PC-based IT systems used in the television production and playout chain have a reputation for being low cost. At the same time there is a concern that they may also be low performance. However, in recent years they have been applied as the technology base of playout and titling systems for thousands of new SD channels, so the performance must also be, at the very least, acceptable. Now there is rapid expansion in HD broadcasting. How can PC-based playout rise to this challenge and fit in with both today’s requirements and allow for future needs?
In some areas the move from SD to HD places little or no extra demands on PC-based playout systems while other parts are required to raise their performance to far above SD standards. If the same MPEG-2 compression scheme that predominates in SD transmission were used, the fivefold increase in picture size of 1080x1920 HD over 576x720 SD video would require an equal increase in the transmitted video data. However, the arrival and easy availability of new technology in the form of the far more efficient MPEG-4 H.264/ AVC compression system (with broadly similar results using Windows Media 9/VC-1) has at least halved the data requirement. This reduces the data-rate demand on the HD playout device to about only twice that of SD compressed with MPEG-2.
Not all areas of the SD-to-HD switch are so easy to handle. While newer compression technology has helped the playout area, some others must handle the baseband video, and so work with the 1.5Gb/s data rate of the HD-SDI signal. For example ingest may be required to accept HD-SDI as opposed to the 270Mb/s of (SD) SDI.
Baseband must also be handled where information is changed in the video – such as the addition of a logo graphics or text. Such graphics generators have to work with roughly 2 million pixels in HD, as opposed to well below 0.5 million pixels in SD, and need to run in real time – at 25 or 30 frames per second. Such processing power tends to add cost, as it requires much faster graphics processing and memory. These two requirements render most of the current SD PC-based servers or workstations useless for HD titling.
In other areas that do not handle the video and audio signals, such as media asset management, playlist creation and editing, and subtitle generation the data rates and general needs are very much the same as for SD. At least the changes can be accommodated in software without the need for more powerful hardware capabilities.
Although the pictures are much bigger and sharper HD commercial revenues are not much bigger than those of SD. From an advertiser's point of view the paramount concern is telemetrics – the size and type of the audience watching commercial spots, not the image resolution. As a result broadcasters are looking into ways to optimise their playout solution by:
• Acquiring low-cost HD equipment
• Bundling HD and SD channels in packages to attract more commercial revenues and distributing the increased cost over all channels.
Given that the operational requirements of HD are broadly the same as those for SD, HD needs could be met by upgrading the PC systems. As indicated above, the areas not handling the media signals may, at most, need new software. Those that do handle the signals need more attention.
Graphics and text needed for subtitling operations have to be live and have always been way beyond the power of the CPU and attendant RAM – even when working in SD. The solution has always been the use of suitable graphics chips or cards. While television has been revving up for HD, the development of graphics cards has been moving fast. The increase in their available power far outstrips the extra demands of HD graphics, so here a card swap may fulfil the requirements.
The Ingest PC needs a new input card to accept HD-SDI and encode the video and audio using MPEG-4 or the like. If this is performed live then the disc system only needs to hold compressed data and be able to record and play this in real time. If compression coding is non-realtime, then this imposes much higher requirements to store the input data live.
With the current MPEG4 AVC an HD channel running the 1080/50i format may run at about 8 Mb/s, depending on the material and the target quality of service offered to viewers. This depends on content with sports generally requiring more. As with SD, in order to maintain a good standard of final output the playback system needs to run a mezzanine compression of the same type as the transmission but at about twice or triple the bit rate. So, in this example, indicates a data rate of about 8-15 Mb/s against around 3-5 Mb/s currently used for SD transmission. This is to allow for the decode/recode losses during the graphics or logo insertion stages while still delivering suitably high quality for transmission. Such data rates should be within the capabilities of the PCs and could be carried on low cost IT infrastructure such Ethernet.
The above outlines a change from SD to HD playout and titling as an upgrade rather than involving a wholesale purchase of new equipment. While it is true that some of the plug-in cards may not be cheap, the overall installation, involving little in the way of new boxes and infrastructure, should be at a low cost. In many cases all new equipment will be supplied but the costs should be low and the performance at least as good as the SD equivalent.
For better or for worse SD content and TV sets will be around for some years yet as the period of ‘HD transition’ progresses. Putting aside the resolution, this produces a mix of programme image formats and of screen formats between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratio. Accommodating both the legacy and new HD formats can lead to compromises.
There are three established approaches to convert 4:3 content for presentation on HD 16:9 screens: upscaling 4:3 SD, zooming to fill the 16:9 field or converting to the 14:9 compromise conversion. These are all compromises showing either black edges on the screen or losing edges of the pictures.
During the HD transition period many broadcasters are obliged by law, or have chosen, to provide simulcasting for their audience – simultaneous broadcasting of the same channel both in HD and SD. The simplest approach is to downscale the HD channel and run it as SD, but this has its compromises:
• Aspect ratio conversion (ARC), to make 16:9 images fit a 4:3 SD frame showing the whole frame as letterbox, or filling the 4:3 screen and loosing the edges. For simplicity the latter could just take a fixed centre section. Pre-recorded material could be panned and scanned to include more of the action but at the cost of time and effort.
• Original SD content upscaled and ARC’d for inclusion in HD programming would be re-converted back to SD – causing unnecessary loss of image quality
• Titles and captions designed for HD may not work for SD as they become too small or are cut off in the ARC process – or both!
Given the above, this approach cannot offer the best service for both SD and HD – one or other will be compromised. At a time when you want to encourage viewers to invest in HD, it is important that they should only see the best pictures.
A more sophisticated approach is to use an ‘intelligent’ simulcasting system that runs two independent channels, SD and HD. Both are based on the same playout schedule and so keep in step, but using different content which has been properly pre-processed to suit each format. Such a system would also provide the channel branding correctly. That means SD titling and logos are designed and presented so that they are readable and look good at SD and on a 4:3 screen, while the HD titling and logos will be set to fit with 16:9 images, and displayed at a suitable size for the target displays. Although this adds to the complexity of the playout and titling, it is much better in image quality, graphics and text layout, readability and consistency.
PC-based IT solutions have already been supplied to many start-up TV channels to provide lower cost playout of SDTV. The low-cost aspect may convey the expectation that this would not easily transfer to HD. That assumption has already been proved incorrect with the HD solutions already up and running. A recent installation is Brava HDTV in Holland. Their playout system includes HD CaptureBox, HD AirBox and HD SubtitleBox. Broadcasting started on cable and soon and goes on satellite this summer.
Much of the HD playout system is relatively unaffected by the SD/HD change while only the areas handling the baseband HD signal and new compression codecs need to be upgraded by PC card changes as well as accompanying software. Thus the majority of the system’s structure is unchanged.
The low cost PC-based IT solution emerges as being adaptable – perhaps more than alternative solutions. It can actually be upgraded to HD. This is in a large part due to being able to tap the continuing high speed of development in the wider IT business while specialist companies give vital support for handling the video signals. This low cost can help shape better broadcasting during the HD Transition by encouraging broadcasters to avoid many of the compromises of simulcasting from just an HD source and opt for an intelligent SD and HD simulcasting solution.
Years ago the idea of channel-in-a-box was considered a somewhat oddball way to establish a small cheap playout system. That was in 2000 and PlayBox Technology was just starting out. Twelve years on and with 11,000 TV and branding channels now powered by PlayBox Technology, almost everything has changed, except the continuing drive to cut costs and going file-based is now seen as the way forward. Even the well-established, highly respected companies that won their wings and acquired their reputations with baseband playout are now joining the file-based channel-in-a-box market. Welcome aboard!
With so much broadcasting now relying on file-based playout, reliability is essential. In this area money does not necessarily buy a better system. The product is essentially a COTS Box (commercial off-the-shelf) server hardware and specialist software. At least, that is where PlayBox is with its technology. The AirBox playout server, its first product, has been continually developed and refined over 12 years and is rock-solid reliable and, if you want, you can also pack into the same box all the extra modules you want, meaning that only very few boxes are needed. And it’s still rock-solid reliable for HD, SD, DVB and IP. You can even re-jig the on-air playlist, still no problem. The industry is very well aware of the need for reliability in broadcasting and how it is achieved – always starting with a good model and then through years of intelligent refinement. There are no shortcuts.
The range of modules continues to expand. AirBox playout and automation, TitleBox on-air dynamic 3D graphics and CaptureBox ingest provide fundamental applications. A wide range of additional modules allows customers the freedom to choose additional functions that fit their specific requirements. A recent addition, QCBox, has attracted much attention as it provides quality control and automatic loudness and level control on playback.
PlayBox Technology would still be stuck on the starting blocks if it had not addressed head-on the widely recognised tricky problem of file formats. There are too many! The company firmly believes this should never be a problem for the customer and so has always worked with what was already out there, so it could plug straight into the existing archives and all other material from day one. This is one reason why its installations are completed so fast. As a result it has never been foxed by files and continues to add new ones to its file-conversion engine (software, of course) as they arise, with the latest being AVC Intra and Apple Pro res.
Looking forward to BVE, PlayBox is showing its latest multichannel-in-a-box products including multi-channel AirBox, multi-channel CaptureBox and dual-channel TitleBox. AirBox Multi-Parallel Output enables the running two or more parallel outputs providing any combination of formats. As important are the services including worldwide 24/7 monitoring and support for unattended remote systems as well as the Broadcast Systems Group for project design and management.
With some broadcasters running over 50 channels, and one, Noorsat operating in Bahrain currently running 105 servers, PlayBox Technology has clearly made the transition from oddball to mainstream! Today it is the world’s biggest supplier in the growing market of channel-in-a-box file-based playout. And offering prices at around 25-percent of conventional playout it is continuing rapid growth around the world.
UK Sales Director, Ben Gunkel comments, “We had a fantastic BVE last year and we’ve got more to offer our customers in 2012. Many years back we reached the goal of providing a rock-solid playout platform that allowed us to build out, adding more features to provide full solutions to meet our customers’ needs for the complete workflow cycle. Now, with powerful Intel Core technology, we are liberated to do much more inside the box, and so offer much more to our customers.”
Content owners are only too aware that there are three ways to maximise the profits of their content, increase the cost of the content, decrease the distribution costs or deliver the content to a wider audience
In the current climate increasing content costs is very difficult and even if possible these revenues can be maximised by cutting delivery costs and delivering to a wider audience.
Satellite and Fibre link costs can be prohibitively expensive where the content owner locally brands the material themselves before delivering to the local market and using the services of multiple playout centres around the world to locally brand the content for the specific market can be even more expensive as well as not allowing flexibility.
Reaching new markets and locally branding in markets where there is an unbranded general feed will increase viewers and advertising revenues
Built in conjunction with FOX International Channels Italy and nicknamed "FoxBox" allows content owners s with one to a bouquet or more channels played out to their local market to deliver locally branded content with local advertising, branding, multilingual audio and subtitles to any market worldwide.
PlayBox Technology Clients’ are successfully launching locally branded channels throughout the world in a tapeless operational environment that can be fully integrated into the current or preferred Traffic, Storage, MAM, Ingest, Transcoding and File Transfer Systems or these systems can be provided by PlayBox Technology at your price to fit your budget.
This White Paper sets out to explain the workflow and the processes involved for remote playout anywhere in the world with public internet.
Workflow Diagram (PBT Remote Playout V01)
Daily Playlists are created in the Traffic System that is integrated with MAM. The Daily Playlists are sent to the remote AirBox Systems located anywhere in the world and converted where necessary to PlayBox Technology PLY playlist format.
Every file that is transferred is checked at the remote location to match the original file using error detection algorithms and then sent to AirBox, so that in the unlikely event a file is corrupted during the transfer this will not affect the output of both AirBox Playout Servers.
PlayBox Remote Service Application will check the media required in the playlist and will search for the media locally. If the media is not available locally it will generate a Missing Items List that is sent back to the MAM System to request the Media Files and Subtitle Files for Play out. If the Media Files are still not online the Remote Service Application will resend the Missing Items List at regular intervals if the media that is still missing.
When the MAM System receives the Missing Item List it will first check to see if the media is available in the correct delivery format for the remote location. If not the MAM System will next check to see if the media is available in the Hi Res media format.
If the media is available in the Hi Bit Rate format then the MAM System will send the media to the File Transcoding System to be transcoded to the correct delivery format. Once the media is transcoded it is delivered to the remote location and distributed to both Master and Redundant AirBox Servers.
Where the media is not available in either format a capture list is generated by MAM to ingest the media that is then transcoded and sent to the remote location in the normal way
AirBox can have one of a number of logos on the screen at any one time and can be scheduled on or off. For animated logos or more advanced graphics and CG, including interactive graphics like SMS to screen, voting, gaming, crawls etc. then TitleBox can be added to the Playout Server.
TitleBox can be scheduled in the usual way in the Traffic System and many different Projects and Templates can be created using TitleBox Preparation and sent to the AirBox / TitleBox Server for playout
Once playout has happened, AirBox creates the “As Run Logs” and these are converted to the appropriated Traffic format if needed and sent back to the Traffic System for billing and other purposes
PlayBox SafeBox is installed on each AirBox Server that will transfer media arriving on the local File Transfer Server to the local AirBox hard disk drives. SafeBox also scans the Daily Playlists and the local drives to see if any of the locally stored media can be deleted. Depending on operational requirements the media is usually deleted if not required after 7 days from playout. Should the media be required again in the future this can be transferred from the File Transfer Server or from MAM in the normal way for new media.
If the remote playout location does not need some of the media for future playout a Purge List can be sent to a remote location and the media will be removed from the File Transfer Server and both AirBox Servers if the media was not already removed by SafeBox
Remote Playout System
The heart of the playout system is two AirBox Servers with triple redundant PSU’s the outputs are connected to a Smart Switch that monitors each output and if the Main Server should fail in either Video or Audio and the Redundant Server is available it will switch to this server.
The Smart Switch has dual redundant power supplies. In addition to the Smart Switch there is Relay Bypass in case of power failure to allow switching the main server output to the TX path. The relay bypass can also be switched remotely if there is a signal path failure.
Remote monitoring is vitally important especially where the channel cannot be viewed by backhaul. Monitoring of the AirBox, TitleBox, Smart Switch and the server hardware is done by SNMP that will send alarms if anything should happen. All the Remote Servers are also connected to VPN and can be accessed remotely from anywhere in the world according to rules defined in the Firewall.
For remote Video and Audio Monitoring there are three SlingBox units that are connected to the output of each server and the main output of the Smart Switch this will enable the broadcast centre or support centre to see any problems remotely.
Local Monitoring and Control
At the remote location there is optionally an amount of equipment for local control and monitoring in case of a catastrophic failure. There is a 2RU Video and Audio Monitor Unit that can be switched between the Main and Redundant playout servers and the main output of the Smart Switch and a KVM Switch attached to a 1RU Keyboard, Monitor and Mouse. This monitoring is also useful during installation and setup of the systems and any future on-site maintenance visits
Security and Firewalls
Security is of paramount importance in any remote playout system and PlayBox recommends that the best firewall security is used. While most Broadcast Centres will have their own Firewall and most head ends will also have their own firewall, we recommend that there is a separate firewall for each channel or group of channels at each remote location.
As the firewall is connected to internet, this can be remotely updated as required
File Transfer Servers and File Transfer Agents
The Content owners Broadcast Centre is connected to each remote location via an File Transfer Server and a Firewall at each end that can include a File Transfer System Agent to speed up file transfer times, include multiple internet paths and to check file validity.
Local Commercials and Content and QC
Where the channel with have Local Commercials and Some Locally Produced Content this can be Ingested Locally and sent to the Broadcast Centre. Where only commercials are involved this can be sent by High Res Format to the Broadcast Centre for Quality Control and stored on the MAM for the usual process of Transcoding and Transfer to the Remote Playout systems.
Where a small amount of local content is required this can be treated in the same way as commercials. Where more content is required this can be transcoded locally into the playout file format for the channel and sent to the Broadcast Centre for quality control before being sent to the MAM system for transfer to the remote playout system
This does mean that the content will actually travel back and forth to the remote playout location, but this is the best solution to enable quality control to give the highest reliability.
Subtitle files can be produced in the usual way, or if the playout format of the content chosen is relatively small, then these files can be sent by FTP to the country of playout to be translated and the subtitle files prepared.
PlayBox SubtitleBox, which is installed on each AirBox Server, can receive subtitle files from most subtitle preparation systems and transmit them as open subtitles during transmission
The playout of subtitles is automatic and programmes to be transmitted with subtitles will be flagged if the subtitle file is missing. Subtitle files are automatically checked for correct duration and subtitle in out errors.
PlayBox SubtitlePlus DVB supports BVB subtitles and multiple languages are also supported.
Multi Language Channels
PlayBox can handle multi Audio tracks for playout. Where the content received has these tracks present the process is straight forward.
Where the multi lingual tracks are not present and need to be added PlayBox can work with Video AVI Files and separate Audio WAV files. WAV files can be created and edited using simple Audio Tools and once completed multiple Dual Audio or Stereo WAV files can be playout out.
Designed Reliability - No Single Point of Failure
PlayBox Systems are inherently reliable and the Fully Redundant Remote Playout Systems benefit from this fact. All remote systems can be designed and installed to have no single point of failure if required.
Even during loss of internet, File Transfer Server or Firewall, as the media is stored on the local playout server hard drives a week or more in advance, playout is assured and this equipment can be repaired at relative leisure
Remote Media Format
The media format used at the remote location can be decided on a number of factors like the amount of new media per day, the bit rate chosen for playout and the available internet capacity. MPEG2 IBP at 10Mbps is often chosen, however H.264 at 4Mbps or less is also chosen as a very good alternative. The bit rate chosen is really customer choice.
Remote and Local Support
PlayBox Technology has one of the most advanced remote support systems for a playout in a box manufacturer in the world. Each PlayBox module has a “PlayBox Doctor” that is a very powerful aid to fault finding most problems remotely.
As these systems are installed in remote locations and connected to internet, PlayBox Technology can, with authorisation, log on remotely, find and resolve the problem very quickly.
PlayBox Technology has 8 Country Offices and over 100 dealers and System Integrators in 60 Countries worldwide. Most dealers are factory trained by PlayBox Technology and will support system in their regions
PlayBox Technology has a Broadcast Systems Division that is experienced in installing, setting up, testing and commissioning the Fully Redundant Remote Playout Systems and integrating the systems with the content owners Broadcast Centre and optionally their Monitoring or Disaster Recovery Centre.
PlayBox Technology staff has experience with both Broadcast and IT as both competences are essential for a successful project implementation.
Training is a vital part of the reliability process. PlayBox Technology recommends that the Content Owners Broadcast Centre Staff are trained in all aspects of the Remote Playout System. Head End staff need only basic training as it is unusual that any action will be required from them.
PlayBox Technology offers chargeable on-site training for both operators and engineers at the customers operational centre and any other monitoring centre or disaster recovery site or we can offer Free of Charge Training at our R&D Centre.
Compliance recording is mandatory in many countries around the world and is also important to have in programme or advertising disputes. It is also a good aid for fault finding in remote playout systems.
CaptureBox Compliance is able to record 30, 60, 90 or more days with time stamp at low bit rate. These files are recorded in one hour blocks that are easily retrievable over internet for viewing.
Integrating To Your Systems
PlayBox Technology has 6,000+ playout and branding systems in 100 countries and in consequence we are often asked to integrate to other systems. While we cannot promise we can integrate to every system on the market we are able to integrate to most of the common ones.
More Cost Effective Solutions
While the Fully Redundant Automatic Remote Playout System is designed to allow Broadcasters to operate, monitor and control from one to hundreds of systems worldwide with ease, PlayBox Technology also has hundreds of AirBox Servers installed in head ends around the word and remotely operated by VPN.
DVB and ATSC broadcasting has been in operation for approaching nine years – long enough for the pattern of workflow from programme tapes to the transmitter to be considered well established. PlayBox is younger than DVB and ATSC broadcasting but is already an established supplier of affordable 21st Century DVB solutions for broadcasters. Its latest developments extend its open-standards design approach to create a new playout path that avoids the usual costly equipment associated with creating the DVB Transport Streams (TS). With nearly 3,000 channels now playing out from PlayBox systems this new move is aimed at addressing the needs of satellite operators’ uplink centres and the NVoD market.
Traditionally, television broadcast playout has been based on baseband connections – such as SDI. This offers great flexibility for adding material, such as graphics, as well as cutting in commercials, promotions or other local content. PlayBox has always offered a comprehensive range of traditional video connections but has now supplemented these with IP and ASI streaming. This supports both MPEG-2 TS (Transport Stream) and PS (Program Stream) so, for example, a single PlayBox complete with the ASI and IP interface, known as AirBox Streamer, can stream an individual channel in the same way as this would happen on baseband SDI. Logos and additional Graphics may be added via TitleBox software and multilingual subtitles may be added via an integrated DVB SubtitlePlus server. Typical applications of the PlayBox DVB series include multi-channel 24/7 DVB/ATSC recording, streaming, time shift and commercial insertion.
Rather than using a single box in isolation users require whole solutions. The IP Streaming option and the ASI interface card, which plugs into existing equipment, and its associated software, is available across the range of appropriate PlayBox equipment that forms the PlayBox DVB series. Besides AirBox Streamer, CaptureBox Streamer is designed for ASI/IP ingest and a multiple input DVB Muxer for combining the multiple AirBox Streamer outputs into a single ASI-MPTS (Multiple Program Transport Stream). These, and other system components, can work together to fulfil any number of specific playout service requirements.
Satellite uplink centres tend to work with DVB-ASI and, if only programme delay of a TS is required, then a single AirBox/CaptureBox Streamer combo could handle this.
It is often the case that local material needs to be added to a downlinked satellite feed. This may include items such as channel IDs, promotions and commercials. In this case a CaptureBox Streamer can ingest the main programme as live MPEG-2 stream from a downlink. The local interstitial content is inserted by the designated AirBox Streamer by IP or ASI. The AirBox can run a playlist and so cut the main programme and interstitials together live, to create a continuous IP or ASI stream to the Muxer.
Note that, so far, decoding the MPEG-2 contained in the ASI has been avoided so maintaining the maximum output quality. However, if graphics need to be added then this can be achieved in two ways – traditional (using baseband) or contemporary (using an integrated re-encoding technique).
Near Video on Demand playout is possible with even greater simplification. In the NVoD model is it assumed that programme material is not changing very often: unlike the constant throughput in the standard multichannel broadcast playout model. It is also supposed that there are no live changes to be made to the material: what is stored is delivered without adding graphics. Alternatively graphics were added at the ingest stage.
The input side of this operation is far less active than for broadcast playout; also the operation does not have to run in real time. This means equipment and running costs for handling a live video input can be avoided if material is supplied directly to an AirBox Streamer as MPEG-2 compressed video over IP. If baseband video must be used then a CaputreBox Streamer can accept and compress it, passing it on via IP to the AirBox Streamer.
AirBox Streamer can support up to 256 IP output streams that can be fed directly to the DVB Muxer to create the ASI-MPTS. Thus just two units, the AirBox Streamer and DVB Muxer can provide a compact and efficient NVoD service, without the need for costly coders and the need to handle video.
Another costly element of the traditional playout model may appear to be missing. It is not. Dedicated automation systems were a necessity when video equipment was built as individual islands and a workable operational system had to include some way of making them work together. That situation started to change when large volumes of video could be recorded to hard disks on a standard platforms, or similar equipment, which contained many of the capabilities that used to be spread over several separate boxes. AirBox effectively includes all the automation that is needed to run a TV channel. Working on a larger scale, PlayBox has introduced TrafficBox to take care of front-end business management and back-end MCR and automation. Also SafeBox can provide large-scale storage and media management. With up to 20 TB of RAID5-protected storage it ensures that AirBoxes are loaded with the material required for their upcoming commitments.
Playout needed to adapt to the new world. The initial challenge was to provide efficient playout for the many broadcast channels that have emerged with the arrival of digital television. The addition of ASI and IP connections for key PlayBox applications means that they can directly address the particular needs of telecoms organisations. They can now offer more efficient high quality and cost-effective resending and repackaging of programmes for their clients.
Having successfully set up and launched the Fox Life channel, broadcast on the Sky Italia platform in Italy, Fox Channels Italy wanted to make more use of its media and equipment assets to set up two Fox channels in Athens, Greece. As with the Italian channels, the Greek channels needed to have a local look with their own Greek branding and commercials. Normally this would mean adding this material on site in Greece or using fibre or satellite video links to send it to the site. Both would add considerably to the cost of running the channels while much of the required equipment and personnel to supply and schedule the content was already on site in Italy. So the plan was made to place a totally automated playout facility in Athens that would be supplied, operated, monitored and maintained from Fox’s Rome broadcast centre.
PlayBox Technology became involved in the project and supplied a turnkey solution to meet the Fox requirements economically and in a way and that could be widely applied. It resulted in a remote automated playout solution nicknamed ‘FoxBox’ – signifying the contributions of both companies in this work. Julio Sobral, SVP Head of Operations Fox International Channels comments, “We have countries where playout and satellite would not justify a dedicated feed with local promos and commercials. FoxBox helps us maximise the usage of our content by decreasing the distribution cost and allowing us to reach new smaller markets in Europe with localised channels.”
Although IT-based equipment is extensively used, completing this project required a deep understanding of IT and broadcast engineering, and making the best use of both technologies, as appropriate. Mauro Panella, Director of Broadcast Operations and IT at Fox said, “The idea of this project is to have IT people working in the broadcast environment and vice versa. This solution gave us the opportunity of doing that and it is located in the server room, not the machine room. But this is the best place to store all the file-based material.”
Significantly, the link between the Athens and Rome sites is totally via public internet and does not make use of the usual video links. This meets the needs of the project and saves on operating costs. The automated remote package comprises PlayBox servers, internet connections and firewalls as well as a host of additional equipment to keep the station running reliably. This amounts to 14 RU of equipment for a single and 16RU for a dual on-air channel.
All operations for the Athens channels, Fox Life and Fox Life +1, take place at the Rome site and revolve around working with the existing Fox facilities. These include Pilat Media’s IBMS (Integrated Broadcast Management System) for traffic management and creating the schedules, and the MAM and Ingest Manager from Gorilla Science & Technology. Maurizio Raffaeli is the DAM Supervisor. “Our operation involves ingest from BetaCam to create media files in hi res for editing and transcoding, and low res for proxy browsing. Also we are responsible for all the transcoding using Telestream Flip Factory; so we can accept anything and send anything. Although we are involved with FoxBox it has not involved extra facilities for us.”
Schedules created in IBMS for Athens are converted to the PlayBox Technology PLY playlist format and sent to the remote PlayBox AirBox playout servers which then request any missing media indicated in the schedule from the existing MAM /storage in Rome. As this was initially set up for local Italian transmission most video files are relatively large and not ideal for large-scale internet distribution. In these cases the files are automatically transcoded via Flip Factory and transferred via internet to Athens for remote playout. If the files already exist in the chosen internet distribution format, they are immediately transferred.
The FoxBox project provides locally branded playout with local commercials. The commercials break into two types: worldwide, that Fox already has access to, and local. The latter can be created and ingested on a PlayBox CaptureBox locally in Athens and sent to Fox in Rome via the internet link, for quality checking and inclusion into the Athens ‘local’ programming.
The remote operation is extensively protected against loss of data and on-air transmission. This starts with the data transfer from Rome. Fox has already worked with Signiant Digital Transfer Manager and so is well able to deliver data over less than perfect data links, insuring the correct delivery over the internet that is essential to the success of this project. Although Signiant is highly reliable, two identical versions of the media are transferred to main and backup AirBox playout servers at the Remote Playout Centre. If any inaccuracy in the transfer of one of the files was not flagged by Signiant, the data should still be OK on the other server. There is a considerable automated procedure in place to check the data has arrived that will request a resend, if required.
The remote equipment for one TV channel includes two AirBox servers to provide fully backed-up redundant playout. Each server also includes TitleBox for animated logos or more advanced interactive graphics and CG. TitleBox is scheduled in the traffic system and many different projects and templates can be created using TitleBox preparation and sent to the AirBox / TitleBox server to be used in playout.
Many of the glue products are from Crystal Vision and include Smart Switch that monitors the output of the two AirBoxes and can switch over if the on-air output should fail. The whole rack itself has a complete bypass so that an AirBox can go straight to the output if required. The monitoring of the two (main and backup) AirBoxes and the final output is provided by SlingBox as an IP stream back to Fox in Italy, where all three outputs (from two AirBoxes and the Smart Switch) can be seen. The entire system has SNMP monitoring of all consistent parts. This data comes back to an HP Omniview which can be used at Fox in Rome or at its disaster recovery centre in Los Angeles.
Other services offered by standard PlayBox modules are also a part of the package. For example, where subtitling is required the media then has a subtitle file attached to it. The SNMP monitoring reports back as to whether the subtitling file is there, or not, on both the AirBox servers. SubtileBox, included with the servers, can then playout the subtitles with the programme output. This way subtitling becomes automatic and only reports if there is a problem with the file. There are four high quality audio tracks available and these can be split to offer a multilingual service.
Maurizio Raffaeli explains how FoxBox came about. “A while ago Mauro and I had the idea of a peer-to-peer network using all file-based media. Then, using the internet connections we could put the ‘machine’ anywhere and send the necessary files. Now we have the solution by PlayBox Technology and the media by Fox.”
Today there are FoxBoxes providing customised promos and commercials catering for three operators in Athens, Greece. Sorbel reports that, “Initially the workflow and the processes involved had to be tweaked. Now everything is working fine, integrated with our Gorilla MAM and we have the ‘legal’ compliance monitoring recordings coming back into the office.” He adds, “We had been looking for a way to reach new remote markets in an economic way and FoxBox does just that. This is a model that we can repeat anywhere around the world that has an internet connection.”
With the economy still continuing its slow recovery and many broadcasters still having limited budgets to deploy channels locally and around the world, a wide variety of broadcasters are very interested in deploying integrated “Channel-in-a-Box” and “EdgeBox” systems like those from PlayBox Technology.
The technology is less expensive to purchase, typically requires a single operator to run the entire operation, and works out of the box, so a playout system can be up and running in a matter of hours and with a reliability that will allow it to be on-air many years later.
This trend was apparent at NAB last week, as the PlayBox Technology booth was usually overcrowded with broadcasters from around the world looking for a cost-effective way to establish broadcast playout capability quickly and cost effectively.
PlayBox Technology demonstrated a number of workflow solutions at NAB and among them were the very popular Fully Redundant Automatic Remote Playout Anywhere in the World via Internet called “EdgeBox” and the stalwart “MCR-in-a-Box” or “Channel-in-a-Box” powered by AirBox and TitleBox that has the Server, Automation and powerful interactive CG and Graphics all in one box.
PlayBox Technology “EdgeBox” makes delivering a TV station, complete with local branding and content, including subtitles and multiple languages, to anywhere in the world an economic reality, even for small audiences. “EdgeBox” enables the whole operation to be run from an established broadcast centre, at a cost that makes sense.
PlayBox Technology’s ability to offer complete and reliable broadcast workflows at IT prices is an essential part of EdgeBox. EdgeBox provides a tapeless file-based operation that has two parts: one integrated with the broadcast centre and the other at the remote site. At the broadcast centre it is fully integrated into the current or preferred systems including traffic, storage, MAM, ingest, transcoding and file transfer systems, or PlayBox Technology can provide all of these. This connects to the new remote EdgeBox site’s playout equipment via the internet, making a huge cost saving over the traditional dedicated fibre or satellite links.
There have been huge changes in the technologies that deliver TV content to air in recent years. Most obviously tape is replaced by discs for media storage, but there has also been a succession of developments in the many activities associated with playout. The services offered by broadcasters and other providers may now include new video formats and outputs that can be the traditional broadcast ‘push’ type or on-demand ‘pull’. At the same time the range of providers now span from start-up channels running on minute budgets, to international broadcasters running multiple channels.
TV channel-in-a-box solutions can meet the needs of many channels and broadcasters. For most, the compact size is not the overriding attraction, but the much lower price points are. All the same, these must meet all customer requirements with reliable replay, automation, graphics and on-air presentation, as well as the flexibility to fit with project-specific needs. Going a step beyond, solutions are now helping to open up new transmission workflows, lowering capital expenditure, completing tapeless operations and using low cost distribution.
Playout is always live and broadcasters will always do all they can to ensure their playout constantly runs smoothly. The playout hardware and software must first sustain continuous playout day-in and day-out. Then further measures ensure that any failure does not stop the playout by providing full redundancy with a duplicate playout system running in sync with the main ‘on-air’ unit, complete with an automatic switchover. A power supply fault would stop operation so a redundant supply with automatic switchover is often included with relay bypass as a final solution should all power be lost
The media storage uses hard disc drives. Although drive manufacturers quote phenomenal mean-time-between-failure rates of over a million hours (114 years), that is only a statistical average and does not mean it will run that long before failing! The failure of an unprotected disc loses vital data for playout. One way to avoid disruption or loss of data is to use a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Discs). There are several types particularly suitable for supporting continuous video. RAID1 doubles up the disks and so everything is stored twice. A popular version is RAID 5 that adds one extra ‘parity’ disc drive to the array, enabling continuous operation if any one drive fails. The broken drive can be replaced and its data automatically re-built.
The progression from SD to HD means there are currently both formats in use. Handling both at once in the playout system, by re-sizing video to fit the required output standard and outputting clean cuts between all clips, is a real bonus. Other image sizes are used for applications such as internet video (correct term for things like BBC iPlayer, U-tube, etc.). Support for Full HD (1080p) provides future proofing.
Television production is rapidly adopting file-based workflows that result in file-based edited masters. Although SDI connections are in wide use, the direct acceptance of media files into the playout store, typically Network Attached Storage (NAS), is much more efficient. This involves accepting the media file either by plugging in removable storage or over a network. Either way this avoids VTR replays, ingesting the material in real-time, storing it as files on the playout storage and running a QC on the result.
That ‘tape’ workflow may be acceptable on a day-to-day basis but bigger compatibility issues can arise. A pitfall of IT is its proliferation of file formats and widespread use of ad hoc ‘standards’ and some being used only for a few years. This can affect playout operation in two ways. If a new playout system cannot directly read the old-format archive, possibly thousands of hours of VTR, ingest and QC may be needed to transfer the media. A fully compatible playout system that directly reads the archive avoids this and maintains the full archive quality. The other affect is the realisation of the tapeless dream. There are still workflows where the transfer from file-based edit to file-based playout is via VTR. If the playout solution can accept the edited files directly then, once again, tape, ingest and QC are avoided, giving faster availability of full quality edited material and saving time and money, as well as making a dream come true.
For outputs, customers may specify digital video (SDI / HDSDI). Then the onward processes for broadcasting include MPEG2 or MPEG4 (H.264) compression and multiplexing with other channels and data streams, such as subtitles, for digital transmission as a DVB / ATSC ASI stream. Alternatively, PlayBox can supply the output directly as DVB ASI. For delivery over the internet the video needs to be in a suitable file format. All such output processes may be included as part of the playout package or provided by the broadcaster who may already have some or all of the necessary equipment in place,
These days people know that ‘digital’ can produce variable quality. Accepting various types of file format and outputting as SDI or MPEG may well involve transcoding or decode/recode cycles. The quality of this process is often not specified and, as there can be a big difference between ‘good’ and ‘not so good’, it should be thoroughly checked.
Playout may involve much more than replaying video and audio and this is an area where a well designed integrated IT-based approach can have the advantage of adding functionality without adding boxes. For example, the channel ID bug in a top corner might be added directly. Stations will also require graphics, text and subtitles. All these can also be in the one ‘box’ if required, or connected via a network.
The graphics requirement depends on the station’s style and content but often involves interactive animated graphics and text. Today there are other sources of text such as SMS messages, on-line voting and live databases showing, for example, financial data or instant analysis of sports. Linking the graphics engine to such resources automates a whole raft of live text and data for on-air presentations. For some info channels, this may comprise their entire output.
Broadcasters have become accustomed to using ‘automation’ as something that cues and runs the many events needed to keep channels on air. By using appropriate IT-based systems, there’s no need for any separate ‘automation’ box as the various modules of playout can communicate unaided. With PlayBox Technology, the AirBox playout server performs the traditional ‘automation’ tasks. It accepts playlists from ListBox, or other schedulers, cues graphics replays from TitleBox as well as controlling a router if needed. It also cues and runs itself but can also cue a CaptureBox ingest server to include live footage into the programme output, or to recording the footage, or both.
SafeBox orchestrates the flow of media through the whole PlayBox playout solution, making sure the right media is in the right place at the right time. If anything’s amiss then it sends messages and alarms to the operator. It is also responsible for deleting old media from AirBox storage.
So far the systems described offer solutions for traditional, and some newer style, playout applications. However, if the equipment is highly competent, it encourages thinking outside the ‘box’ and taking things further. Given a playout solution that is reliable and can be controlled and supplied via a network, then it should perform well providing a full playout service in a remote location, with low operating costs.
It is relatively easy to produce a headend ‘remote’ station that’s a copy of a generic or global channel. However, people prefer to watch something that includes local branding with ads, IDs and promos, a local look station. Traditionally this is created using staff to package the local material into the playlists and sending the material over video links to the remote transmitter. The costs add up and may tip the balance making the station not commercially viable. Now there is another approach that should generate a different looking balance sheet. It has been built by PlayBox Technology in conjunction with FOX International Channels Italy, and nicknamed ‘FoxBox’. This allows content owners to play channels into any remote markets from an established broadcast centre, complete with locally branded content, in a cost-effective way. In the case of FOX, the requirement includes multilingual audio and subtitles as well as local advertising.
The solution allows launching locally branded channels throughout the world via a tapeless operational environment. A flexible approach in both product and system design is essential to tap into an existing broadcast centre. This may involve integrating the new remote playout into the current, or preferred, infrastructure such as traffic management, storage, MAM, ingest, transcoding and file transfer systems – as required by the customer.
The link from the content owner’s broadcast centre to the remote site carries file-based content media. This fits with the use of public internet as the only transport system to and from the remote site. It carries everything including the video, audio and all other data including the playlists, subtitles, control commands, monitoring and even compliance data. The operating costs are low and the remote can be placed anywhere that has internet access.
The choice of media format used at the remote location depends on factors including the amount of new media per day, the bit rate chosen for playout and the available internet capacity. For SD, MPEG2 IBP at 10 Mb/s is popular, however H.264 at 4 or 8 Mb/s, or less, is a very good alternative. Ultimately it is the broadcaster’s decision.
Various levels of protection can be applied. The diagram (above) shows a single-channel playout protected with full redundancy; there are also triple-redundant power supplies in each of the AirBox playout servers. The connection to each remote location is via a file transfer server and a firewall at each end, and can include a file transfer system agent to speed up transfer times as well as using multiple internet paths and so allowing checking the file validity. On the playout side a Crystal Vision Smart Switch monitors video and audio output from the main AirBox playout server and, in the case of failure, automatically switches to the backup.
Daily playlists are created in the broadcast centre’s traffic system that is integrated with the MAM. These lists are sent to the remote AirBox playout servers and converted, where necessary, to the PlayBox Technology PLY playlist format. Using error detection algorithms, transferred files are checked against the original and then sent to the remote AirBox servers. This way, if any file is corrupted during transfer it will not affect the output of both servers.
The PlayBox Remote Service Application (RSA) checks for the media required by the playlist and searches locally for it. If not found it generates a Missing Items List (MIL), sends it to the MAM requesting the media and any associated subtitle files. The RSA resends the MIL until the media arrives.
On receipt of the MIL, the MAM first checks if the media is available in the correct delivery format to send to the remote location. If not it then checks if the media is available in another format. If it is, the MAM sends the media for file transcoding and then to the remote location where it is distributed to both master and backup AirBox servers. If the media is not available, the MAM generates a capture list for the media’s ingest, transcoding and delivery to the remote location.
The remote package includes TitleBox graphics and CG, including interactive graphics such as SMS-to-screen, voting, gaming, crawls, etc., added to AirBox. TitleBox is scheduled in the traffic system and many different projects and templates can be created using TitleBox preparation and sent to the AirBox / TitleBox server for playout. AirBox creates the ‘As Run’ logs that are converted to the appropriated traffic format, if needed, and returned to the Traffic System for billing, etc.
SafeBox traffic management is installed on each AirBox to transfer media arriving on the local File Transfer Server to the AirBox servers’ hard drives. It also scans the daily playlists and local drives, deleting any media not requested over a set period. Media can also be removed from both the File Transfer Sever and AirBox servers by a purge list from the broadcast centre.
Monitoring and Control
Remote monitoring is vital, especially where channels cannot be viewed by a backhaul feed. Monitoring of the AirBox, TitleBox and Smart Switch uses SNMP to send fault alarms. All the remote servers are also connected to a VPN that is accessible from anywhere according to rules defined in the firewall.
For remote video and audio monitoring three SlingBox units are connected to the output of each server and to the main output of the Smart Switch, enabling the broadcast centre to see any problems. Monitoring of catastrophic failure involves a 2RU video/audio unit switched between the main and redundant playout servers and the main Smart Switch output.
Local commercials, content and QC
Local commercials and content can be ingested at the remote site and sent to the broadcast centre. Commercials and small volumes of local content can be sent in high res format for quality control and then stored on the MAM for the usual transcoding and transfer to the remote playout. Larger volumes can be transcoded into the channel’s playout format and sent to the broadcast centre for QC as before. Although this involves content travelling back and forth, it is the best solution for QC and for reliability.
Subtitle files can be prepared in the usual way. PlayBox SubtitlePlus, installed on the AirBox servers, can receive and automatically check files from most preparation systems and include them as open subtitles during transmission. Playout is automatic and programmes requiring subtitles are flagged if the subtitle file is missing. SubtitlePlus DVB supports DVB subtitles and multiple languages and channels.
AirBox can playout multiple audio tracks. Where the multilingual tracks need to be added, AirBox can work with video AVI files and separate audio WAV files. WAV files can be created and edited using simple audio tools and once completed multiple dual audio or stereo WAV files can be played out.
Compliance recording, mandatory in many countries, provides evidence for programme or advertising disputes and is an aid for fault finding in remote playout systems. CaptureBox Compliance can record 30, 60, 90 or more days, with time stamp, at a low bit rate. These files, recorded in one-hour blocks, are easily retrievable over internet for viewing.
The playout-in-a-box idea has matured with proven reliability and a complete range of functions for full playout support for start-up channels to international broadcasters. Although the products are IT-based, expertise in both that area and broadcast technology is essential for success, as systems must be fully integrated into broadcast infrastructure and must meet broadcast standards. Now the remote playout solution opens new opportunities for broadcasters to extend their reach with more affordable local look and feel stations.
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 go generally 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 twelve 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 is 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.
The technology of television has always been evolving fast and effecting some areas more than others. Changes in playout have been huge and the ‘Channel in a Box’ marketing tag is designed to draw attention to new approaches available for tapeless playout. The fact that much of the functionality required to present a TV channel on air can be housed in a modest 1RU, 3RU or 4 RU box is rarely of great significance. The main importance of the tag is that it signifies a large reduction in cost compared to conventional multi-box playout systems and has a scalability factor by increasing the number of boxes.
Over the last 10 years PlayBox Technology has supplied over 8,000 tapeless systems that representing a significantly large slice of the total playout and branding channel market, opening 11 offices in 8 Countries to cater for the expansion in sales and offering expert local support. Although R&D develops software the company delivers complete turnkey finished systems designed for customers’ specific needs. This is the best route to providing what customers want; long-term reliability, effective customer service and, in many cases, a system that fully integrates with existing equipment. Today all sizes of operators, from start-up channels to international broadcasters are using our solutions.
First and foremost the system supplied must fulfil customer needs in performance and price. That may be possible in one ‘box’ or take several; it is immaterial so long as the criteria are met. In truth we are talking about PC-based IT and although the PCs and their added hardware, I/O cards, etc, may be similar across suppliers, their performance and capabilities certainly are not. This is defined by the software which is the key to everything in the box, what it can do and how it can enhance a station’s whole operation.
Although ‘the box’ typically fulfils many operations such as automation, subtitles, ingest, traffic management, playlist creation, live graphics, text and more, at the core is playout. Our original playout engine, contained in AirBox, started out in the right direction and has stood the test of time, been continuously developed over the life of the company, adding features such as HD and mixed-format playout onto the original playout core. But most important of all, it has allowed time and effort to enhance reliability – the number-one essential for on-air operation. The implications go deeper.
The ‘box’ never works on its own. The television industry is well established and so many customers have existing equipment they want to keep using along with any new playout system. This reasonable requirement involves working with customers to meet their interoperability needs. Often there are existing archives or editing systems that it would be ‘oh so nice’ to tie in and create a complete tapeless workflow. As a low cost supplier there simply is not the luxury of defining an own pet file format, so a key to success is being able to work with other peoples’ formats – all of them. Recognising this situation, and having the time to do something about it, has allowed direct plug-and-play compatibility with customers existing archives, acquisition formats, edit suites and other new and old material, saving the large quantities of time, money and picture quality otherwise involved in transcoding and re-recording. It makes the tapeless dream a reality for the many stations that wrestle with file incompatibilities, reverting to baseband video and even tape, as a workaround to get from one file format to another. Or, for a new station, it gives them a flying start and easy integration to the ever-growing number of file-based systems.
Exactly how big the hardware is depends on customer requirements for workflow and redundancy. In any case, customers do not want to buy boxes but complete solutions. A single ‘box’ could include dual redundant power supplies and RAID protected media storage as well as a selection of functions such as graphics, subtitling, content management and alarm reporting as well as playout for SD, HD or DVB (ASI/IP). If a fully redundant channel were required then this would involve a second box. Multiple channel systems often access shared storage and functions such as ingest – depending on the demands of the workflow. When you add in monitoring, compliance recording and an Ethernet switch and you start to fill a small rack. In practise, customers can pick and choose what functions they want and what other equipment they need to make the playout system work for their requirements.
Over the years the customer base has expanded as word spreads that these solutions really do perform and can be meaningfully integrated into existing infrastructures. Perhaps a measure of where we are now is that, within the last year, PlayBox supplied edge servers to international broadcasters including Fox International Channels. The Fox project, nicknamed ‘FoxBox’, initially produced a remote unattended channel located in Athens complete with local content and branding, entirely run from the broadcast centre in Rome. The only connection is via the public internet. More remote channels in other locations and with other broadcasters have followed. At the same time the new µPlay is aimed at entry-level customers, providing video and graphics playout for the AV and IPTV market.
Today we offer the stable, reliable easy-to-use products customers want. We also work closely with clients to provide not just the functionality but also the interfaces to work with existing or planned third-party equipment. There are also major systems including Metus MAM and NewsAir NCS that can closely integrate with PlayBox servers. In all cases customers are free to choose whatever they want – in one or more boxes.
The reality and benefits of good channel-in-a-box solutions are now well recognised. Using PC-based IT with good software and the support to supply what broadcasters need will increase the penetration of these low cost products over the coming years.
Why is it so hard to come up with a universally accepted definition of CiaB?
As one of the originators of the “TV Channel in a Box” term, or in the USA, “MCR in a Box” or “Master Control in a Box”, I can say the term was meant to convey that a single PC could replace the functions of video playout with branding. Typically these included the VTRs, channel automation, vision mixer, CG and graphics that, at the time, where the requirements of over 85% of the TV playout channels worldwide. As more manufacturers came into the CiaB market, they considered extra features were mandatory for the term CiaB including ingest, MAM, scheduling, etc. possibly because only their CiaB could do this. Others would consider that a client / server set up were not a CiaB as two “boxes” were required. In truth CiaB is exactly what the term was meant to represent, a cost-effective and reliable way to replace the entire master control equipment needed to playout a TV channel in one box.
Very briefly, who should consider going down the CiaB route?
Most people agree that CiaB is the future, so all broadcasters should, and most already are, going down the CiaB route for all or at least some of their channels. Maybe not all broadcasters are considering CiaB right now for their premium channels, but they most definitely are for their other value added channels.
Is CiaB only about saving money (usually by cutting out certain jobs)?
Yes and No. Yes CiaB provides a major cost saving per channel. There is also a major advantage for content owners who are now able to launch many more channels that would not have been financially viable without CiaB and creating many more jobs in the process. No, it is not about saving money per se, the same job functions that were there before CiaB are still there with CiaB. As with all things in life, the more you put into something, the more you get out of it. The TV channels that spend more money on staff to create a better on-air look will attract more viewers and get a better return on their investment from larger revenues.
Do CiaB vendors ask broadcasters what they need – or do those vendors seek to change the way broadcasters operate?
CiaB doesn’t have to change the way a broadcaster works today, however as CiaB is a flexible in workflow, many broadcasters see an advantage in making changes that create better workflows. However, requirements differ and offering a modular system means that broadcasters can pick-n-mix the features they want. As a result each system is different inside the box. But what many broadcasters often want is a complete system... and that will be more than one box!
What impact, if any, has the Cloud had on Channel in a Box?
The Cloud has not yet made much impact. However it will, once CiaB becomes fully software centric, like PlayBox Technology, and the Cloud is perceived safe for content storage and delivery. Most content owners are looking into creating their own safe clouds that, in a way, defeats the cloud concept, but is and will be more and more used. Cloud playout may be useful for internet TV channels, but for other forms of playout such as terrestrial, satellite, cable, etc. these channels are likely to be created at a central point and better managed without Cloud playout.
Why is it that different manufacturers have different ‘do well’ functions? Is it not feasible for all to have ‘good’ graphics/scheduling/MAM?
True, most manufacturers don’t have the best “do well” functions albeit they will never admit it. For this reason PlayBox Technology created a very powerful CG and interactive graphics engine, called TitleBox, one of the best on-air CG and Graphic systems available and fully integrated to the AirBox playout as this would be vital for a Perfect on-air look and feel. AirBox and TitleBox are the heart of one of the best CiaB that is available on the market today. PlayBox Technology also has simple Scheduling and MAM options called ListBox and DataBox. These were designed to suit simple channel needs, however if the client needed better functionality they could buy their own Scheduling and / or MAM Systems and integrate to their PlayBox Technology System. Shortly PlayBox Technology will launch ScheduleBox that is designed for Fast and Efficient Scheduling, it was not designed to be the “do well” scheduler for all playout, but for many PlayBox Technology users it will be a valuable time saving Scheduling tool. PlayBox Technology can and do deliver a complete Workflow from a single manufacturer, however PlayBox Technology also understands that some client will want to create a workflow that fits their way of working and using their preferred “do well” manufacturer
Are we looking at a time when viewers will create their own CiaB via set top boxes? Or is that already the case using PVR?
I don’t see this happening for quite a few years. The functionally already exists in YouTube where you can create your own channel and yes some people record the programmes they want to watch on their PVR and play them back when they are able. But still the vast majority will want to switch to a channel and watch TV. Many viewers don’t even know the title of a programmes to schedule it, unless they first see it on TV.
Is it feasible that ‘main stream’ channels (for example BBC1 in the UK) can be run via Channel in a Box equipment?
It is feasible, but I don’t think those that make the decisions are ready to make this decision in the short term. In many countries worldwide PlayBox Technology is used by the State Broadcaster for their main channel and in some other countries, PlayBox Technology is used by 100% of Broadcasters, so CiaB can, and does work for main stream broadcasters. In many other countries PlayBox Technology is chosen for Redundancy and Disaster Recovery to these main stream channels.
Along similar lines, does CiaB work if you have to tear up a schedule at the last minute because a sports event has overrun?
Yes, PlayBox Technology CiaB can and does work in a live environment as well as working with Live News.
We talk about Channel in a Box as a singular term, but in reality many channels can run out of the same box. Is there a viable limit to that number?
It is usual for one channel to playout from one box, however it is now becoming more common for two or three channels per box and running two boxes for full redundancy. Also as PlayBox Technology is Software Centric when IP streaming and there can be 10 or more channels in one box, if required. It is also usual to add extra boxes when extra channels are required i.e. 100 Channels will equal 100 boxes with say 10 more boxes for full back-up / redundancy for the 100 channels. CiaB is very modular and easily scalable.
Who should operate the CiaB at a playout facility? Is it a graphics person, a scheduler, an IT person – or is there a new position “CiaB operator” who is expert in all these functions and understands all the software languages associated with the functions?
I think the same as for many years, the Playout Operator. I don’t think CiaB changed this, Automation created this position as many of the functions when automation arrived were sent to
Does the concept of CiaB blur the previous distinction between mainstream television and Internet only channels?
No, far from it, CiaB has made many channels today viable and allow a single channel
Many playout contracts end in 2014. Will this have any impact of CiaB innovations for more competitive tenders in the new round of negotiations?
I think today more broadcasters are run by accountants
Does CiaB have a future in its present form – or does it need any radical rethinking?
CiaB has a good Short and Mid Term Future, in the long term there will need to be many radical changes as viewing habits change and content delivery methods increase. PlayBox Technology, have been developing their products for over ten years and with many thousands of systems and users giving enormous amount of feedback to R&D that will keep us ahead of the game
Branding exists whether we like it or not. Good branding leaves an impression and creates a bias in a person’s mind that allows broadcasters to actively manage that impression rather than leave the person to come to their own conclusions. Good branding also actively shapes people’s minds regardless of the number of viewers and allows the broadcaster to expand the brand as it becomes more popular.
Channel Branding is more than just giving a TV Channel its Identity; it is about creating a brand that will get viewers to watch the channel and come back again, maybe recommend the channel to others. Multi-channel broadcasters will want to be able to promote across their entire channel range. Channel Branding is all about gaining viewers and keeping viewers to your brand to increase revenues
The simplest form of Branding is the TV Channel Logo or Bug as it is important as the viewer should immediately, or within milliseconds, recognise the channel by the TV channel logo when surfing the many TV channels available. However the Logo or Bug is very basic and is not likely to encourage viewers to watch and stay loyal. So there is usually a range of elements that can make up the complete branding package for the channel.
Typically graphics experts will have produced the designs and then the current information needs to be added into the design when it goes to air. Using traditional TV equipment for video, stills, text, animation, on-air mixing, keying, sizing, positioning, timing and sequencing etc., it can get very complicated. For this reason the packages were pre-recorded so all that had to happen was to replay the clip and cut it on air. Today with CiaB and other file-based playout systems the whole workflow changes and become more efficient. What stays the same is the original graphics that are designed by experts. The difference is that other branding elements can be preprogramed and added live on air with up to date information from internet or metadata.
To keep the viewer watching the channel after one programme a quick squeezeback to show the “Coming Up Next” or “Starting Now On” (for multi-channel broadcasters) programmes over the end credits is important, not to wait until the end when the viewer could be already scanning other channels. It is important to give clear information about programmes that are similar to the one just watched or are likely to attract current viewers.
Channel Branding can consist of many items like trailers, break bumpers, line-up menus, forthcoming programmes, cross platform and cross channel branding etc. but all this needs to be delivered in a way not to disturb viewers from wanting to watch the channel
Today TV channel branding is about interactively automating graphics, templates and clips without distracting viewers from the content while still differentiating your TV channel from the many other TV channels that are available.
Music Channels for instance create templates for the singer / group and song title, different templates are often used for different shows, but the information comes from the metadata of the clip and shown after the clip starts and again near the end. Also using the same metadata the coming up next clips can be shown.
News channels can create templates for News Tickers, Share Prices, and Exchange Rates etc. and take the metadata from the internet to keep the information current. Information can be shown concurrently or sequentially.
PlayBox Technology created EdgeBox that allow a Fully Redundant Automatic Remote Playout Anywhere in the World via Internet that makes delivering a TV station, complete with local branding and content anywhere in the world an economic reality, even for small audiences. EdgeBox enables the whole operation to be run from an established broadcast centre, at a cost that makes sense.
PlayBox Technology AdBox enables content to be locally branded and use local or network advertising to maximise the business potential by targeting advertisements for specific audiences with ad insertion and digital programme insertion (DPI) when needed.
PlayBox Technology basic Channel-in-a-Box (CiaB) offers a turnkey file based solution that combines video playback and rich branding graphics that are both generated from the same box. With good graphics and some simple programming this is all that is needed for your channel to be considered one of the best available.
Branding is also about having good programmes too. Good Branding cannot make up for bad programmes; however good branding can make a channel seem better than other channels that are showing similar programming, especially important for say Music Channels that essentially have access to similar Music Videos, branding will make the difference.
Centralcasting is a product of our times: the need to supply many channels and the technology to deliver them nationwide and much further afield. Any centralcast operation must have the storage, playout facilities, asset management and telecommunications to deliver programmes on a large scale. With the entire centralcasting programme assets to hand it could expand operations by opening services to new distant markets.
From several aspects, operating further a field would look attractive but for the extra costs. Getting the video there might involve the expense of multiple satellite hops and regionalising the station’s output for advertising, channel branding, time-shift and subtitles adds more cost. Ultimately, centralcasting is about reducing costs by using fewer staff and less technical equipment to service, for example, a whole TV network. The costs of expanding to another region would be looked at very carefully and weighted against the potential revenue that is mostly raised from advertising aimed at the new audience.
Increasing competition is squeezing channels’ adverting revenues and they will be looking to cut costs in all areas – including playout. Such calculations are necessary, but sticking to the centralcasting ‘norm’ is not. ‘Our times’ is a moving target and modern technology can change the workflow for the operators and the money for the accountants. To better address areas seen as uneconomic due costs and low potential viewing numbers, a fresh approach is needed to rebalance the economics in favour of a fully branded service with local content, while still running the station as a part of the centralcasting operation.
The whole ethos of centralcasting revolves around a central store for all programmes played out to the network’s stations for each local channel’s schedule. This workflow assumes that the cost of replay, equipment and its operation, is high. That was true for VTRs but today computer hard disc players are low cost and run perfectly unattended. Centralcasters now have their media on central disc-based stores for lower equipment and running costs.
Given the above, it could be better to place some storage at the remote stations and transfer programmes, and other material, prior to its transmission time. This then is replayed to air from the local storage, according to the station’s schedule. Distributed storage makes possible many changes to the classic centralcast model. Given solid reliability and more automation the remote can operate unattended, and so further reduce costs.
The traditional centralcaster’s live playout to each supported channel may no longer be required. For file-based media the replay from the central store does no longer has to be real time. This opens the door for the use of the internet as only link to the remote station. It can be the only delivery medium for content, schedules, control, monitoring, subtitles and even sending local content back to the broadcast centre. Unbounded by satellite or fibre this link goes worldwide and is low cost.
Exactly what data speed is required depends on the media format used at the remote location, the amount of new media needed per day, the bit rate chosen for playout and the available internet capacity. Programme data rates for MPEG4 IBP are typically 4 to 6 Mb/s for SD and 8 to 12Mb/s for HD (add 50% for MPEG2) – the more the better. Another factor is the rate at which programmes are churned; repeating the same material all week requires much less data rate than changing every day. The internet provider, the grade of the service (consumer, business, etc.) and the bit rate can be selected according to data transfer volumes and budgets.
There is any number of possibilities for the design of a remote unattended playout system or Edge Server. Choices depend on the facilities of the centralcaster and the requirements of the remote broadcast service so a modular equipment design and the integration of many third-party devices are both essential. Having the major elements as standard IT-based platforms helps the wide integration and keeps costs down to IT prices. Even though the solution is IT-based, system designers also need to understand the needs and technical standards of the broadcast television industry.
Budgets, the security of media and the continuity of output influence the design. Fail-safe features such as error detection in data transfers, RAID-protected storage, redundant power supplies and playout servers complete with automatic switchover all cost more but help to maintain service. Above all the basic system modules – ingest, playout, storage, on-air graphics and subtitles – must be highly reliable. Otherwise the idea of remote unattended operation makes no sense.
A typical design includes interfacing with the centralcast traffic system, conversations between the remote station and the central traffic system, sending required media and mechanisms to ensure against data degradation and firewalls at each end of the internet link to keep the data and media secure. The bulk of the remote station comprises tried and tested standard playout solutions complemented with items such as monitoring and internet communications as well as software to allow the necessary conversations with the centralcaster.
Workflow may start with a daily playlist created in the centralcaster’s traffic system that is integrated with the MAM. The list is delivered to the remote playout servers and converted, where necessary, to its native format. Error detection algorithms can check the file matches the original. If using a fully redundant playout, then the list can be sent separately to both and cross-checked. Then, at worst, one server should playout correctly.
Details of the workflow and file handling will differ according to each broadcaster’s needs but might be like the following example. After the remote has received the daily playlist it checks for the media required to fulfil the list, searching its local store accordingly. Any that is missing is flagged and a ‘missing items list’ generated and sent back to the MAM requesting the media and associated data, such as subtitle files. This routine is repeated until all the required media is present in the remote’s storage.
The MAM is responsible for finding and delivering that media. It may exist but the required video or file format of the remote differs from that used by other centralcast channels, eg SD or HD, bit rate, MPEG2 or MPEG4, etc. First the MAM checks for the media available in the correct delivery format. If not found, it then searches for the media in any other format, preferably at a higher quality or bit rate than is required by the remote. If found, the MAM sends the media for file transcoding and then to the remote for delivery to the playout server or servers. If the media is not available the MAM generates a capture list for the media to be ingested, transcoded and delivered.
The outputs of any unattended remote playout stations should look every bit as complete and reginalised as those delivered from the centralcast and broadcast via local channels. These may include graphics, from the basic channel ID bug/logo, to multi-layer on-air graphics, text rolls and crawls, live updates such as SMS-to-screen, voting, gaming, and displays driven from live databases, such as financial information, traffic, etc. Typically such graphics are delivered within a template, simplifying live operation to the addition of text or pictures to complete the unique presentation. Such activities can be scheduled in the traffic system and any new designs can be downloaded as required.
Subtitles can be prepared at the centralcast, or independently, and sent to the remote playout which will associate the text in sync with the relevant programme material.
For confirmation of playout the server can produce ‘As Run’ logs that are returned to the Traffic System for billing, etc. Compliance recording can also be performed and the results streamed back to the centralcast, if required.
Traffic management is a further housekeeping requirement at the remote. On the input side, this automatically moves the media arriving on the local file transfer server to the playout servers’ hard disc drives. Another automated routine is the removal of ‘old’ media from that same server. By scanning daily playlists and local drives, it can delete media not required for, say, seven days hence. If the media is required later it can still be copied again from the file transfer server or MAM. Purging a list of items from both the file transfer sever and playout servers can be commanded by the centralcaster.
Monitoring and Control
Remote monitoring is imperative, especially where channels cannot be viewed by a backhaul feed. The status of the playout and graphics servers can monitored and the resulting data sent back to the centralcast to raise any necessary alarms. All the remote servers are also connected to a VPN, accessible from anywhere according to the firewall’s rules. Remote video and audio monitoring via the net can also be devised as well as monitoring catastrophic failure of the main and redundant playout servers.
Various levels of protection can be applied to suit. Redundancy of servers and power supplies is common. The internet connections go via a firewall and file transfer server and can include a file transfer system agent to accelerate transfers, as well as using multiple internet paths and so allowing checking validity of files. On the playout side a smart switch can be added that monitors the main video and audio output and that automatically switches to the backup, in the event of a failure.
Although global brands may be relevant, most advertising time will occupied by more local commercials. For commercials, two playback approaches can be used. One involves opting out of the programme feed and inserting the region’s local commercials from a local player. The other approach avoids the opt out by including the commercials within its playlist.
Remote playout systems that can be run unattended using internet connections introduce many new opportunities for lowering the cost of centralcasting; from an economic way to extend services to viewers anywhere around the world, complete with local banding, to reducing dependency on fixed live-video links. In all cases distributed storage and servers open the door for new ways to run centralcasting. Each application will differ, at least in detail, so modular scaleable systems and detailed system design is essential – as much as reliability.