A television or streaming channel usually starts with a marketing concept: you have an idea of the audience you want to reach, and will acquire or create content that will attract that audience.
If you are a commercial enterprise, you will then want to secure advertising contracts from businesses that also want to talk to that audience.
Having built the concept, got the content together, created a brand identity for the channel, and taken delivery of the first batch of commercials, you now have to deliver the channel: play out the programming, trailers, promos and commercials to a strict schedule, seamlessly and without glitches, gaps or collisions.
History of the Channel in a Box
Until 30 or so years ago, this seamless playout was achieved by having a large team of engineers cueing up the content and pressing buttons at exactly the right moment. Then automation began to be introduced. At first this involved a central computer with a realtime processor sending signals to exactly the same equipment – switchers, video tape players, graphics generators and more – which was used in manually controlled channels.
As computers became steadily more powerful, and it became routine to handle video content as digital files, so the concept of the channel in a box came about. This put video switching and graphics insertion on a standard computer, with its associated disk storing the content needed immediately. All the individual pieces of equipment needed for traditional playout were replaced with one unit – a complete channel, in one box.
There were a number of channel in a box innovators, but one of the pioneers was PlayBox, launching its first system in 2005.
Why Channel in a Box?
Why channel in a box? The most important reason is cost. Much of the individual, broadcast-specific pieces of hardware could be replaced with a single, standard computer. The IT industry continued to improve computer performance, so channel in a box systems gained what were effectively free upgrades.
The success of channel in a box systems depends upon clever software, which guarantees the professional, seamless delivery that we associate with premium television channels, in a form which is very easy and intuitive to operate. The channel in a box software also has to integrate seamlessly with other computer systems.
Most obviously, a channel will have far more content than can be stored on the single disk drive in the computer, so you have to be a part of a storage network, capable of automatically moving commercials and programmes when they are needed. You may well also need links to other systems: a feed of weather data, for example, or a news or stock ticker. And, of course, you will need to synchronise to a backup in case of technical failure.
Today, most channels are delivered by some form of integrated playout platform, integrated into the wider network. Modern software design has created a microservices architecture, making it easy to build virtual machines which perform exactly the functionality you need for each channel, running on an off-the-shelf CPU and GPU.
With a virtualised playout environment, broadcasters and service providers now have the option of hosting it in a traditional broadcast machine room, or in a data centre.
Many users will still cling to the idea that playout, as the ultimate mission critical operation in a commercial broadcaster, must be run from dedicated hardware, in a secure machine room. As well as providing physical protection from intruders, security now also has to cover data. The legal liabilities should any content be copied without permission are very high; and playout schedules must be protected from ransomware hackers and other cyber-criminals. You can see why many businesses would want to keep the installation completely isolated.
But the idea of remote access to critical systems has been forced on us over the last couple of years, as the pandemic meant working from home or at a distance was a necessity. Equally, business continuity planning means that most channels need a backup playout facility should the primary site be offline for any reason. So playout infrastructures have to be connected, and security has to be implemented for the necessary protections.
Moving playout to the Cloud
Once you have taken that step, then the next one becomes perfectly feasible and logical: move playout to the cloud, with control from wherever you need to operate, using a simple web browser over the public internet. Implement channel in a box playout, but without the boxes: channel without a box.
The major cloud service providers regard the very highest levels of security as a core part of their business. AWS is used by the USA Secret Service, which suggests its security is very good indeed. Connectivity, too, is central to making the cloud work, so both moving content around and accessing for realtime control is not an issue.
Storing content in the cloud opens up new possibilities for playout. Channels can be regionalised and localised down to very narrow demographics, using edge playout in the cloud. A single playout controller can deliver large numbers of tailored versions, potentially opening up additional revenue streams.
Live content can be fed up to the cloud, using standard IP protocols, to be switched into the output stream with minimal latency and very high quality. Detailed and complex graphics can be added at the point of delivery, again based on the HTML5 protocol which is readily implemented on standard processing in the cloud.
Operationally, for a modern, well-designed playout platform like Cosmos from PlayBox, there should be no differences in the user interface or experience whether the channel controller is in a suite next to a traditional machine room, or working from home supervising cloud playout. The controls, functionality, responsiveness and quality will be identical.
Which is better: channel in a box or channel in the cloud? There is no right answer. You may have very pressing reasons to keep content and playout on site – US broadcasters, for example, are not allowed to store their content out of the country. You will need to work through the opex costs to determine charges for processing, storage and content egress and compare them with investing in on premises hardware.
If you are considering which route to take, for new offerings and for a long-term migration path, you can simply try out a channel without a box. Contract the necessary short-term storage and processing with your preferred cloud provider, and download the trial Cosmos software from the PlayBox website.
Try it out and see how it works for you. Maybe you have a requirement for a pop-up channel or a FAST trial. Only practical experience will answer your questions.