Outsourcing economics

As the financial crisis maintains its grip on the TV industry, content owners are looking at ways to improve efficiencies and bring costs down. Graham Pomphrey looks at the role of playout service providers.

The pace of change in the broadcast arena has been phenomenal. Go back 15 years and broadcasters generally wanted to get a channel on air with a few interspersed ads and that was it. Times have changed and a number of different forces are at work making the demand on media companies to cut costs whilst remaining competitive greater than ever. Regardless of the current economic situation, they are faced with an array of technologies, standards and business models. Consumers aren’t content with watching linear channels on TVs any more and media companies have to evolve the way they handle and distribute content to the masses. The proliferation of platforms, new styles of broadcasting, even the creative and branding processes involved in broadcasting a traditional TV channel are going through substantial changes.

Arguably now more than ever, the option to outsource certain processes to specialist providers is not only tempting but, for some, the only viable option. “The media industry is under pressure,” says Will Berryman, chief operations officer, digital content delivery at Thomson-owned broadcast service provider Technicolor. “The absolute underlying economics of the media haven’t changed radically – you still sell ads or subscriptions. But the reality is that you have to stretch that content a lot further these days. The economic pressures on a broadcaster aren’t just tied to the economic cycle, they’re part and parcel of changes in technology and consumer behaviour.”

Changing shape

While the current global economic situation might be placing strains on broadcasters, the changing shape of the wider media landscape means they are trying to achieve efficiencies and cost savings as a long-term priority.
For Jonathan Try, vice-president of technology for the Liberty Global-owned Digital Media Centre (DMC), a broadcaster’s decision to outsource will always come down to what efficiencies such a move might bring. “If they’ve got a critical mass of channels, they might be better served by running their own playout,” he says. “However, if they’ve got one or two channels, it’s bound to be more efficient to outsource, otherwise they have to employ staff to run a 24/7 operation as well as regularly updating the infrastructure.” In challenging economic times where companies are trying to keep capex as low as possible, outsourcing solves the problem of making investments in new equipment, he ads.
As international channels in particular continue to prosper in the digital TV space, some broadcasters are looking to playout providers to deliver channels to multiple territories. France Telecom-owned broadcast services provider GlobeCast provides playout services across the globe, something that international broadcasters find appealing, according to development manager Peter Elvidge: “There’s lots of interest for true global playout services because it’s nice to have one company that can help you out in multiple regions,” he says. The company is also seeing demand from its customers for the content to be played out in one region and repurposed in another. “Again, it’s nice to have one company that can do that,” Elvidge says. He says that GlobeCast is seeing a whole range of customers looking for playout services. It might be a customer with one channel that wants “somewhere to host it”, or a multinational operator with a number of channels, he says, adding that service providers must be flexible when it comes to taking business: “You have to be able to cover off the start-ups who want to pay the minimum amount each month, right up to the multinationals who are prepared to pay whatever it takes but want perfection.”

Simply offering straightforward playout facilities is no longer enough for many broadcasters and as the competition amongst playout providers intensifies, being able to offer additional services is now par for the course. “It’s more economical to have a supplier who can manage a wide range of territories and offer services across a large part of the transmission chain,” says John Bozza, director of sales at Arqiva’s satellite media solutions division. He says playout services are increasingly being packaged with distribution services to offer operational savings: “An example is one company being able to offer production and live event handling as well as core playout and distribution.”

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Arqiva provides high-definition playout and distribution services on behalf of major international broadcasters and channel owners, delivering nearly 400 channels worldwide. According to Bozza, one of the key benefits of outsourcing playout is the cost savings brought about by not having to invest in new technology. “Our clients are keen to reduce technical overheads and save the capital investment required for playout,” he says. “They are then able to focus on making good, compelling content and leave the technical service side to a partner like Arqiva.” He says technical innovations such as tapeless workflow and broadcast management tools integrated into the outsourced playout solution offer further reduced operating costs, increased operating efficiency as well as giving greater control and visibility.

A new entrant to the playout arena is STN, a Slovenian company that until recently concentrated on teleport services in the region. Earlier this year it opened a new facility near Ljubljana which enables it to offer a number of  “add-on” services, including playout. Besides classic playout, the company offers dubbing, editing, live broadcast and outside broadcasting faculties. According to managing director Tomaz Lovsin, the company is seeing demand from broadcasters of all sizes wanting to reach central and eastern Europe. “On the one hand we’ve got some American entertainment channels that are customised for Europe and this is a straightforward playout process – we receive tapes, ingest them and convert the file to the playlist and add graphics etc. Then we also have more complex customers that not only require playout but also translations, subtitling, editing of live transmissions and the like.” It was a natural progression for the company to move into playout services, Lovsin says, because of the number of international channels who want to broadcast in the region but don’t want to do the playout in-house. “Firstly, they realise it can be very costly, and secondly it’s much easier to regionalise using a third party. Many broadcasters are earning money from commercials so you need local adverts, for example. It makes sense to sub-contract the whole playout process.”

Technology choices

In the current climate, broadcasters and playout providers are looking for solutions that can deliver high-quality content at lower costs. This can be achieved by reducing labour, hardware, space, electrical and start-up costs, according to automation supplier OmniBus’s chief technology officer Ian Fletcher. As playout providers look to improve efficiencies within workflows, IT-based solutions have continued to win favour. OmniBus’s iTX solution is a software-based automation system that encodes content once and can play it out on multiple platforms, including VOD portals, in standard and high definition. “The key objective for the move to IT-centric infrastructures is to reduce costs and to place a greater emphasis on asset management systems that track content in a fully digital work environment,” Fletcher says. “OmniBus iTX has been designed to reduce labour costs by running multiple channels from a single platform and can deliver advanced graphics in real time without needing to distribute workflows to other departments.”

PubliTronic manufactures various products for automated playout, graphics and branding of broadcast channels, including Nexus video servers with audio, video and graphics capabilities and the Cobalt playout automation system. For Harold Vermeulen, founder and managing director, offering services including graphics, as part of an integrated solution will become the standard. “It’s much easier  to manage a single system rather than many systems that have to be interfaced together. Integrating services also reduces the number of people needed to operate the workflow,” he says. “When we talk about integrated playout we’re not only talking about video server and graphic capabilities, which seem the most important, it’s also about Teletext, subtitles, aspect ratio conversion etc. Integration should mean complete integration – you need one system for each channel without having to add features with different systems because doing that makes it progressively complex.”

Omneon develops networked media storage and servers. Paul Turner, vice-president of broadcast market development agrees that efficient workflows are becoming more important. He points to the transition to file-based workflows as a clear trend, for which standard IT infrastructures are fundamental. “In making this transition, customers are clearly re-defining their workflows to eliminate serial steps as much as possible, but also to allow for automated, file-based quality control equipment to provide the necessary quality verification on those files as they enter and exit a processing stage,” he says. “The overall effect is to allow facilities to increase efficiency – to originate more channels of programming without increasing staffing.” A corollary, he says, is that broadcasters are realising the importance of having trained IT staff to maintain their networks. “It’s not hard to imagine the day, not too far from now, where the IT routing infrastructure dwarves the serial digital routing infrastructure,” he says.

Digital changes

This pressures to deliver playout services as efficiently as possible and the related move towards IT-based solutions has led to the natural evolution of digital workflows. As Technicolor’s Berryman points out, “creating digital workflows means broadcasters don’t have to deliver tapes any more, they can get much more use from their assets and it becomes easier to reschedule, repeat and redistribute content.”

“Creating digital workflows means broadcasters can get much more use from their assets. It becomes easier to reschedule, repeat and redistribute content.”
Will Berryman, Technicolor

The process of ingesting content once and delivering it as many times as required has become commonplace amongst playout service providers. One growing trend is for content owners to deliver assets digitally to playout centres, which removes the cost and effort of delivering tapes via courier. “Increasingly we’re finding that we can obtain a file externally rather than getting the tape into the centre and doing an ingest process on it because it will often have been ingested by the channel provider itself,” says Try. Since 2006, the DMC has worked with the E! Entertainment channel in a completely tapeless environment, with all content, including video, audio, subtitles and schedules, delivered over the public internet. Content is produced, archived and scheduled in Los Angeles and played out in Amsterdam. Kids channel Jetix, which the DMC began playing out earlier this year, ingests all of its content in London via a third party and sends it digitally to Amsterdam. “A lot of larger customers in particular are realising the advantage that can be had from this,” says Try. “They’ve had to make infrastructure changes at their end, but we’re seeing the cost of the digitisation process coming down and the step-change to start delivering digitally is not huge.”

Many playout service providers are also offering their own digital delivery systems, separate from the open internet. “Our Content Exchange product is the answer to sending large files over the internet,” says Globecast’s Elvidge. “You don’t get packet loss like you might with an FTP connection. It’s very easy to use and the file is guaranteed to get through without being corrupted. Higher-value content owners are very keen to have a secure connection. Ultimately, it reduces our costs and it reduces our customer’s costs.”

One area playout providers have been keen to improve is on-screen branding and promo services. In a multichannel environment, how a broadcaster promotes its channels becomes very important. Services providers are finding the process is becoming increasingly complex. But in the digital world, the possibilities of what can be done are almost endless.

“Because of the strong competition between channels and the need to keep what’s on the air interesting and stop viewers from switching, especially during ad-breaks, the demand for branding is high,” says the DMC’s Try. “We’ve seen it across all genres, whether it’s a movie channel that want to do sophisticated promos, through to kids channels – who have a particularly challenging task to keep kids’ interested – they all seem to be looking for ways to automate the branding and interstitials to keep people interested.” He says channel branding is one of the DMC’s unique selling points. The company works hard to embrace new developments in technology in a way that gives its clients more flexibility “whether that’s automatic menus, generation of promos on the fly etc., to give them some advantage without increasing cost”.
The majority of playout providers integrate industry-standard branding devices with existing automation products, linking up with clients’ databases to provide branding on the fly. “Every channel will have their own wishes in terms of the look they want on air, but the basic building blocks involve using the automation schedule to in order to get the detail on filling out graphics templates,” says Try. Globecast’s Elvidge says that tech savvy broadcasters in particular are looking for distinct on-air looks to really stand out from the competition and they often want to use a particular brand of graphic engine. “We’ve got an up-to-date architecture so it’s very easy for us to slot a new graphics engine into it,” he says. “If someone asked for basic graphics, we’d probably try and use the boxes we’ve used before, but we’re prepared to work with any graphics products. Usually it’s just a case of working with the box manufacturer to get a driver.”

Multiplatform delivery

The move to digitised workflows has also made the process of delivering content across multiple platforms much easier. Playout providers are able to keep one step ahead of the game in terms of both consumer demand for content to be delivered to alternative platforms and the technology required to get content to those devices, according to Technicolor’s Berryman. “The consumer electronic cycle changes every year to 18 months, which means there’s a continual change in the repurposing of content,” he says. “Just look at the development of iPods and iPhones for example. A relationship with a third party provider takes the pressure off media owners having to track that.”
Globecast’s Elvidge says the technical process of delivering to platforms is no longer a big issue; it’s about business models. Channel providers are “cautiously” asking for these types of services, he says: “It’s easy to say we can deliver a bit of content to a mobile phone, but it has to be the right content.” As time goes on,  he says people, are starting to learn which content is best to go to which platform. “That’s where the industry still needs a bit of education,” he says. “Profiling content, collecting the right metadata, managing it all and pushing it out is key. A while ago, it was a case of just transcoding the content and pushing it out. Now, it’s more about having the right tools to manage the content and to enrich it with metadata. For mobile, for example, it really has to be very carefully edited before it’s delivered.”
The TV landscape has become more complicated in recent years. Within that environment, recession or no recession, media companies are finding that in order to navigate those complexities, partnerships with playout providers are becoming more important.