Grass Valley’s positive views on the Middle East market need no introduction; but how ready and willing are regional operators to adopt bluesky technologies? An exclusive, closed-door event gave us the answers …
At a time when the term ‘broadcaster’ is increasingly limiting, there’s little doubt that cloud and IP solutions are best suited for fast-tracking performance in a multi-screen culture. Yet while the Middle East offers extraordinary market potential, media companies are plagued by high bandwidth costs, meagre OPEX budgets and strict regulatory and legal boundaries. What’s the roadmap for change? And if the new technologies are simply inevitable, when – and how – will they arrive?
To brainstorm, Grass Valley hosted a powerful closed-door discussion at its inaugural GVx Middle East Tech Summit, inviting key names to address the critical issues and the factors behind incremental change. The meeting was an extension of the Grass Valley Customer Council, which typically brings the company’s leadership together in vibrant sessions with key industry thought leaders.
“For a cloud service, you need to guarantee that you have money for the next three or five years – and budgeting departments with the government and others don’t have that flexibility” – Hasan Sayed Hasan, MD, Master Media
With its end-to-end ecosystem of open standards-based solutions and its role as a trusted partner to many of the creative names in the media and entertainment business, Grass Valley encouraged an assessment of the best means for transitioning to IP and cloud-based infrastructures.
So, with a plethora of markets to choose from, why pick the Middle East?
Tim Shoulders, CEO and President, Grass Valley, explains: “It comes down to three words: hope, opportunity and optimism. We see these factors in abundance here in the Middle East. Remember, this is the region that not only hosts the World Expo this year but the World Cup in 2022, with the Formula One events already well-established. It also has a young, ambitious and international population demanding quality in sport, news and entertainment. We see growing IT services as well as a need for more Arabic content. As a globally recognised brand known for state-of-the-art market tech, we want to be part of the growth in the Middle East market.”
He took the audience through some key market analysis, stating that OTT revenue growth eclipsed that of pay-TV in 2020, a trend likely to continue for OTT at the rate of 18% a year.
“To enable businesses to take full commercial advantage, we believe in lowering the cost for our customers, as well as increasing operating efficiencies. We provide a unified universal media experience with all the media technology tied into a cloud-enabled platform that lets your business operate from anywhere. Media processing can be deployed in the cloud or on-prem, and you only pay for it as you use it.”
Louis Hernandez, CEO of Black Dragon Capital, which acquired Grass Valley in 2020, added that the company was now in good hands and had “the ability to invest in the future, with a cloud ecosystem allowing clients to migrate at the price-point they want”.
Bringing the experts together
At the heart of the event was an expert panel moderated by Vijaya Cherian, Managing Partner, CPI Trade Media, which set out to “understand a few of the industry’s challenges, and see where the gaps really are”. The round table tackled four key questions:
- What are the business dynamics facing media companies in the region?
- How will this affect the adoption of new technologies?
- To what extent are remote and cloud-based workflows being implemented?
- How can Grass Valley assist – and where should it focus?
The panel provided comprehensive – and often surprising – answers, with high-profile participants from a wealth of stakeholder backgrounds.
Responding to the first question, Israel Esteban, CTO at beIN Media Group, highlighted piracy. He said that if rights costs have gone up and one pays for exclusivity but doesn’t get it, this put “the whole universe at risk”.
“We have experienced a major threat with piracy. Your biggest competitor is not another business – we’re used to that, and it’s fine. Your biggest competitor is illegal. What that threat means in reality is that incomes aren’t going up: they’re either steady or going down.”
Samer Younis, Technical Advisor at Al Kass, spoke about the continuous challenge of trying to bridge the old and the new.
“We are looking to improve the quality of our services and offer a better experience to our sports viewers. But we are also looking at cloud systems, services on the cloud and piracy, and how to attempt a merger between the old system (SDI) and the new 4K. Nonetheless, we are looking to do more to advance services, particularly in sport, and we need to find the answers very soon.”
Ibrahim Nassar, Manager of Broadcast Engineering at a big regional news entity, focused on the impact of the pandemic on news channels.
“From our side, as a breaking news channel working worldwide, our biggest challenge was to look at how to continue to produce news from the field in the most cost-effective way. Events are unpredictable and can happen anytime, anywhere. So we have been working on some initiatives that can address this challenge in terms of remote production, adapting workflows quickly, given the pandemic and working from home.
“We feel providers, end users and solutions providers must work together to produce solutions that allow us to have flexible, dynamic and scalable workflows in the cloud for production and post-production that can be easily deployed in a SaaS model. Admittedly, Covid-19 has had a positive side in that it forced companies to think outside the box to find more efficient ways of doing business.
“The second challenge was the operational model. We have huge costs in running the business worldwide, in terms of contribution, distribution, services, as well as production and post. So we have started shifting out our contribution and distribution services onto IP and are working through our partners.
“We do have plans to move to cloud, but it has to be a gradual, phased approach, because we cannot do everything in the cloud from day one. We are looking at an ecosystem that enables us to work in the cloud natively and takes us on the journey for production services as well.”
Given the current scenario, the panellists were asked about the potential impact on the adoption of new technologies. Ruba Ibrahim, Director of Operations, Al-Arabiya, introduced a sobering note.
“It’s nice to talk about cloud tech, but there are many challenges about the cloud in this part of the world in particular. In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for instance, bandwidth is a serious issue. We’re paying 12-20 times what you pay for bandwidth in Europe and the US, or in Singapore. So we are talking about millions more than what it normally costs for a TV station to have a cloud presence on-prem.
“Those of us who survive and who will continue to survive will always be able to adapt to the new technology. Need I say there is no alternative?” – Del Parks, EVP & CTO, Sinclair Broadcast Group
“To give an example here, 1MB costs over 300,000 dollars a year. This is very high. In order to have a proper cloud operation, we would require 10 times more of that bandwidth, which translates into millions. So if we need to implement the cloud per se in our business, costs need to be more viable.
“There is also the mindset to consider. Traditional production mechanisms have changed – we are a multi-screen industry now, not just a broadcaster anymore. It’s easier for cloud and IP solutions to cater for these new delivery formats. Yet most people are not comfortable with this new reality and prefer the old workflows. So when we change our workflows, we have to think of the cost, the timeline and the mindset of the people.”
Nabil El Madbek, Technology Projects Manager at Abu Dhabi Media, pointed out that most media organisations with legacy equipment struggle with the continuous transition to new technologies. “We have been talking about transitions to remote production, UHD, cloud and IP. Tech providers are giving us a lot of products, but we want more engagement with users on how they are adapting to the new technology.”
Remote and cloud-based workflows: Is implementation a reality?
Hasan Sayed Hasan clearly outlined the many challenges faced by both broadcasters and suppliers. Placing things in context, he pointed out that for the “last few years we have not had many new projects in the region, and that must be the reason for seeing a delay in the adoption of IP and cloud”.
However, he also said that one of the reasons broadcasters are reluctant to adapt to cloud technologies is that “most are comfortable with on-prem solutions”. If any regional broadcasters are indeed embracing cloud currently, it is only within “contribution and distribution”.
“We are not yet seeing broadcasters go to cloud for their core business, which is production and broadcasting. In most cases, they want everything to be controlled in-house. In the UAE, national broadcasters are not allowed to locate their content outside the UAE and this goes against the very principle of cloud, which is about the technology being distributed globally.”
Besides the regulatory aspects, he reiterated, like the other panellists, that cost is a huge deterrent to cloud adoption.
“The cost model of the cloud is a big issue. Here, budgets are planned annually and there is no budget allocated for the following year. For a cloud service, you need to guarantee that you have money for the next three or five years – and budgeting departments with the government and others don’t have that flexibility. They only know what they are getting each year.
“Converting from CAPEX to OPEX therefore doesn’t work for these regional broadcasters. Service providers therefore will need to come up with a more flexible business model, whether it’s up-front payment or a guarantee of service for a longer period of time.”
He also pointed out that most suppliers in the broadcast environment do not seem to be able to provide a 360-degree cloud solution. He cited two cloud projects where broadcast suppliers were unable to bid.
“We have been involved in a major cloud project. When the tender was issued, all broadcast suppliers were included and not one submitted a proposal. They didn’t think the cloud project was for them. That indicates that suppliers are not really ready to have that full large-scale implementation.
“Another project that is happening is also for native cloud, and again the media suppliers are not there, because they were not able to fulfil the requirements. Small native cloud solutions are filling that gap, and if broadcast providers are not looking into that, they will lose a big market.”
Hassan Chahine, CEO of Media Digital Space, who has been working extensively in Saudi Arabia, said that despite the challenges, Covid-19 will help accelerate cloud and IP adoption.
Jean-Claude Rahme, Head of Broadcast Engineers, LIVE Broadcast Facilities, Abu Dhabi Media, cautioned that those “not willing to embrace IP, its benefits and its efficiencies, will get left behind”.
Nassar pushed back on the idea that news production is relatively simple and best done in the cloud. He opined that a hybrid solution may be the answer at present.
“At the moment, I think cloud is best suited for event-based production rather than 24/7 news, and it will be more cost-friendly. There are certainly some good arguments for the cloud. But will media networks accept that everything is moved out of house? For now, I think, we must work in a hybrid way until costs decline and on a case-by-case basis – cloud is a journey, not a button we can just switch on and off.”
Having heard about the challenges in the region, the next question was: How can Grass Valley help?
Ruba Ibrahim commented that apart from Microsoft opening a cloud office in the UAE recently, there was no “presence for the cloud in this part of the world … We don’t have a cloud here. In Saudi Arabia, the plan is to have it in three to four years. We have managed to work remotely, but the cloud itself will take more time, as most of our organisations believe in CAPEX and not OPEX.”
Israel Esteban said beIN was already moving some of its content into the cloud.
“We are going to launch some cloud playout, and we are not doing it because it is a trend. Our platform allows for 30 channels to play out, and we have run out of infrastructure. So should we spend $5m in CAPEX, upgrades and the like, or should we move some of our content to the cloud?
“We decided on the latter. We have different content – news, sports and entertainment – and some of our channels can more easily be launched in the cloud. One challenge we have is the mindset, but Covid helped us on this front because people adopted things they wouldn’t even have considered before. We expedited the process by many years. Before, operations would have said no if we suggested it.
“With cloud, people think you can spin things up easily. This is not true. The cloud will come as building blocks, but they need to be compatible with everything that already exists in our systems. Our operations will want automation, logging, control – and if I spin up something in the cloud and it remains an isolated block, operations will push back and say they want 20 more people to manage it. That’s a challenge.
“Integration, testing, etc should become much easier. Otherwise, the time that we would save on cloud will be spent on testing, doing rehearsals, convincing people, and you could either succeed or fail.
“So we are not quite there yet. Very few people have the luxury of having the cloud from the very start. Most have legacy equipment.”
“We’re paying 12-20 times what you pay for bandwidth in Europe and the US, or in Singapore. So we are talking about millions more than what it normally costs for a TV station to have a cloud presence on-prem” – Ruba Ibrahim, Director of Operations, Al-Arabiya
When new solutions are being created, vendors like Grass Valley must take into consideration the limitations unique to this part of the world, the panellists said. Ruba pointed out that technology is often developed based on requirements and feedback from Western and European audiences, while MENA needs are unique and require a different approach.
“This is a booming market, and there is potential for growth in this region. We are getting global recognition. When a vendor comes with solutions for this part of the world, they must take into consideration the challenges that exist here and what it will take for us to integrate it with our existing workflows; it must be viable, reliable and cost-effective,” she pointed out.
The view from Grass Valley
Listening to the debate, Sydney Lovely, Chief Technology Officer, Grass Valley, explained how the company’s “touchstone” creation, the Grass Valley Media Universe, can help with the very challenges the panellists highlighted.
“It’s been a really interesting discussion today, and I’m bound to mention that about four years ago, we started investigating how we can bring cloud technologies forward, either with a public or private cloud. GV Media Universe was launched officially a little more than a year ago. It’s built around an incredibly agile media processing platform called AMPP – in fact, we use it to build an entire ecosystem.
“The idea is that it’s a universal toolkit that enables you to work in a public or private cloud environment, and you can use the toolkit differently depending on each individual case. AMPP also expands the capability of your existing equipment and operations by connecting control surfaces from Grass Valley and authorised partners to cloud services. This means you can preserve your fixed investment while elastically expanding to the cloud as needed or required.”
A case in point
Closing the day, Del Parks, EVP & CTO, Sinclair Broadcast Group, explained how the concerns expressed by the panel were in reality not so different from the issues that Sinclair – a US media and technology titan – had confronted and largely overcome, courtesy of support from Grass Valley. With a wealth of experience (Sinclair hosts 23 regional sports networks and reaches about 70% of US households), he argued that the environment is no different wherever you go in the world. For example, bandwidth is still an issue in the US, not just in the Middle East.
“This really is a global industry, and we can only go as fast as our slowest participant. We need to recognise consumers have the power. What they decide to watch us on is their decision, not ours. The reality is, you can only effectively manage content for diverse communities by using the cloud; and you need to customise like never before. The news you get over your cell phone can be different from the news you get on your laptop.
“We are transforming the company in the next three to five years to be completely in the cloud. We need to move to the cloud because our consumers and customers are moving to the cloud. “Remember: those of us who survive and who will continue to survive will always be able to adapt to the new technology. Need I say there is no alternative?”