Just over 10 years ago, we introduced a system which gave broadcast channel operators the option of hosting their playout servers at the distant end of an internet connection rather than on-site. All they needed on site was a computer capable of running a web browser plus a reasonably fast internet link for uploading file-based audiovisual content to the host service-provider. It was a great success and is still a current product.
The core hardware sits at the channel operator's choice of service-provider, typically a satellite uplink organisation in whichever town, city, country or continent the broadcaster prefers. Program scheduling, ad sales, media management and monitoring are all performed in the usual way on the broadcaster's premises, usually at its headquarters. The product was so far ahead of its time that even today we see competitors trying to reinvent it.
A more recent refinement takes this concept further as the core of a virtual playout and streaming system capable of continuous unattended operation.
A key advantage of virtual playout is setup speed. An efficient broadcast playout service-provider using this mode of operation can make a 24/7 channel live in far less time than is needed for traditional server-plus-software or dedicated hardware systems. The actual time to put a new channel on air is reduced from months or weeks to a matter of hours. Once a broadcaster is settled into this routinw, a new channel can be activated within minutes. It is also an ideal basis for transient content streams such as 'red button' channels created to provide supplementary information during a specific program series or outside broadcast event.
Until just a few years ago, the majority of programs and commercials were delivered to site on video tape, optical disks or portable hard drives. With the almost global rollout of optical-fibre networking, content can now travel as data files via an IP link from producer to broadcaster. Virtual delivery has thus become a core element of the virtual playout model.
A properly designed virtual playout system enables television channels to conduct their entire operation (from content acquisition, refining and archiving, right through to playout) via a single easily-learnt graphic user interface.
An essential element of this model is the provision of templates which customers can preconfigure to match their requirements, eliminating any need for subsequent manual interference. Flexibility is equally vital. Every clip in a playout schedule, except the one which is currently playing, needs to be accessible for trimming, editing or repositioning. Operators need the freedom to change playlist order on the fly using commands such as skip-to-next or jump. Changes must be achievable seamlessly without stopping the current playout session.
Most important of all is the need the accommodate live production as well as automated timeshifting to accommodate viewers across multiple timezones. Multichannel broadcasters naturally appreciate the ability to schedule channels with local programming and advertising for specific single or multiple regions rather than using multiple satellite feeds with ad-insertion.
When funded by the client as an operational-expense service, virtual playout frees a channel owner's investment capital to meet the overheads of originating, acquiring or refining content. It additionally offers broadcasters a basis for very cost-effective, space-efficient and reliable disaster-recovery. When specified correctly, cloud-based playout, backup and disaster recovery to be achieved all-in-one.
Where does virtual playout leave traditional server-based hardware? That survives and thrives as the modular system which powers many existing and future virtual playout installations on the service-providers' premises.
The diagram below shows an example of how this very flexible mode of operation translates into practical workflow. It may look like the future of broadcasting but we have it right now. This is the new reality of television operation for any and every transmission platform.
Virtual playout offers great business potential to service providers who can now invest in host servers for rental to customers with short-term or long-term hosting requirements.