Theres no doubt we have reached a tipping point in the world of integrated playout devices or channel-in-a-box (CiB) if not in terms of deployment, then certainly in terms of column inches being written and market interest. To the casual observer, it may appear that we are now accelerating towards this brave new […]
Theres no doubt we have reached a tipping point in the world of integrated playout devices or channel-in-a-box (CiB) if not in terms of deployment, then certainly in terms of column inches being written and market interest. To the casual observer, it may appear that we are now accelerating towards this brave new world at a reckless pace where technological care and concern are in danger of being thrown overboard in search of economic nirvana. But even the most seasoned industry observer must be sitting back, looking at developments curve agreeing that momentum has now swung behind taking these technologies very seriously indeed.
As an inevitable consequence of the upswing in interest in CiB playout, theres an increasing level of confusion in the market. Some, no doubt, see these technologies as only useful for basic channels that are thematic in nature or perhaps sit at the lower end of an EPG. This dovetails with the view that they will remain capable only of basic playout, rather than being able to handle the far more sophisticated and rigorous requirements of prime time, market-leading channels.
Alternatively, theres a groundswell of opinion that within only a few years, CiB technologies will dominate the market at the expense of the traditional approach (using video server ports, a master control switcher and then, in many cases, a variety of downstream devices, most notably graphics technology). At this juncture, it would be imprudent to second guess the penetration level that CiB technologies will ultimately reach, but what has to be clearly stated is that, in some cases, these technologies are now highly advanced solutions that, in turn, facilitate the playout of sophisticated channels and that the concerns that many broadcasters, undoubtedly, have can now be addressed.
Before we look at the capabilities of CiB systems, theres one fundamental misconception that has to be dismissed: channel-in-a box does not have to equal commoditised IT hardware. There are many who believe that when we talk of CiB, we are in fact talking about off-the-shelf IT technology with tailored software loaded on to it. This is, in fact, the conflation of two separate, yet in reality, very distinct trends. While there are many CiB solutions that take this route, there are also integrated playout devices that combine the benefits of bespoke hardware and software.
Many of todays converged systems do utilise standard PCs with video cards that purport to do almost anything a broadcaster will require. Although its perfectly possible to carry out most functions of a high-end integrated channel playout device on the powerful CPUs/GPUs now available, it may well not be possible to do them all at the same time. Its far from unusual to install a CiB system and then to add a downstream device to provide high-end branding graphics that cannot be performed on the integrated system.
Broadcasters must keep in mind that it is function and not form that defines the output. Thats what has to be the primary consideration in any purchasing decision: what do you want the technology to achieve?
The catch lies in the demanding processing requirements of HD video and graphics. These require the use of powerful CPUs and GPUs which are often far from low power.
Broadcast-specific graphics cards will always be required to provide HDSDI I/O which moves the platform further from “off-the-shelf hardware” commonly used in a general business IT environment.
Todays equipment designers typically have a choice when it comes to implementing a particular function and that choice can radically affect power consumption. Code can run on a general purpose processor such as a CPU or GPU. It can also be implemented in “virtual hardware” within programmable devices such as FPGAs. A third choice is to run on fully custom devices. Typically the flexibility is greatest with the general purpose processor, but so is the power consumption.
Lets step further back. To succeed in todays world, broadcasters must find ways to control the operating costs of each individual channel, without diminishing the channels quality or impact. This requires more affordable equipment and more efficient equipment to manage operating expenses, hence the growing interest and deployment of CiB technologies. The second factor is the sheer number of channels, not to mention regional variants, which are currently being launched. Playing all these out using traditional methods is often simply too expensive to do. But theres a flip side: the sheer size of the multichannel world means that channel branding becomes ever more important in the race to win and hold audiences, to help sell advertising space or subscription services. In fact, the look and feel of channels the overall quality of output – is growing, not diminishing in importance.
In order to meet the ongoing requirements of their evolving multi-channel operations, broadcasters are re-evaluating their entire signal chain, from production through to playout, looking for opportunities for economy. Some have accepted a stopgap using only a router and video server to simply play out the channel without the addition of appealing, tailored transitions, promotional graphics and logos that make a channel memorable.
As mentioned, that approach belies the need to effectively brand channels in order to foster a rapport with the viewing audience. Creating an identity for a channel is critical to enticing advertisers who want to target clearly defined demographics. In order to compete, broadcasters must deliver a polished presentation that differentiates their channels, creates a brand identity, and attracts and retains an audience.
The bottom line is this: graphics are the fundamental tool available to broadcasters to differentiate channels, present a consistent brand image and promote their content products across all their delivery platforms.
A second key area that has seen broadcasters shy away from CiB solutions is the issue of automation. Until recently, CiB technologies have essentially been tied to the automation system that they are supplied with, or whats termed automation lock-in. Broadcasters often find their equipment options constrained once they have committed to a particular automation platform. This automation lock-in is an important consideration for a broadcaster whose needs may change over time.
If we take an existing playout facility with an already-installed automation system and discreet playout chains, its very likely that any initial CiB installation will be for simpler, thematic channels (or perhaps disaster recovery). However, as technological trust grows and the sophistication of some modern CiB systems continues to increase, so a broadcaster may well decide to deploy the same CiB systems for its premium channels. Taking advantage of no automation lock-in means that broadcasters who will doubtless have spent a great deal of time and money honing existing automation system, which are complex technologies can continue to use that automation technology in conjunction with the new CiB rollout rather than be forced to use that supplied by the CiB vendor.
The optimal solution is an integrated playout system thats adaptable and works with a variety of automation systems.
CiB systems that benefit from no automation lock-in can integrate with many automation and MAM systems by way of an open XML protocol or legacy industry-standard protocols. This means that its far easier to integrate a CiB system with an already-installed automation system, or indeed MAM, greatly enhancing the flexibility of the technology.
Theres a third key consideration. Perhaps the greatest differentiator between thematic and prime-time channels is the use of live content in the latter.
There has undoubtedly been concern among broadcasters that CiB systems have not been powerful or flexible enough or havent had the requisite number of inputs, upstream router control or preview capabilities, all essential with live content to effectively handle the challenges that live content provides. Again, broadcasters need to define as clearly as possible what channels they will want the technology to handle and then look at the options in the market.
There are other considerations too: how does a CiB system support manual master control operation? Are there both hard and soft panels available? What level of user configurability is on offer? Can the system be controlled remotely via TCP/IP rendering geography irrelevant? Synchronised hard and soft panels provide multiple control surfaces, redundancy and the flexibility required for dynamic situations.
Its difficult to define a CiB system. A broadcaster cannot simply tick a box that says: Ill have ten integrated playout devices, please.
The variation in capabilities is significant. Not all integrate storage, graphics, DVE, subtitling, master control, live feed and long-form video playout within a single dedicated platform, be that hardware or software. Even if they do, the specific capabilities within each sub-category listed may vary greatly.
To reiterate: what is the broadcaster trying to achieve? What functionality does the broadcaster require now and what will they require in the future to compete effectively? Those requirements may well vary significantly if system A was for a playout centre and system B for disaster recovery, for example. The key point is that selecting a truly integrated playout technology does not have to mean choosing to compromise. In fact, the consolidated packaging enables broadcasters to deploy a highly reliable playout system while avoiding the cost and complexity of traditional playout chains.
James Gilbert is Joint MD of Pixel Power.