The Amazing Shrinking MCR

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

It was not so long ago that a broadcaster’s Master Control Room comprised rows and rows of tall racks, packed with costly professional high-tech heat generating equipment that needed equal power to cool. This was in the heyday of dedicated hardware with each box doing its own thing: VTRs, Mixers, Still Stores, CG, Logo Generators, DSK, DA’s and many more. These were connected via the video router and orchestrated by, perhaps the only bit of IT equipment, the automation system.

Today’s MCRs are either much smaller, running many more channels or have not yet moved into ‘file-based workflows’ – a glib phrase for a massive change in the broadcast industry that, broadly, implies a predominant use of IT-based hardware. Such huge changes generally go through two phases, the first delivers machines that are at least equal to the old-technology originals, and the second goes further doing much more at a far lower cost. The Broadcast TV industry would look very different today if such a change had not occurred, crushing the costs of making and delivering programmes, interstitials, promos, bumpers, stings, graphics, commercials – in fact everything we see on TV today.

Over 12 years ago Playbox Technology set out on a mission to provide IT-based video playout replacing the existing VTR technology. Before the product even got to market it had taken on board all the other associated tasks such as playout automation, CG, graphics, still store, logo, DSK, etc. Then it was an IT-island in a largely dedicated-hardware sea. The most used connections were SDI, or even PAL or NTSC, interfaced via an I/O card, but the network was there from the start, after all it was, and still is, a Windows PC.

Fast-forward to now: hugely more powerful operating systems and PCs. Many video connections are going out of style in favour of IP connectivity. Now a 1RU or 3RU PC box replaces several VTRs and that IT performance has been leveraged to do more, offering a very much expanded selection of ‘modules’ that are real alternatives for many of the boxes that used to warm the racks in the MCR. This is the second phase of the so-called 'Channel-in-a-Box' revolution that has meant broadcasters can do a whole lot more in just one box – and shrink the MCR. The hardware is all COTS, great value for money, with just a basic video I/O, if required. Everything else is software... and a network port.

The affect on broadcasters has worked its way up from the small and local channels that could not exist without the most cost-effective Channel-in-a-Box playout, now to international broadcasters. And to contradict Nicole, size doesn’t always matter that much as completed ‘Channel-in-a-Box’ systems often run to several boxes, but still a small fraction of the old MCR’s size.

The number-one need for the ‘box’ is reliability and then it has to be easy to use. However, many of us are used to running our own PCs, and many of us are not technicians, broadcast engineers or computer whiz kids. So does a broadcaster need a permanent dedicated technical team to keep playout running, or rather keep the MCR running? Today the answer is yes and no, much as it is with our PCs. Broadcasters big and small have dedicated technical staff, but if not, or they don’t want to, they can rely on the manufacturer for support. PlayBox Technology offers 24/7 monitoring and support and can monitor and link into customers’ equipment via the internet producing a quick fix.

Other manifestations of the shrinking MCR are embodied in EdgeBox and AdBox. More and more tier 1 broadcasters now realise that they can deliver locally branded channels anywhere in the world remotely via IP at a cost to make any or all of their numerous channels viable from day 1 and without the need to extend their MCR or create a new one.

With Cloud technology now entering the broadcast world, soon the MCR may disappear altogether or be migrated to a remotely monitored and controlled data centre.

Published at TVB Europe, January 2013