The Virtual Path to Broadcast Playout by Don Ash, President, PlayBox Technology Limited

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The introduction of direct-to-home satellite transmission revolutionised the broadcast industry by opening up the airwaves to far more channels than were ever able to co-exist in the days of terrestrial analogue delivery. In the USA this process stemmed from cable television operators who were already using satellites to send content to remote headends. Early direct-to-home channels used lower power satellites which needed a large downlink dish.  In Europe, the Astra 1A satellite was the first to provide medium power coverage across Western Europe, allowing reception via a dish of less than 1 metre diameter. That was 1988.

Nearly three decades on, television viewers can today choose between a very wide range of programme channels and an unprecedented number of content providers: digital terrestrial, digital satellite and online. Cable television has been reinvented, largely by telco service companies offering a wide choice of programme channels bundled together with telephone and broadband internet.

Virtual playout

The media industry today faces a further phase of transformation with the growing level of interest in virtual broadcast playout: so-called 'cloud playout'. Virtual playout frees broadcasters from the need to possess, operate and maintain their own hardware. The savings in space and staff overheads can be substantial, especially for a channel located in the centre of a major city.

Virtual playout is technically very elegant. It follows a model we established many years ago with the PlayBox Technology EdgeBox remote playout system. This has been successfully deployed by many broadcasters around the world. A core EdgeBox installation is located at the broadcaster's choice of remote playout centre, typically a 24/7 service provider in whichever town, city, country or continent the broadcaster prefers. Management of programme schedules, ad sales, media management and monitoring are all performed in the usual way on the broadcaster's premises, usually at its headquarters.

An easier route to air

CloudAir, which we will be demonstrating at IBC this year, carries the virtual playout concept further and simplifies the entire business of putting a new television channel on air.  It is a universal television 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 CloudAir 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 mode of operation, a new channel can be activated within minutes.

This level of flexibility also makes virtual playout an ideal basis for transient content streams such as 'red button' channels created to provide supplementary information during a specific programme series or outside broadcast event.

Until just a few years ago, the majority of programmes and commercials were delivered to site on video tape. This was slow, expensive and required ingest staff to maintain a variety of playback decks able to handle the various competing tape formats. With the almost global rollout of optical-fibre networking, an increasing amount of content now travels as data files via an IP link from producer to broadcaster. Virtual delivery has thus become a core element of the virtual playout model. CloudAir accepts MPEG1/2/H.264, HDV and DV streams from practically every known production platform.  These can be output in a variety of file formats including AVI, MPEG, WMV, Quick Time or MXF. Files from third-party servers are natively supported. CloudAir also delivers on-air graphics which can be controlled interactively.

The template model

Operational simplicity is a vital aspect of broadcast network management. 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 highly-reliable media platform which can be accessed and managed from practically any location, at any time.

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. CloudAir facilitates this via a Live Show clipboard which allows insertion and/or execution of various events or live streams. Multichannel broadcasters gain 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.

Software-centric

Most virtual playout offerings and nearly all graphics applications require dedicated processing electronics or other hardware to be available on the cloud server. CloudAir is totally software-centric and able to provide full-scale playout with graphics on any enterprise-class blade, rack or tower server. Once the software is installed, no auxiliary hardware is required at all. This is an ideal structure for third-party service-providers.

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, CloudAir allows cloud-based playout, backup and disaster recovery to be achieved all-in-one via the cloud.