The need to move to a software-centric platform for broadcasters has never been greater. With the rapid proliferation of video on demand (VoD) services, broadcasters and content producers have come under tremendous pressure to transform themselves and make their services more agile, technology friendly, easily accessible, and cost-effective. Full-scale adoption of IP and cloud solutions is already underway with broadcasters employing integrated playout automation solutions and channel-in-a box (CiaB) technologies, enabling swift and seamless launch of new channels and experimentation with emerging business models without having to compromise on primary revenue streams.

Transition to Virtualized TV Playout – What is in it for Broadcasters?

With content and entertainment delivery no longer the privilege of over-the-air (OTA) broadcasters, cable and satellite companies, competition to win audience and advertising budgets has intensified significantly. The ubiquitous consumer who demands content anywhere, anytime, and on any device has prompted broadcasters to rethink and reimagine their content production, delivery, and infrastructural strategies. As over-the-top (OTT) players ramp up content investment, broadcasters must adapt fast in an era where connected devices and platforms, and an explosion of customized content rule the game. For terrestrial TV broadcasters, this means a move to IP and cloud-centric, software-based solutions that are highly scalable. Integrated playout solution accelerates deployment of new services or channels with specialized content more quickly than traditional systems, with a flexible software-based architecture that allows broadcasters to pay for only what they need and affordably enhance features as business evolves and budget permits. Whether a broadcaster’s requirements grow or shrink, a software solution will be scaled accordingly, rendering much needed service agility. Software-based products allow vendors to manufacture both lower-end and higher-end solutions without incurring the cost of hardware-specific versions.

Among the broadcasters to have taken the IP route is Discovery Communications, which in November wrapped up a move to virtualize master control and playout of its US network. Leveraging the future-proof cloud-based playout solution has enabled Discovery to host and operate all core services needed for linear playout channels in the public cloud, resulting in immense scalability, flexibility, and agility to address fast-evolving businesses and technical challenges. The playout setup, based on technology from Evertz Microsystems, can be used to play to air pre-recorded programs and also live programming. The playout system also uses software defined video networking (SDVN) solutions via IPX Switch Fabrics, network address translators (NAT), and encoding/decoding products. Video is moved to and from the cloud with mezzanine level compression as a transport stream. The cloud-based playout solution is hosted by Amazon Web Services natively. A cohesive, highly scalable, infrastructure agnostic platform dedicated to performing media asset management (MAM), transmission playout, and nonlinear delivery applications, serves as a workflow engine and provides playout automation. Automated orchestration methods ensure that Discovery can scale its operations and recover playout instances, translating into OpEx and CapEx benefits. Other global broadcasters are also saying goodbye to traditional master control rooms, shedding SDI-based hardware such as switches, servers, and other broadcast-specific production hardware in favor of IP-enabled distributed facilities. Disney/ABC Television is also moving its global programming playout, delivery, and network operations to a cloud-based virtual master control switching platform, while Swiss news broadcaster La Télé, recently streamlined HD broadcast operations by adopting an integrated playout, automation, traffic, and news production solution for live and scheduled content, generating workflow efficiency and reliable delivery of recorded and live HD video with graphics and subtitles. Deployment of the virtualized model is not just restricted to TV broadcasters. BBC’s Virtual Local Radio (ViLoR) project centralizes audio file storage, mixing, and playout in a single data center. Local stations are granted IP access to these centralized resources to enable them to create and transmit their on-air programming.

The move to separate technical infrastructure and the production workflow is actually dictated by market dynamics and not technology. As broadcasters wake up to the rising OTT threat and seek to quickly spin up new channels in response to rapidly changing viewer interests, the traditional hardware-based TV playout model, with its purpose-built systems for each channel is inept in terms of speed, cost, or flexibility. Also, broadcasters cannot re-use the same technology that supported older or fading channels for newer channels, that too in a fast and affordable manner. In contrast, a virtualized playout model where the production process is software-defined, content storage and distribution is cloud-enabled, and commodity-priced IT hardware serves as the access and control interface, is a dynamic resource and untied to specific technologies. This allows broadcasters to instantly provision the resources to accommodate spikes in workload, and re-provision the same to meet new demand.

Another obvious advantage of running software on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment is cost savings. In case of software-based products, broadcasters are only charged for the features they use and they can add features, whenever necessary. Having content on a single consolidated platform and one storage location mitigates the need to keep moving the content around and makes the process of content delivery to different platforms such as mobile and OTT much easier, helping broadcasters realize operational cost savings. A virtualized production landscape enables broadcasters to have more automated workflows in place. Also, a software-based system has the ability to provide a user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI), allowing incorporation of media of any resolution, and the software automatically scales it to the correct format. This enables UHD, HD, and SD content to be mixed on the same playlist. Other standard automation features such as character generators, subtitling, vertical blanking interval (VBI) insertion and interfaces with external systems, can be easily implemented with software. Other than being less costly than more complex, device-dependent architectures, installation and maintenance of an IP-based model is much easier.

Market Dynamics

The global playout automation and CiaB market is pegged to reach Rs. 116,982 crore by 2020 and remains dominated by the Americas region, with nearly 56 percent share in 2017. The EMEA and APAC market share contribution stands at 23.5 percent and 20.8 percent, respectively. The major market players include Evertz Microsystems, Grass Valley, Harmonic, and Snell Advanced Media. Playout automation and CiaB technologies help to manage scheduling, ingesting, trimming, mixing, and SD to HD conversion alongside graphic improvement and quality of content delivery to viewers.

Rising need for multilingual playout for various channels with the use of CiaB is driving the global playout automation market. In 2017, many TV service providers offered multilingual playout for various channels with the use of CiaB, which further automates the playout process based on input files, apart from assisting in inserting multilingual regional-specific commercials during playout. As competition among vendors increases and profit margins come under pressure, CiaB enables broadcasters to use existing IT-platform for playout automation, which cuts down capital expenditure.

SMPTE’s Guide to Building IP Infrastructure

The absence of industry IP standards has been a slight hindrance in the move to an all-IP broadcast system. However, that piece of the IP puzzle may also be falling into place with SMPTE in September giving the go-ahead to the ST 2110 standards suite that specifies the carriage, synchronization, and description of separate elementary essence streams over professional IP networks in real time for live production, playout, and other professional media applications. SMPTE ST 2110 go beyond replacing SDI with IP, allowing the creation of an entirely new set of applications for leveraging IT protocols and infrastructure. By enabling intrafacility traffic to be all-IP, ST 2110 allows broadcasters to rely on a single common data-center infrastructure, while making it possible to separately route and break away audio, video, and ancillary data streams for simplification of tasks such as adding captions, subtitles, and processing of multiple audio languages and types.

The Way Forward

Going forward, an IP-based virtualized TV production could spell the end for building new channel-specific, hardware-defined master control rooms and physically linked studios. Future broadcast stations and networks will function like any data center-based system using computers, and not stations. For content creators and broadcasters, using off-the-shelf computers and servers for production and playout of TV channels from whatever physical locations will be the way to go. The cloud will serve as a content storage and dissemination platform, while remotely-controlled, IP-connected cameras and studios that are not physically connected to a virtual master control, for capturing live broadcasts, mean that the need for traditional master control rooms will gradually disappear, helping broadcasters save on staffing costs.

Even as the trend of virtualized playout systems gains pace in scheduled playout environments, hardware is unlikely to completely vanish from broadcast television in the near term. The usage of uncompressed IP, interconnection of best-of-breed solutions and control systems are presently better suited to hardware. Meanwhile in many countries, SDI playout is still a norm. These factors may ensure that software and hardware co-exist in the broadcast industry in the near future. Complete elimination of hardware is not the end goal of virtualized playout systems; it is in fact seeking the most efficient solution for a given workload in accordance with customer requirements, meaning that hardware may be needed for some time to come.

Furthermore, some commercial and technical challenges also need to be overcome as broadcasters seek to realize the gains from virtualized playout setups. For example, UK’s ITV has refrained from deploying cloud for its main channel playout, citing issues such as synchronous source switching as being problematic. For ITV’s main channel that has a significant element of live content, dynamic schedules and late-delivered topical pre-recorded content, adopting cloud playout is somewhat challenging. ITV is embracing cloud playout for thematic channels having predictable schedules, where content is uploaded in advance with little live switching requirements. With time synchronization being quintessential for live switching between video feeds, broadcasters cannot tolerate even the slightest degree of signal latency.

The Bottom Line

It is a brave new world for the OTA broadcasting industry as software rather than hardware controls content creation and distribution. A move from an SDI-based production model to an IP-based virtualized playout system represents a gigantic leap, reinventing the very nature of broadcast television. While the transition is fraught with a few challenges, the transformation has become imperative for broadcasters as they fight to stay relevant at a time when nonbroadcast alternatives such as YouTube and Netflix are flooding the content and entertainment market with easily accessible on-demand services. Adoption of playout automation increases operational efficiency and trims the cost of a broadcasting system by integrating playout and master controls into a single IT-based platform, thus broadcasters do not have to undertake additional costs to purchase specific or purpose-built hardware to prepare the playout chain.