The emergence of multi-screen delivery of content has had a significant impact on the channel playout business, reports Anna Tobin.
Broadcasters have always hungered for good content to bring in audiences and revenues. Now, however, that content can be repackaged for multiple outlets: mobile devices; PC and TV, for example, the industry has realised that there could be as much money to be made from non-linear targeted individual viewers as mass
“Many of our customers are looking at multi-screen content delivery as a way of protecting their revenue streams,” says Paul Turner, vice-president, broadcast market development at playout equipment provider, Omneon. “In many cases, this is simply the re-encoding of programme output to the screen resolution of the targeted device, but there is considerable interest in the ability to modify the ‘secondary’ streams to replace content and ads with more specifically targeted media, and editing of the material to more closely match the likely viewing habits of those customers who are using other devices.”
To enable this, the core linear playout model has had to evolve, says John Bozza, sales director, broadcast services EMEA, at media services company Arqiva. “Remote playout and distribution technologies enable content to be stored at the ‘edge’ and tailored to meet market and platform demands.”
Traditional linear playout systems, which are loaded with a list of events to execute at set times still has a place, but it must now also be able to follow non-linear processes where it is asked to do things on demand. “Many companies started off setting up new media divisions for on-demand services,” says Neil Maycock, chief marketing officer at video technology provider Snell, “Now they’re realising that this isn’t efficient as the workflows and production processes are similar and they are back-pedalling to a playout system that integrates both processes. It’s not economical to have lots of parallel processes and equipment.”
To efficiently supply the multiple streams required in the evolving media production and distribution process you need to move over to automatic processes, says Turner at Omneon. “Well architected, file-based workflows are key to this, although there is still a need for human interaction – re-editing of programmes for duration, content and standards and practices is unlikely to be automated for some time.”
Openness, flexibility and scalability are key considerations for the technology architecture, says Sue Farrell, head of architecture at media services company Red Bee Media: “The systems supporting these services need to evolve continuously to keep pace with market developments.”
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The growing ‘non-linear’ on-demand models require completely new back-end infrastructure and business systems to support the customer service model that accompanies them. “Customers that will be successful in this new era will embrace the non-linear model for content delivery and forge new partnerships to deliver content to the broadband audience and to manage those accounts,” says Ray Baldock, chief technology officer at broadcast and content solutions provider, Grass Valley. “They will also upgrade to put in the infrastructure to manage content in more and more formats producing for different delivery platforms. This needs to be automated and supported with more complex tracking of rights to the content. Companies with business interests rooted in both models will have a decisive advantage in the future, if they bring those business assets and systems together.”
The industry has been preparing for years for value added services such as on-demand and catch-up to come on stream. It is not causing a revolutionary change in the actual playout. “The challenge is, not so much in the content, but in the method data that goes with it,” says Jon Try, vice-president, technology of Chellomedia’s playout and content management company Digital Media Centre (DMC).
The move to IP and IT-centric infrastructure has helped to make method data and all content much more adaptable and transferable for different formats. “With a move to lower power consumption models, and an acceptance that ‘broadcast quality’ is available in broadcast-enabled IT equipment, more and more broadcasters are migrating to a more IT-centric playout solution,”says Mark Errington, CEO of playout technology provider OASYS.
One of the benefits of this IT-centric playout approach, says Miranda Technologies’ Michel Proulx, is that it “tends to have fewer components because more of the functions of a playout chain are integrated in one ‘PC-based’ box”. Miranda offers a combination of playout and branding graphics in the channel playout boxes. According to Proulx, because these boxes are so integrated, they will often only have video spigots on the output and accept files at the input. This means that more of the infrastructure around these boxes handles files and is, therefore, IT-centric. “Fewer boxes overall and IT-centric infrastructure makes for less expensive, more commodity device-based systems,” he says. “Initially, people shunned these solutions because they considered them more risky or less ‘broadcasty’, but because of severe pressure on their capital expenditure budgets they are now more open minded.”
“Well-designed IT-based automation and playout systems deliver great advantages. Innovation will provide even greater benefits”
Ian Fletcher, Omnibus
A transmission infrastructure that does not have IP at its core puts the operator at a disadvantage in operational and business terms. “A well-designed IT-based automation and playout system delivers enormous advantages, and the next generation of innovation will provide even greater benefits,” says Ian Fletcher, chief technology officer for OmniBus Systems. “OmniBus iTX brought automation and transmission within the sphere of the IT revolution in broadcasting, delivering substantial economies and workflow efficiencies. The next stage of innovation is the complete integration of end-to-end operations from ingest to output under a unified system that brings those economies into the entire workflow.”
Geoff Hutton, chief functional architect of media management software provider Pilat Media says that the migration to IT- and software-based infrastructures is having a significant impact on every aspect of broadcasting and playout. “In many ways, this trend is greatly simplifying operations because many software-based transmission systems are capable of handling complexities, such as generating secondary events, which once required multiple hardware-based systems,” he explains. “From a scheduling point of view, an IT- and IPTV-based infrastructure opens up a new world of content that can be tailored and delivered to individual set-top boxes. This means that the delivery targets are much smaller but there are also far more of them. This requires a new approach to scheduling – one that enables broadcasters to manage a much wider diversity of broadcast streams, including not only local and national advertising but tailored ads for delivery to set-top boxes. A robust business management system that provides a unified interface to these different services can help manage these complexities.”
Everything is increasingly becoming file-based. “Programming is no longer an ‘audio-follow-video’ world,” says Baldock at Grass Valley. “Much of our finished content is produced and stored as files and increasingly transferred within the facility and between facilities as files. In the cable and satellite business we are now seeing files being cached locally for on-demand access and to personalise some content.”
Try adds that all DMC’s broadcast content is kept in its digital data archive at high resolution and stored with audio and subtitle tracks in multiple languages, so that it is always available for any kind of media. “Our in-house system often has to interface with converging external broadcast systems to extract this data and to do this effectively it is crucial that we get our multiple third-party systems to work together, particularly if the third-party software has had an update or change,” says Try. “We endeavour to make this in-house system as simple as possible. We have it so that you can select content as a list, teaming it with the requested audio and subtitles. With all this data to hand, we can then input an encoding profile into this system telling it what we want to achieve. It could be for a cable channel in Holland or a mobile channel in Switzerland, for example, and it happens as a background task.”
The basic infrastructure of digital media is moving from dedicated devices designed specifically for broadcast operations to commodity information technology hardware running specialist software. “We have implemented a service-oriented architecture to co-ordinate discrete functional operations, providing greater flexibility and reducing the cost and risk of change,” explains Farrell at Red Bee Media. “Rather than embedding operational workflows within a central digital asset management system, we use a business process management system to capture, drive and monitor the flow of media and metadata through our operation.” This approach enables Red Bee to integrate more easily with the systems of its clients and partners and to adapt to requirements as they evolve to provide cost-effective media management and delivery services, says Farrell. “Storing programmes as digital files in an asset management system allows flexible workflows that can proceed in parallel, improving the efficiency of operations by supporting rapid concurrent access to material, allowing the automation and distribution of systematic tasks such as transcoding to multiple delivery formats.”
Flexibility is what everyone is after at the moment, says Peter Elvidge, media services provider Globecast’s head of media solutions. “Some of our customers are considering offering HD services. They haven’t committed to it yet, but they want to know that it can be easily supported in the future. They want to specify how the content is being stored and to make sure that it can be repurposed easily in the future, so that the look and the feel of the content and its graphics can be easily adapted for different media outlets.”
The actual delivery mechanisms for this content need to be flexible too, says Bozza at Arqiva, “We are seeing hybrid delivery formats. A mixture of satellite and fibre transfer, plus linear and non-linear playout. Economies of scale are leveraged by being a managed service provider, with storage, transcoding and distribution being provided as a managed service.”
And multi-platform operators aren’t just thinking of flexibility and cutting their outgoings when selecting management systems, but also how ultimately they will help them to increase their income, acccording to Errington at OASYS. “One of the keys to multi-platform delivery is the ability to extract revenue from each process, and the rights management, traffic management and billing systems need to be fully capable of handling all the options required for each delivery mechanism,” he says . According to Errington, the move away from multiple device control to a single integrated playout device will be critical in controlling power consumption and simplifying the basic automation processes for broadcasting. “It needs to be fully integrated into the existing transmission process, sharing file creation processes, scheduling, storage, and billing,” he says. “The divergence is only around delivery, where linear and non-linear follow a different path. Up until that point minimisation of overlap is critical.”
Need to adapt content
As part of this need to adapt content for different media applications, more and more channels are now looking for content to be delivered clean without graphics and credits attached. “It makes it easier for the digital assets to be used for more than just playout, but also for web video- on-demand and mobile, for example,” says Elvidge at Globecast. “As soon as you remove the credits you make the content a lot more transportable for smaller screens and it makes it easier to add other information around that content window. Now people are seeing that the future benefits of keeping the material clean outweigh the initial cost savings to be had of pre-rendering graphics.”
The fact that the demand for many of these new services has coincided with the global financial meltdown has put an additional unexpected pressure on the playout side of things. Every element of the process has been scrutinised for efficiencies. Making the video tape redundant and delivering files over the internet was the first step towards ironing out manual tasks and automating large chunks of the playout process, and to cut costs further more and more platform operators are now distancing themselves further from the nuts and bolts of playout and other technical facets of broadcasting by outsourcing transmission.
“This move to outsourcing has the potential to create ‘media factory’ environments, where an emphasis is put on scale economies and automation,” says Mark Horton, product marketing manager, AmberFin.
Red Bee’s Farrell agrees. “The media industry is converging and changing rapidly. As a result there is a growing desire by media businesses to outsource key areas of media distribution to trusted partners,” he says. According to Farrell, outsourcing media management services to Red Bee Media enables customers to reap the business benefits of being at the forefront of technical change whilst being freed up to focus on their core business.
From the channel provider’s perspective, outsourcing has been seen to provide clear benefits. “As long as you have faith in the separate external links in the chain that get your channels to air and have moved entirely over to digital, you should see only benefits from outsourcing transmission and playout,” says Paul Robinson, managing director of kids channel KidsCo. “Our expertise is in content creation and aggregation, marketing that content and building relationships with our consumers. We have found it better to outsource playout and other technical needs to experts in those fields. It’s also cheaper.”
For service providers, outsourcing can make even greater sense. “We are always striving to improve efficiency as many of our clients have almost no extra revenue available to them to provide these services,” says DMC’s Try, who adds that DMC can offer economies of scale, because it delivers services for so many channels that it can add new channels to its basic infrastructure at relatively low cost, enabling smaller broadcasters to buy as they need. “To keep up with the fast-paced technological developments, particularly the migration to IP and IT-centric infrastructures to deliver playout, [our] knowledge base has to continually grow,” says Try.
Workflows across the transmission and playout industry will become tighter as operations continue to move from being manually driven to being managed. “The purpose is not only to manage the technical workflows or movement of content, but also logical workflows, the management of manual and automated tasks. While content production will continue to be a creative process, content publication will increasingly become an automated process,” says Baldock at Grass Valley.
It may also surprise some to learn that not everyone has found outsourcing all these processes effective. “We have recently seen broadcasters who previously outsourced playout bringing it back in-house. These broadcasters achieved their own economies of scale and were able to lower their operational costs,” says Miranda’s Proulx.
Fletcher at OmniBus Systems backs this view up: “The falling cost of technology, brought about by the introduction of iTX, is encouraging some broadcasters to bring transmission back in-house, where they feel they can be more in control of their content and branding.”
The demand for cost savings has also spurred the growth in software, rather than hardware. “Playout servers are increasingly software, rather than hardware, based. Encoding, multiplexing, graphics functionality is driven more by software. Smaller broadcasters are looking to have access to digital asset management systems that can receive regular software updates to increase their functionality,” says Elvidge at GlobeCast. “Consequently, more vendors are providing standalone software, rather than software and hardware together. The software market is now starting to mature and we are embracing this and less afraid of it.”
Hutton at Pilat Media agrees: “We’ ll see an increasing reliance on software- and IT-based systems, and an ever-decreasing reliance on hardware. For transmission and playout, the good news here is systems that can provide industrial-strength capabilities while occupying a much smaller physical footprint in the operation, and thus requiring less power and fewer failure points than the previous racks.”
It is important to mange this software efficiently. “Operators need efficient software workflow management systems to streamline the flow of media and provide detailed reporting and management information for the operation. This is essential when handling so many different types of content for multiple platform output,” says Fletcher at OmniBus.
As broadcasters and platform operators increasingly tap into external content management systems and rely on a patchwork of different software and hardware in-house, it will become vital that these different components can talk to each other. “Standardisation is our biggest challenge on every project we work on,” says Harold Vermeulen, managing director of playout specialist PubliTronic. “It is so important to have an open infrastructure within content management and delivery systems that communicate with each other. We have to deal with a lot of legacy standards, often proprietary to a specific manufacturer and this stops customers rolling out services as efficiently as it could be done.”
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