No one would think of designing a manual television playout system today. The advantages of automation, in terms of efficiency, accuracy and reliability, are obvious to all. But that does not mean there is a single solution to playout automation. Channels differ hugely in their character, the way they are scheduled and the content they […]
No one would think of designing a manual television playout system today. The advantages of automation, in terms of efficiency, accuracy and reliability, are obvious to all. But that does not mean there is a single solution to playout automation. Channels differ hugely in their character, the way they are scheduled and the content they carry. All of that affects the technology they need to deliver it.
There are some premium channels in each market whose output is so complex that a traditional automation system is still justified. These, typically, have a control system from one vendor, servers from another, switchers from a third and so on best-of-breed hardware under the control of an automation system that provides the right functionality for that channel.
Below that, though, there is another much larger tier of channels with simpler requirements. These are ideal for integrated playout systems, so-called channel-in-a-box solutions. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all product here. Some go for the lowest cost solution and live with very basic graphics. Others want to boost market share through high-quality branding and audience-retaining, revenue-enhancing tricks like squeezebacks.
Some are the primary output of the channel, either with or without a backup unit for resilience; others might be a disaster recovery solution, based off-site. Some channels need to accommodate late changes to the schedule, or even live interventions, while others run to a schedule fixed well in advance.
I would like to offer a completely new idea for playout automation a radically different approach. It is not suitable for every channel, but for thematic channels like movies, documentaries or drama it could prove an economic and operational game-changer.
Most broadcasters make each trailer, and each version of each trailer, as a separate project in an edit suite. This is slow, it ties up expensive hardware, and much of it is really dull work for the editor.
Why not take that automated content packaging and apply it to channel playout?
Thematic channels tend to be quite formulaic in their presentation. Think of a movie channel, for example; there is the first part of the movie, then a commercial break, perhaps with sponsor and channel bumpers in and out, and perhaps some promos to make up the time. Then the second part, and so on, until the end of the movie when you want to superimpose graphics on what is coming next. During the end credits, there are trailers for the next movie and what is coming up. Then another film starts.
It is simple to design templates for each part of the movie, together with the break content, secondary events and the rest of the look and feel of the channel. The actual content is known well in advance for a thematic channel. Things that many channel-in-a-box systems cannot do, like squeezebacks into dynamic graphics, can all be prepared offline.
Each complete sequence is then passed to a simple video file player. All this has to do is play one clip which might be 15 or 20 minutes long after another, and possibly add a logo. All the clever transitions that an ordinary channel-in-a-box system has to try to do live, such as promos and branding, are stored within the clip.
The channel looks better, because there are no restrictions on how you design your sequences, transitions, promos and audience hooks. There is no chance of a glitch in the playout, because everything is prepared in advance and you are transmitting a linear playlist from a server. For larger playout centres, you could run multiple instances of this solution in a processor farm, outputting faster than real time, so costs are saved, too. It turns the idea of playout automation on its head; and for many channels, it could prove to be a transformative idea.
James Gilbert is CEO of Pixel Power.