is just nine years short of its centenary. The first commercially licensed US television station, W3XK, went live from just outside Washington DC on July 2nd 1925. Just for the record, it started as true 'black-and-white', transmitting silhouette images. Refinements such as grayscale let alone high resolution and color were mere aspirations.
The broadcast industry today is more accessible than ever thanks to advances in terrestrial, cable, satellite and internet-based delivery. Having started my own broadcast career back in the days of analog video tape, I was among the first generation of operators to see the advantages of playing to air directly from digital disk servers.
A core aspect of television is that almost every service provider, whether channel owner or playout facility, is unique in its scale and in the way it chooses to function. To succeed as a vendor, one has to offer a bespoke system at a standard-product price point. PlayBox Neo's Channel-in-a-Box (CIAB) system has developed over two eventful decades into a fully proven solution based on modularity: a wide range of software elements (now at series Neo-19) which can be mixed and matched to provide practically any required combination of capabilities. From year one, 1999, our customers had the option of running our software on their own PC platforms. This sometimes led to unnecessary excitement as early PCs varied widely in characteristics such as speed. To eliminate the inherent variability of generic IT products, we introduced our own dedicated server platform which continues to be a popular option.
Success builds on itself, not least in the playout sector where a proven solution is always looked upon as safer than an untried brand. Having supplied and supported over 18,500 playout and branding channels over the years, we have parented arguably the most widely used CIAB system ever introduced to the market.
Practical consideration number one is scalability which also happens to be the key strength of the CIAB approach. Intelligent channel owners have a firm focus on their current business plan. Genius channel owners think two steps ahead, anticipating future expansion and the potential impact of new technology on viewer behavior. Most broadcasters, whether new or already established, recognize the need to allow for growth in terms of additional channels even if only of the OTT red-button variety created for the duration of a specific event such as a sports tournament. Our approach to CIAB makes the playout aspect of a new permanent channel a simple matter of adding an extra server to a station's apparatus room and linking it to a new or existing browser display in the presentation control suite or master control room. Red-button channels can be handled in the same way or, optionally, via an auxiliary solution such as our Cloud2TV software running on a local host or hosted by an IP-linked broadcast facility service company.
Discussions with new customers looking to invest in a playout system usually start with an outline of the facilities the channel already possesses and those which PlayBox Neo can easily provide as part of a fully integrated system. In a relaxed and spacious studio control environment, operators are happy to perform ingest at one keyboard and monitor screen, scheduling at a second keyboard and screen, graphics at a third and playout itself at a fourth. This needs an impressively large control desk even if the staff headcount is low but is clearly inefficient, not least in terms of operator training.
Our aim has long been to allow as much as possible of the playout process, literally from start to finish, to be managed from a single IP-connected browser screen. To achieve this, the GUI needs to show all the information relevant to the task currently in hand, including proxy-video viewing and manipulation where appropriate. An example is shown in Figure 1. Instead of shifting from one display terminal to another, the operator simply selects the relevant GUI page.
This approach has the important advantage that the Neo-19 software can track each action and alert the operator if an essential task still requires attention as a scheduled item approaches the moment of transmission. We don't flaunt this as 'AI' but you get the message. More importantly, the operator gets the message. If anything goes wrong, as is possible in any busy service situation, Neo-19 can even perform intelligent action in response to a missing instruction or missing file.
The nuts and bolts of TV playout depend on a specific channel's role and the way in which it reaches its viewers. Most of our business over the years has been with established broadcasters transmitting via a local or national network (terrestrial and/or cable), supplemented in many cases by satellite feeds to distant network headends and/or direct-to-home. That continues to be the case but now supplemented increasingly by IP-based direct-to-home catchup TV services.
New-startup broadcasters are in general opting for IP-to-head-end delivery on cost grounds as well as plain-and-simple IP-to-home transmission. This model progresses to satellite-based transmission if a channel experiences very high public demand. That said, the increasing popularity of IP-based TV viewing on internet-connected home-TVs and mobile devices is giving satellite delivery increasing competition.
Government channels and faith-based channels have similar technical and operation requirements to mainstream broadcasters, with a growing preference for internet-based delivery to their viewers on the grounds of easy accessibility plus the ability to deliver video files on demand.
Educational broadcasters have very special requirements including the need to make a large amount of course-related VOD content available via a secure rather than public-access network.
Business-related applications of TV playout come in many flavors, usually a mix of attention-grabbing news supplemented by relevant information in the case of an airport, for example, or store promos in the case of a retail mall.
Our approach embraces these special requirements by ensuring that PlayBox Neo CIAB and Cloud2TV systems are delivery agnostic. In other words, we can ingest from and output to whatever formats our customers need to sustain their workflow.
The PlayBox Neo approach to broadcast playout allows channel operators to invest in as much or as little system backup as they choose. This factor is also termed 'redundancy' but has nothing in common with the job losses that were expected when broadcasters first began implementing automated playout. The ability to pre-program our CIAB to perform unattended round-the-clock transmission has actually contributed to an expansion in the number of people employed in the broadcast business rather than a reduction. Channel management efficiency is higher than ever, increasing operator productivity and reducing stress throughout the business. The only stressed guy is me on the rare occasion that I get a call from a customer in urgent need of support. Our system is highly robust so queries of this sort tend to be from the occasional operator getting up to speed with a latest generation GUI.
In practical terms, system redundancy is itself scalable from none at all to full 1:1. In between is the option of partial redundancy where a single backup server (for example) provides shared protection for two primary transmission channels. This is a cost-efficient compromise which can be extended so that backup supports three or even four channels.
Third-party product integration
Every TV channel has some kind of infrastructure even if only the IP-connected workstation which links to a third-party service provider. In traditional broadcast establishments our CIAB system is usually connected to a third-party router and maybe a rack of transcoders. Our latest-generation products are designed to perform much or all of the transcoding internally so the primary connection these days is with the station's router. Most stations these days are active in HD and/or SD. We also support full UHD operation or any desired combination of UHD, HD and SD.
PlayBox Neo has always used industry standard video, audio and control I/Os to ensure easy connectivity with third-party products. More importantly, we are able to support practically any subsidiary protocol that a station finds useful, whether it relates to file metadata, an open protocol such as NDI (Network Device Interface) or a nitty gritty standard such as SCTE-35 (Digital Program Insertion Cueing Message).
Software integration has become an increasingly important part of system integration over the years. Connecting hardware I/Os is straightforward enough but very careful attention is needed to ensure correct machine-to-machine software communications. We have long adopted what is clearly the safest approach of providing fully tested software modules with the added security of a dedicated operating platform. This eliminates the uncertainties of third-party operating system updates which introduce undesired excitement into the lives of many innocent IT product users. As I mentioned earlier, the ideal playout system should be configurable to perform as many functions as possible with a unified graphic interface. This not only saves operator time, desk space and rack-room space, it also reduces the risk of conflicts between software elements from multiple vendors.
Over the past 20 years, our development colleagues have refined our range of software modules, currently at iteration Neo-19, to the point where they support every core function required to perform television content preparation, quality control, graphic branding, text manipulation, scheduling and actual playout. This can be achieved on either of our two CIAB hardware platforms, produced in 1U single-channel and 3U four-channel 3U versions).
My colleagues and I have learnt over the years to recognize that many customers have unique combinations of requirements especially in today's fast evolving media world. This has resulted in developments such as AdBox Neo-19 which allows a channel to target advertisements for specific audiences. It can be installed locally or at a distribution headend and monitored and controlled remotely via any IP network. If required, many hundreds of hours of programs and commercials can be scheduled.
Among our most recent new developments, TS Neo Time Delay is a combination of software and a dedicated server designed to support delayed TV channel playout. It provides user-definable delay in 10 second increments up to seven days, plus logo overlay and multichannel audio. Configurations include single-channel SD-SDI/HD-SDI or dual-channel SD-SDI/HD-SDI. For enhanced reliability the hardware is incorporates RAID-protected content storage and redundant hot-swap power supplies.
Server, Cloud or Hybrid
I left the question-mark off this subheading because, once again, perfectly practical solutions can be created from any combination of these approaches. The longer the channel has been active, the more likely are its owners and managers to possess their own server-based system. Once the routine of operating in this way is established, it is very cost efficient, easy to drive and a breeze to maintain.
A new start-up, on the other hand, may have neither the space to accommodate its own engineering facility nor a technical manager to superintend it. Here 'the cloud' becomes an attractive option, meaning a leased playout resource connected via a standard (often these days high-speed) IP link. Content is uploaded in non-real-time to the playout service provider, after which the whole process of playout management can be handled from a standard PC workstation running PlayBox Neo software. It is a standard way to operate which dates back to the earliest years of CIAB.
Hybrid combinations of owner-operated server and leased remote playout solutions such as our software-as-a-service Cloud2TV offer the familiarity of an owner-driver system plus a very high level of flexibility in starting a new channel at short notice. Figure 2 shows an example using cloud storage as part of a production workflow including regional ad insertion.
Apart from the red-button channel application I mentioned earlier, the hybrid approach is also a very efficient way to create and run an emergency recovery facility as cover again the channel's HQ being flooded or in any other way put out of action.
Looking back over recent installations both here in the USA and by our distribution partners around the world, I am struck both by the similarity of content owners' and channel operators' needs and by the crucial differences which make each project special whether a new system of simply an upgrade. The key to success is to listen carefully, to learn quickly and to respond to the needs of our fast-evolving industry.