London’s South West suburbs, not far from the Wimbledon All England Lawn Tennis Club, is not the place you would expect to find a television station – let alone one that broadcasts to virtually the entire global population 24-hours a day. But here MTA houses all the technology to play out three channels around the clock. The fact that the whole facility fits neatly into the space is due to the new playout solution from PlayBox Technology.
MTA is a Muslim religious broadcaster. It ingests eight hours of new material every day, delivering three channels to reach 250 million viewers worldwide via eight satellites. It is funded by charity so playout has to be low cost as well as reliable. With a total staff of just 16, operation is highly automated and has to be able to run unattended. An added complication is that programmes are delivered in eight different languages, increasing the workload and the requirements of the automation system.
The station has been on air since 1994. The original tape-based operation was updated in 2006 when it wanted to expand and move to disc-based technology. This new system was added to in 2007. The tape-to-disc transition meant absorbing some legacy which involved an inhouse-developed traffic system. PlayBox designed, supplied and installed the complete playout facility using PC-based sub-systems based on industry-standard platforms. This comprised two CaptureBox ingest servers, five AirBox Pro playout servers with an automatic switchover providing full live backup for two on-air channels, two ListBox software licenses to import playlists from the Traffic System and finalise the playlists for the on-air servers, four TitleBox CGs (three on-air and one for preparation), a SubtitleBox, two dual-channel 90-day compliance recorders, and SafeBox Media Management software with 4 + 9TB of NAS shared central storage. Video connections are all SDI with embedded audio and all equipment is on a LAN.
Workflow begins with new material, coming from DVCAM tapes, the studio or a remote studio connected by BT fibre, being ingested by the CaptureBoxes and held on their hard disc drives (HDDs).
MTA development staff integrated their traffic system to the AirBox and CaptureBox servers via the API provided by PlayBox Technology. This allowed creating a seamless two-way dynamic communication between the management, scheduling and MCR departments. Capture lists and play lists generated in the traffic system are automatically sent to the servers, also as-run logs return from the playout system into the MTA traffic system.
Playlists are created in a separate building and copied via LAN to a predefined folder on the TX Server. Once each playlist is checked and approved it is copied to the central storage where Media Manager software (SafeBox) automatically copies all the media files that are required by each playlist from the central NAS store to the local hard disc drives of each AirBox playout system. All playlists for the next day are taken automatically by AirBox and this ensures 24/7 non-stop playout. Should there be any missing or corrupted media files called in the playlist the operators immediately receive an alarm. Open-ended files may be played back in the playlist as well as MPEG-2 streams that arrive as an IP stream across the LAN. In order to remove the need for manual management of the player HDD, the software can be set so that any media files held on the AirBox playout systems for over three days are automatically deleted, so the local HDDs of each playout system do not need manual management.
The MTA operation is very different to traditional playout systems that comprise equipment using diverse technologies and is not designed to talk to each other. Such systems require a dedicated automation system to coordinate the workflow and run programmes on time. Here, there is no box labelled ‘Automation’; it’s just built into the IT/PC-based environment where the various applications are designed to talk to each other via the LAN. With the AirBoxes being the main replay equipment, they have a central role with each holding and running its own playlist, as delivered from the traffic system. Besides running themselves, the AirBoxes can command external events, such as the addition of graphics from TitlesBox or subtitles from SubtitleBox. They also control a 16x16 Quartz routing switcher, VTRs for last-minute news insertion and the backup machines.
Distribution and routing
If using subtitling, the SDI output video is routed into the SubtitleBox Insertion Server, which is controlled from the appropriate AirBox, and overlays the subtitles at the right time. That output goes back to the router and out to GlobeCast via BT lines.
The use of eight languages adds to the complexity of the replay. The AirBoxes play MPEG2 IBP video along with the eight different mono languages tracks for MTA’s multi-lingual viewers. As this is an everyday requirement the translation and voiceovers are prepared on site and recorded using Cubase PC-based audio workstations, and finally sync’d to the video and recorded onto a track on the appropriate Air Box. Each video playback includes eight mono audio tracks embedded in the SDI. MTA allocates each language to particular audio lines for delivery to BT and GlobeCast.
The output of three channels is recorded via CaptureBox Compliance around the clock in Windows Media Video and kept on the hard disk for 90 days, amounting to 1 TB per channel at 1 Mb/s. Clip splitting and saving into a user-definable folder structure, with custom file names makes it easy to track in any material in any file browser. The management of the system is simple; on the 91st day the first day’s recording is overwritten. This contrasts with the earlier VTR-based operation which was expensive and required maintenance and constant changing as well as storage of the tapes. Now the recorded files may be written to a CD or DVD and kept for longer term archiving, alternatively they may be downloaded from a dedicated website.
With intelligence in all the platforms that make up the entire playout facility, only high-level commands are needed from the traffic system, leaving the detail up to each of the ‘PlayBoxes’ concerned. The MTA station has now been running for over a year with no overall ‘Automation System’. As the use of IT components extends into broadcast infrastructure so this distributed control model is becoming more and more common. PlayBox Technology today automates over 2,000 TV Channels Worldwide and sales grow by minimum 50 new installations per calendar month.