Cambridge, UK, 15 September 2020: Pixel Power, the global leader in playout, automation and graphics, has added StreamMaster PRIME to its range of graphics and playout products. Leveraging its renowned StreamMaster Media Processing technology platform, StreamMaster PRIME is a turnkey appliance with a flexible function set, designed primarily as a replacement for individual devices in a traditional architecture.
“Many of the broadcasters we talk to have told us that they are not yet in a position to move to an all new, software-defined playout architecture, but that individual items in their legacy systems need replacing,” explained James Gilbert, CEO of Pixel Power. “StreamMaster PRIME gives them a single, cost-effective appliance, connecting over SDI, with all the usual automation interfaces, so it is a simple plug-in replacement for a life-expired master control switcher, video server or graphics inserter.
“Most importantly, the software licences for StreamMaster PRIME are transferable, so when the broadcaster begins to migrate towards a new architecture or deployment model, the existing functionality can be transferred at no additional cost,” he added.
StreamMaster PRIME is a dedicated appliance, capable of supporting automated branding graphics, multi-layer static and animated logos, clocks, text crawls, tickers, DVE moves and more. Options include dual port video server, audio processing for multi-channel sound and master control functionality.
It is capable of autonomous operation, with hardware or software UI control panels also available. It is plug-and-play with all major automation systems.
“This is a direct response to a real need from the industry,” said Gilbert. “It’s a standard appliance with sufficient hardware power to run the software applications likely to be needed, tailored to the user’s requirements. For those who need to keep a legacy broadcast chain running, or perhaps an outside broadcast truck needing motion graphics playback, it is a very welcome solution.”
StreamMaster PRIME is available now.
By Jenny Priestley | TVBEurope | Published 7 September 2020
TVBEurope asks four members of the media tech industry including Manor Marketing clients Pixel Power and Tradefair for their thoughts on a lack of trade shows, what aspects they'll miss, and what changes they'd like to see implemented.
Who would have thought at the start of 2020 the media tech industry would lose both NAB and IBC, its two biggest trade shows?
How far into 2021 the new virtual world of trade shows will spread remains to be seen. But for the moment, how does the media tech industry connect and showcase its innovations without a physical show? TVBEurope asked four industry experts for their views on a year without trade shows.
What does a lack of trade shows in 2020 mean for you and your business?
Stuart Russell, senior communications manager, Ross Video: The lack of physical events has been frustrating insofar as everyone at Ross enjoys getting face-time with customers and partners, and we always have cool new solutions to talk about, so it’s been a very strange few months indeed. That said, however, there’s no doubt that the number of people that we speak to at trade shows and events represents only a tiny fraction of our possible customer-base, and online activities give us an opportunity to speak to people who might not ordinarily make trips to the big ‘halo’ events such as NAB Show and IBC.
Ciaran Doran, EVP, Pixel Power: While there have been real drawbacks to the lack of tradeshows there are real benefits to online video meetings – the customer gets to bring more people than could have made it to Amsterdam or Las Vegas and we get to give them more time with more key staff involved in the presentation and demonstrations. Since all our solutions are software defined and virtualisable we can demonstrate anything from anywhere, to anyone.
Mark Birchall, managing director, Tradefair: The past six months have been an interesting, largely unprecedented and, let’s be frank, a painful experience for everyone. But, on a more basic note for these purposes, moving abruptly from a physical trade show to a virtual facsimile required many of us to restart from scratch and recalibrate everything we know and apply it to a “new now”, which is no small undertaking.
In my view, the relative success of a virtual event depends on what is delivered over that virtual platform(s). For me, a virtual event that has live interaction via chat and video – and includes live presentations and a degree of business matching – can work. But it will work better if conducted in real time rather than as a virtual content basket to be plucked from when convenient. There’s a place for the latter, of course, but for engagement you can’t replace “live”, virtual or otherwise.
It’s a given that the aim of trade show participation in every case is to do everything possible to increase the odds that the event will work for you. And that requires time, expertise, and most of all, engagement. If you’re not all in, you can’t expect to get everything you want out of it.
Bob Charlton, Scribe PR: Most definitely a saving in shoe leather and more time spent at home with the family, both of which are good. But seriously, I’m a big fan of the major tradeshows. At these events, my clients get face time with their most important customers, which is invaluable. Without these opportunities, my business has seen a boom – never before has targeted, proactive media relations been valued so highly by my clients.
Let me explain. Normally, at the tradeshows, my clients stage live demonstrations of their latest product developments, as well as special closed-door briefings of what is coming along soon. Without this option, they need to get those messages across using other means, and the trade publications are invaluable in this regard.
What aspects of trade shows will you miss?
SR: Definitely the human interaction. I get a big kick out of talking to customers and the press at shows about the new product launches; doing this online is obviously better than not doing it at all, but it does feel a little unreal and it’s not quite as satisfying. I also miss spending time with my colleagues – Ross is now almost 900 employees worldwide and the bigger shows are a fantastic opportunity to spend time with colleagues that I wouldn’t normally see. We’re fortunate enough to have great camaraderie at Ross and we all enjoy getting together and spending time at shows.
MB: Trade shows are very much a part of our lives. We very much miss the planning, preparation, and delivery of the UK Pavilions. It’s not just our livelihood. We all experience the phenomenon that, when we’re at shows, they become our alternate world. It’s “show time” life. Just like Tradefair, our clients see their existing client base; work closely with new companies, clients, and individuals, and spend considerable time learning, networking, and planning for the next cycle.
Additionally, it’s vital to use that time to gain an even better understanding of what’s happening in the marketplace and how clients are positioning themselves within that market. Broadly speaking, we generally see and regularly adopt the good things that people are doing, and we’re in a position to give advice to those who may be struggling with either their direction or with practical or logistical considerations. We can parlay our experience with companies that have been successful in their approach and share it with those could benefit from those ideas. I miss helping to make those decisions in person and share in the enjoyment of our clients’ successes as a result. That’s the best part of our job. It’s too early to tell if a similar sense of achievement can be had over an internet connection, but we’re all still learning.
BC: The tradeshows provide fantastic networking opportunities with key editors, journalists and industry analysts. Social distancing has changed into isolation and it feels like a long time since we were all together.
If you have news worth telling, then organise a press event to communicate this. I really miss the thrill I get from arranging these events – whether it’s a press conference or a smaller roundtable press and analyst briefing during the show.
Also, specifically with IBC, I will miss the opportunity to see the new exhibitors and what they bring. The tented pavilion at the front of the RAI (Hall 14 I think) is an Aladdin’s Cave of new and fascinating products and services – very often with exhibitors on tiny stands with shoe-string budgets. Visiting these stands is definitely something that I will miss this year.
How likely are you to return to physical trade shows in 2021, or do you think virtual is the way forward?
SR: I think physical events are unlikely to take place until the middle of 2021 at the earliest, so everything will be virtual until then. When shows do come back, I think footprint and footfall with naturally be lower – I know both NAB and IBC are expecting to run smaller events in 2021 and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The larger shows have perhaps become a little bloated over the years, and the idea of smaller, more tightly focused events is more appealing to me. A hybrid model comprising physical events with virtual elements in complement looks to be the way forward beyond 2021 – that will allow us to reach a large international audience online and still share our stories with the people traveling to visit the physical events.
CD: The first real tradeshow in our industry will be special and we definitely want to be part of it. Virtual is good for certain things and we will likely continue the new found energies online. However, I believe that we will see a change in how we do business and it may be that tradeshows take a different form than before. Many of us have noticed how the world could suddenly change. There was a point where some business functions could not be done from home offices – perhaps some of that was due to inertia or certain cultural norms that prevented a change in thinking from the old ways. But when Covid arrived it was suddenly possible. I don’t think we should completely return to how it was before, but we need to find a new balance. I call it 2020-Hindsight. In years to come we should look back at what good things we could take from the 2020 pandemic.
MB: Most definitely, the tradeshows will return, and I will be at the front of the queue to get in when they do. But there needs to be a good pinch of common sense when they do.
I think the tradeshows will be smaller and different in nature. Personally, of the three major tradeshows (NAB, Broadcast Asia and IBC) I think that IBC offers the most compelling visitor proposition. For many years, it has invested significantly in its conference, technology workshops and creative masterclass programme. Also, it has developed much more elegant exhibitor communications through the IBC Show Daily newspaper and IBC TV News channel.
However, every tradeshow will need to address the 400 kilo Gorilla in the room, which is what to do with virtual events. Without doubt, virtual communications have saved our bacon this year. In fact, my clients are finding that there are many positives to come from a well planned and implemented virtual campaign in the way it enables them to reach larger customer audiences, most of whom would have missed the ticket to attend the tradeshows in person.
I believe this is work in progress with all the tradeshows and I will be interested to see how they develop this element of their evolving business plans.
This is the perfect time for the industry to pause and take stock of trade shows. What, if any, changes would you like to see implemented for when shows return?
SR: Trade shows are an expensive exercise and they don’t always deliver fantastic ROI when it comes to new customer acquisition as a metric. They are an important part of our marketing efforts, for sure, and I’m not denying the value of the customer face-time, but there’s a lot of FOMO psychology at play when it comes to shows and our industry is way behind other industries I’ve worked in when it comes to digital marketing. I think the time is now right for a reset – shows organisers should refocus on their core offering and make that fit for purpose, recognising that we as marketing professionals have plenty of (highly measurable and cost-effective) alternative ways to spend our budgets. Shows are not competing against other shows for our money – they are competing with everything else in the marketing mix, and they need to smell that coffee and act or they risk becoming irrelevant. Give us a tight and targeted event with a good online package to go along with it, and don’t be greedy with the costs; that’s the winning recipe!
CD: I’d like to see tradeshow owners realise that they’re not only in the events business where real life physical events are the primary goal, they’re in the business of bringing together the buyers and sellers – and doing that can take many different forms. The organisers who are able to truly bring out the value of the “connections” they can make between buyer and seller are the ones that can win in the current challenging business world.
MB: It’s important to understand that this temporary pause has given us all an opportunity to make a root and branch review of their trade show participation. What has gone right? What could have gone better? Is the budget realistic? Can we better allocate our spend? How can we spend less – or more – to maximise our impact? How can we use what we have learned about maintaining and enhancing our visibility over the last six months to augment our more traditional approaches and generate new business? The number of parameters to consider is long, but each should be carefully considered.
I would like the conferences to be live streamed. I don’t personally believe that live streaming or on demand availability, for a nominal fee perhaps, would stop serious people from attending the event. Conversely, what it could do is draw people from vertical markets who could not justify the expense of attending. They would be able to plug into what the latest thinking is and share that with their constituents, which could drive business, spur additional interaction, and prompt in-person participation at subsequent events. You could consider it an investment in creating a broader reach for the sector.
I also see a hybrid of typical physical exhibitors coupled with a designated virtual zone emerging. We’re not going to just abandon virtual once the physical is again doable. There are those who argue that virtual would give people and excuse not to attend in person. But as I have alluded to previously, I disagree. If anything, it will help drive future attendance. There’s only so much you can achieve over the internet, as everyone who has been watching “interviews from home” can attest.
BC: I attended my first IBC in 1994 and since then I can count the number of major tradeshows that I have missed on the fingers of one hand. They are fantastic events – they are beacons of technical innovation and best professional practice that guide our industry forwards. However, for many years it has frustrated me that there is such an intense focus on these events over four or five days and then very little for the remainder of the year. As an industry, we are adept at harnessing new technologies as they evolve. Now, I think there is a massive opportunity for the big tradeshows to harness virtual communications.
If they can do this, they will extend the reach of these fantastic global events, both in terms of the size of the audience that benefits from the event and in the period of the year when exhibitors can engage meaningfully with this audience.
By Mike O'Connell | Pixel Power | Published 21st July 2020
Having lived with COVID-19 for a few months now, what have we in the broadcast industry learned? I can offer two take-home lessons.
First: we have to be a whole lot more agile than we ever thought. As broadcast engineers we have lived with the idea that a project takes a couple of years, from deciding what we want to do, through meeting vendors, maybe a proof of concept or two, then on to a final spec, installation, testing, training and rehearsals.
In 2020 we have had to roll out emergency solutions to keep our stations on the air in hours, not months or years.
Second, we have to have a much more flexible and perhaps bolder attitude to finance. An important part of that two year project timescale would have included an outline budget for first stage approval, then refining the project costs through to final contract.
But if we need a solution up and running this afternoon, we need to be able to pay for it by tomorrow – or maybe even this morning. The death of the capital budget is another transformative change that COVID-19 has brought to our lives. Opex is another of those buzzwords that has been around the industry for a while, without ever gaining too much traction. Inertia ruled and since broadcasters have always worked on capex it was felt no reason to change. Well now there is a reason.
First and foremost, Opex provides a tight alignment to output. Whether it is 3D graphics or a virtualized software only playout channel, an enlightened vendor and pay-as-you-play cloud hosting, you should pay for only the functions you need, when you need them. Pixel Power has allowed you to buy licenses outright, or by time, or by output for several years – a pure Opex model right here and right now.
Capex encourages you to have equipment sitting in the rack in case you need the facilities. While sitting in the rack that equipment is taking up space, power and air-conditioning even if it is not giving you an output and earning you money. If you only use 3D graphics for Saturday sport, why pay for the machine to be running the other six and a half days when it’s not working?
That principle applies on a bigger scale. We have a presidential election this coming November (although thanks to the pandemic, it is going to be a strange one). Do we really want to spend a lot of capital on facilities that, after November 3rd, we are going to have to find work for?
The other advantage of Opex is that the money can be found from multiple sources. If you need specific functionality – like complex graphics for an election – you can fund the licenses, for precisely when you need them, through the production budget.
The consensus of opinion during this pandemic seems to be that we may run out of content in August. To fill the gap, we are going to have to do things differently because we simply can’t have people working physically closely together any more.
If we need new equipment and techniques for a short time (we all sincerely hope that the pandemic will be over soon) then it makes no sense to spend capital on temporary equipment and facilities. And if it makes no sense now, is it not time to make Opex the primary way forward?
By Mike O'Connell | Pixel Power | Published 8th July 2020
As an industry we have talked about disaster recovery for a while. We know about business continuity, about how our audiences – not to mention our revenues – will disappear so fast if we drop off the air.
The problem is, most of us have been talking about the wrong sort of disaster. Received wisdom has been that, if our building catches fire or there is a gas leak up the street, we need to be able to relocate (our staff) to somewhere a distance away, where we have a duplicate set of equipment to keep us on air.
Well, now the disaster has come. And it is nothing like the disaster we prepared for.
Our buildings and our technical installations are all there in the different location. But, thanks to COVID-19, we can’t get our people there! As those who rely on traditional broadcast hardware technology for playout have found, it really cannot operate hands-off. It relies upon people.
At Pixel Power we have been talking about and deploying the solution to this for several years. It is virtualizable, software defined playout. You build exactly the production or playout automation workflows you need, from elemental, modular components. These software modules sit on standard IT hardware (Commercial and Off The Shelf, COTS), and are slickly managed to deliver precisely to your requirements.
Why is this so important? Because it leads to near-perfect protection from the unexpected, like COVID-19 – when you need to flip your operators to work remotely, from home.
A virtualized architecture can run on dedicated hardware in your broadcast machine room. Or it can take the processor and storage requirements it requires while residing in your corporate data centre. Or it can live entirely in the public cloud. Or it can exist across any combination of these scenarios.
Playout in the cloud means you never have to attend to the hardware. You can control every aspect of your output – even live interventions on premium channels – from a laptop, wherever you have an internet connection.
A lot of people are now talking about virtualized playout from the public cloud. Indeed, it’s great to welcome some of our industry rivals to the club. At NAB 2016 Pixel Power demonstrated premium channel playout, including live interventions, with sophisticated graphics & branding, hosted entirely in the AWS cloud. We did it in 2017, 2018 and 2019, too, and would have made it five in a row if NAB2020 had happened. But regardless of big tradeshows happening, the beauty is that we can demonstrate this to you right here, right now – because it’s ready in the AWS cloud.
Other vendors still view this as science fair stuff. We have this nailed. It is proven and it is delivered.
And it gives you flexibility. For those broadcasters who want to retain the traditional infrastructures, your primary playout can be in your building, with disaster recovery in the cloud. Or you can make the jump and put everything in the cloud, relying on AWS or whichever vendor you choose to sort out the geo-diverse protections for non-stop service.
No-one predicted the extraordinary impact COVID-19 has made on all of our lives. Who knows what’s next. It is your responsibility to put the best possible business continuity plans in place. We can help you make that happen.
By James Gilbert | Pixel Power | Published 5th June 2020
It is almost compulsory to start any blog at the moment by saying these are difficult times. What I mean is that we are having to review so many things to work with isolation and social distancing, while ensuring a minimal impact on what we have always been proud to call broadcast quality and production values. But ‘luck’ is when preparation meets opportunity and in the last few years we have been in the fortunate position to help our customers prepare well.
We have had to quickly find ways to work remotely, whether that is in production or in delivery. Remote control of playout automation is an obvious requirement, and that has focused a very harsh light on legacy systems, many of which simply cannot be managed at a distance. Virtualised, software-centric technology is capable of control from anywhere, by its very nature, from a remote facility or a home office.
Broadcasters need new interstitials, promoting new programming created in lockdown, and offering public service information. With on-screen talent working from less than ideal environments at home, good graphics are more important than ever. An ideal system would see an editor working from home create a template which an automated production platform could then populate into all the different versions required.
Obviously I am talking about the technology for which Pixel Power is famous. But the same ideas apply across the board. Broadcasters have to find new ways of working. To succeed, that depends upon two linked factors.
First and most obvious, they need this technology now. We don’t have the luxury of six months research and extensive meetings at NAB or IBC (we didn’t have NAB and no longer have IBC!). We want something that works now – today – that may not work the way we used to, but which will deliver the goods.
That in turn leads to the second point, which is that you have to be able to rely on the vendors supplying this kit. If you are not going to spend months in discussions and developing proof of concept solutions, you have to have 100% faith that what is proposed will do what you want.
You need a vendor that understands your business. We started Pixel Power in 1987 to develop broadcast graphics systems then moving on to master control, automation and playout. 33 years later the company still has a rock solid dedication to solely broadcast solutions. To ensure we really understand what broadcasters and content companies need, we recruit key staff from them: people like Toria Farrell, a former transmission controller and Malorie Delaporte, a former head of systems engineering.
For more than 30 years Pixel Power was a thriving independent business that in 2018 became part of Rohde & Schwarz – another privately owned, engineering led organisation. We share the same values of always working to understand our customers’ businesses and delivering the best engineered solutions whether software or hardware. The combined result of engineering stability allows us to serve our customers with the right technology that helps them move forward: creatively, technically and commercially.
It is too early today to say what the new normal will be. But it is clear that, for broadcasting and media streaming to recover, it will need to be more agile and able to respond rapidly to change. It will rely much more heavily on automation, remote operation in the first instance and later virtualization. Preparing for that new world of opportunity will demand software defined solutions and ever stronger bonds of trust between vendor and customer, to implement effective solutions quickly and accurately.
We understand that, and we are here. Whether you need a quick fix or a long-term strategy, talk to Pixel Power.
By Nikhil Pereira | Digital Studio ME | Published 27th February 2020
What are your plans for CABSAT 2020?
The great news is that both Pixel Power and Rohde & Schwarz are together on the same booth at CABSAT. We will be there to talk to customers about all our solutions in studio production, post production, delivery and distribution.
Give us more insight into the products and services you will be exhibiting at the show?
We are showing the following areas: Create and StreamMaster Produce graphics creation tools — with a 30 year heritage in graphics creation Pixel Power can show you how your brand can come to life, how you can automate your branding workflows and how to create a stunning new look and feel for both premium channels and across all your channel portfolio. StreamMaster Deliver (channel-in-a-box) and Gallium Playout (complete workflow automation for playout) will be one of the prominent demos on the booth. Full broadcast chain monitoring solution and multiviewing software using the Rohde & Schwarz Prismon solution set. Satellite amplifiers will be the star of the show with the new PKU-100 satellite uplink amplifier.
Who is your target audience and what should they look out for in your offerings?
We are looking for customers interested in innovative solutions where they want to save money or make money in their broadcast network. Customers who are interested in workflow solutions, future proof software defined tools that can scale and change with their business.
What is the USP of your products?
There are many unique selling points of our products and services but one of the most important things to note about Pixel Power and Rohde & Schwarz is that we focus on partnering with our customers throughout the whole journey from first discussion about a new project right through to the ongoing creative, operational and technical support over many years. We are an engineering led business and driven by the desire to deliver great solutions for great broadcasters for great content.
What challenges is the market facing in the market sector your firm operates in?
“Buzz” and the need to be realistic. There is a lot of talk about new standards, new resolutions, new consumer features. But the reality is that most broadcasters don’t simply want to hear about the dream, they want to see the reality of how they can create a steady pathway to that dream over a period of time. In the past decades we have had the ‘time in motion’ studies, the ‘just in time’ movement, the ‘time to market’ period. In the 2020s I believe it’s the ‘time to trust’ decade.
What are your plans for 2020?
We will keep developing and delivering innovative solutions for our broadcaster and telecommunication customers who want to create and deliver exciting television programmes and movies — then help them deliver that to you and me on our screens at home or on the move, in the cinema or the stadium, to enjoy with family and friends.
By James Gilbert | KitPlus Magazine | Published January 2020 Edition
The first days of 2020 seem like a good time to reflect on what will happen to our industry in the coming months and years.
There are some things about which we can do nothing. The global political situation seems to be in turmoil. Populists seem to stop at nothing, and are certainly not hampered by the need to be truthful; the Middle East is in turmoil (growing rapidly worse as this article takes shape); and of course we still have no idea what the impact will be of Brexit, both for British companies and those based in the EU. All of these and more will be affecting the decisions of vendor companies every day in 2020 and beyond.
But what of our industry? The first point to make is that we are now in the end stage of the transition from broadcasting to content delivery, from linear television to content everywhere. The new model demands much more of delivery systems, yet technical budgets are not growing in step. Indeed, they are shrinking, so content companies are going to be looking for ever-more clever solutions.
Thanks to the growing power of COTS hardware and well-thought through software-defined architectures, both the technology and the solutions are available. The challenge relates to ‘people’.
First, the users of the technology need to buy into the new workflows and operational practices. Simply like-for-like replacement of a playout chain with a software-defined equivalent is not enough: it is definitely not a clever solution. We need to work together to create smarter ways to work, that take advantage of the new opportunities.
Secondly, we are not a young industry. It is something we regularly say, but we need to offer encouragement for the best people to join us. That has to start with STEM initiatives at school.
For all the talk of software-centric solutions, we will still need “broadcast engineers” in the future. It is about more than simply writing code. You may be able to add functionality to social media applications, or secure banking log-ons, but you still need a special set of skills and understanding to engineer a live sports broadcast. 2020 sees the Olympics and Paralympics: there will be very many engineers, with very many years of experience to their names, heading for Tokyo to deliver the quality and intensity of coverage that audiences demand.
Japanese broadcaster NHK will be claiming the headlines for its 8k coverage. But it is also important to remember that in large parts of the world SD is still the norm, and very few ordinary people will watch in anything above HD.
Just as the move from SDI to IP has proved slower than people predicted, this underlines a simple truism we should all remember: if you don’t need to be cutting edge, don’t make life difficult. If your SDI installation works, do not feel the need to throw it out any time soon, to replace it with an infrastructure which does not perform the way you expect it, and which needs additional skills which are still in very short supply.
That also applies to other new technologies for which wild claims have been made but have failed to deliver. There is a growing realisation that the idea of using the public cloud for large swathes of broadcast applications is a real case of the emperor’s new clothes.
That is not what the cloud is for; not what it is good at. By all means, set up disaster recovery in the cloud, to sit there costing very little unless the dreaded day should arrive. But for many customers 24/7 playout in the cloud really does not stand up to sensible financial and commercial analysis.
Having said all that, I am very optimistic for the future. We see good reasons for excitement in 2020, not least a tangible sales pipeline and a successful continuing recruitment programme. We are investing in a stronger team to support the delivery of better solutions.
I know we have been talking about solutions for many years, but it is truer today than ever that media companies want to buy working systems, not point products. They simply do not have the staff to decide what they need to do and evaluate the marketplace.
But systems integrators have to change, too. They are no longer stack and rack merchants, judged on the neatness of their wiring looms above all else. Today’s integrators have to manage the orchestration of the technology into the workflows that are going to deliver commercial and operational benefits.
Broadcasters and content deliverers still want to feel that they are buying the best of breed, and certainly do not want to get locked in to single-vendor solutions. So the need is for smart, capable integrators who can develop this orchestration, creating original software as well as configuring products from multiple vendors.
For companies like Pixel Power, that means we have to have strong resources to support integrators, helping them get the best out of our technology to achieve the desired goals of the end customer.
That, in turn, means that successful businesses will need a certain scale. Pixel Power became part of the Rohde & Schwarz group over a year ago now, and continues to retain its own identity. That seems to me an ideal solution: we have big company resources while retaining specialist skills.
2020 is definitely going to be an interesting year. I hope you are looking forward to it as much as I am.
By Adrian Pennington | IBC 365 | Published 5th March 2020
As more media organisations enforce home working, could the spread of the coronavirus hasten the transition to remote production?
While the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc and hysteria across the globe, the epidemic has accelerated the deployment of remote-working software to such an extent that many businesses may never look back.
“What has changed in the last few weeks is that working remotely is no longer a work-life balance argument, or a nice-to-have, it is now a question of business continuity,” says Daniella Weigner, owner, Cinegy. “Crisis is forcing change right now. This is a catalyst. It is also a major opportunity to get change done.”
By Adrian Pennington | The Broadcast Bridge | Published 15th May 2020
Playout automation has been enabling fewer people to control more channels for decades but we’re not quite at the point where human interaction can be eliminated altogether. Since most linear broadcasters will either move to a software-based deployment for their channels themselves or give them to a service provider that carries out that transformation for them. The first of a two part article assesses the layout and establishes the benefits of software playout and MCR operations.
For more static or thematic channels which are exclusively scheduled by traffic there is less need for an operator to actively ‘run’ things, but operators will still need experienced staff around to react if there is a problem, or to manage breaking news which would interrupt the schedule.
In the playout environment of managed services provider Red Bee Media, automation is used to assist in the execution of repetitive operational processes, so that human interaction is focused on exceptions to the norm or on complex tasks that humans are simply better at carrying out.
“There are some historically manual operational tasks that now happen entirely automatically and there are some channels that, providing certain rules are followed, can be run with a very light touch,” explains Red Bee Media's Richard Cranefield, Head of Product for Playout Services. “But as many of the channels we deliver inherently need to accommodate multiple live events and late changing commercial content, we need to retain an ability to deal with unpredictability and react quickly to complex and altering scenarios. For that reason, we retain our highly experienced playout staff but make sure they have the support of automated software tools in order to raise the reliability of our output.
Within operations, automation is less about removing people from the equation and more about supporting them in delivering a quality output. It is at the beginning of a new channel’s life, in its deployment, that automation has had most impact on the workforce.
In Red Bee Media’s MCR, automation is used primarily for control and monitoring of acquisition, routing, processing, and distribution whereas it still uses ‘hands and eyes’ for broadcast support, project support, 24/7 service desk and remote assistance with events, studios and news teams.
“Our MCR (and most of the broadcasting industry) is now in a hybrid state, supporting both traditional SDI and IP routing under software-defined control and monitoring technology platforms,” says Kristian Langbridge, Head of Distribution Services, Red Bee Media. “To handle both, you need edge devices capable of converting between the two formats. We won’t be able to fully convert to a software-defined set-up until SDI becomes a legacy format.”
Leaving that aside for one moment, the move to software defined playout and master control is already underway. James Gilbert who co-founded Pixel Power, thinks the lockdown will focus people’s attention on the timing of investments.
“The crisis will adjust the list of requirements for operators shopping for a system. The ability to operate remotely has not been high up the list of considerations until now.”
In the current situation we find ourselves in, a software only approach makes it easier to maintain playout, even if staff need to vacate the building in an emergency.
Evertz reports a number of its customers performing playout from home, which with a hardware-based solution, is just not possible.
All playout systems vendors claim to be software defined and have been tracking this way in their tech development for five or six years. The benefits of a software only approach are just too strong to ignore.
“Upgrades can be effected more quickly and systems are more scalable, enabling broadcasters and media companies to be more reactive to business changes. Integration with third party systems is usually more effective,” says Daniel Robinson, Head of R&D, Pebble Beach. “For solutions which are deployed on virtual machines, the host hardware can be shared with other applications and reused for different applications if, for example, a virtualised channel is decommissioned at the end of a season or event.”
Monitoring by exception can be hugely helpful in enabling efficient operations across multiple channels, reducing headcount whilst not removing the opportunity for human intervention altogether. Having a consolidated view across all channels of any upcoming errors or missing media means that a single operator is presented only with the information that requires attention, enabling them to take remedial action as soon as an issue arises.
Time to market is a key factor. For operators like Red Bee, the benefits of automation and software deployments are felt more at the beginning of a channel’s life. This is not an inconsequential impact. Historically the launch costs of starting a channel, simply in manpower, could be half of the effort dedicated to a basic channel over a five-year period.
When channel infrastructure is built out of bespoke appliances they needed to be unboxed, racked, wired, configured, and tested. At a rough estimate Red Bee reckons an investment of 400 days of effort to get a channel from idea to on-air. In contrast, a refined software deployment can cover the same ground in less than a day.
“Scripts can now launch replicas of a known good channel configuration, for example,” says Cranefield. “Software emulations of appliances from multiple vendors are automatically connected across the existing network and end-to-end testing is also partly automated. We don’t wait for boxes to arrive, no wiremen go into the racks room, there’s no SDI router to expand or appliances to soak test.”
Moving to software only affords a greater range of service flexibility but operational spaces are obviously still physical. In many cases the aim is to emulate the appliance-based way of working in a software world without impacting the operational user experience.
In the MCR, software provides the ability to scale up quickly across private and public cloud infrastructure, add new services and new features without having to refresh expensive hardware.
“It will inevitably reduce the monolithic software stack of many of today’s broadcast solutions into micro services, licensed on a pay-as-you-go basis,” says Langbridge. “This will drive increased competition and ultimately reduce costs for the broadcasters.”
What automation and software deployments have enabled Red Bee Media to do is get greater efficiency and quality out of these operational spaces and the teams that operate within them. Cranefield says that these spaces now have a far less machinery deployed within them, making the rooms cheaper to cool, less noisy and therefore also more pleasant places to work in.
The quality of production output can also be expected to increase as a result of using software only tools. Evertz says its software-defined systems permit customers to increase from one operator per channel, up to as high as one operator per 50 channels, with the human operator providing a safety net to ensure programming is running. That cost saving can be returned back in to the content production, presentation or acquisition.
“It’s worth noting, that the greatest return on investment is when our Mediator-X solution is used to deal with the entire content factory,” says Martin Whittaker, Technical Product Director, Evertz. “That process starts right from the beginning, whether its ingesting or managing production edits or scripts, integrating with Avid and Premiere Pro, processing content through third party automated checks, utilising AI and ML where possible, even producing, managing and delivering packages for VOD and Direct to Consumer platforms.”
By Adrian Pennington | The Broadcast Bridge | Published 22nd May 2020
Playout automation has been enabling fewer people to control more channels for decades but we’re not quite at the point where human interaction can be eliminated altogether. Since most linear broadcasters will either move to a software-based deployment for their channels themselves or give them to a service provider that carries out that transformation for them, The Broadcast Bridge assesses the benefits and the challenges in so doing. Part II examines the crucial role of IP and the workflows and skillsets needed to operate such infrastructure.
The major premise of software-defined operations is to consign proprietary and hard to interoperate equipment and siloed workflows to history.
IP, and especially uncompressed IP, is the stepping stone. That said, the vast majority of playout infrastructures are still SDI, and a baseband solution is inherently incapable of being software only.
“Key to the transition will be the widespread adoption of open standards which enable interoperability between different vendors’ solutions in the IP environment,” says Daniel Robinson, Head of R&D, Pebble Beach.
Initiatives from AMWA, the Advanced Media Workflow Association who are developing NMOS (Networked Media Open Specification) are helping to drive this forward.
James Gilbert, Pixel Power, agrees, “We need standards and ST2110 only touches the surface of what is really needed to have software-defined best of breed systems in which you can connect video between different vendor’s products. What is not standardised is the control layer and that needs a big amount of work although AMWA and NMOS are working in the right direction.
“Inevitably there will be certain pieces of the puzzle which will stay with the vendor since it will be impractical and inefficient to open it up completely.”
There are many benefits to be gained from deploying a channel in the cloud. For service providers, MCOs, sports broadcasters, and corporates, virtualised playout can deliver an affordable option to deploy or contract IP-based channels instantly without the burden of racks of complicated hardware, and weeks or months of setup and provisioning.
But questions remain about the economic, logistical and technical benefits to the end user, and judging by the high volume of on-premises playout solutions that Pebble Beach install and commission – whether IP or baseband - it’s clear that this path is not one that every broadcaster or media company is ready to follow.
“Adding a virtualised infrastructure adds an extra layer of complexity and specific new requirements into the mix,” explains Robinson. “Don’t underestimate the level of in-house expertise you will need access to in order to implement a full-scale virtualised platform. Make no mistake, you will need to understand every nut and bolt of your virtual environment. In the more traditional set-up you will own the playout device and the vendor will take full responsibility for how that device performs, what benchmarks it complies with etc.
“However, with a virtualised solution, the vendor is simply the software provider, meaning that you, or your nominated representative, have responsibility for the overall performance of the virtualised platform and networks.”
Robinson adds that buying a bare metal box, a certain amount of RAM and a number of CPU cores will give you a reasonably predictable performance under given circumstances, but when you put your application on to a hypervisor, you are adding a whole new layer of software between you and the hardware which has a potentially huge number of ‘tweakables’.
“Don’t forget to check that your chosen hypervisor supports the disk drives and storage you want to use with your COTS hardware. If you need to change your hypervisor will your hardware be supported?”
Failure scenarios and failover contingencies needs to be considered. Who or what will be switching IP streams? If your VM fails, you may lose the transport stream altogether. Can your downstream distribution deal with no stream at all? Where are your IP streams going? Can you test them?
Shift in skillsets and workflows
Moving to any new workflow, whether it is an all IP or an all software architecture, does require new training and/or skill sets. Gilbert finds that operators are usually on board with any change in working practice.
“We don’t encounter resistance to that and part of that secret is involving them in procurement process so they can look at alternate solutions and feedback.
That’s not to say that the lines between traditional broadcast and IT aren’t blurring. In future there will be no distinction. In the past you needed technicians who understood how to hook up video signal and monitor Tektronix scopes. Now its Dev Ops and agile scrum developments to orchestrate solutions from different manufacturers. They need to understand the language of rest APIs as well as how to operate a scope.”
In the MCR, broadcast engineering competence will shift towards Python and C suite, high bit rate media transport technologies SMPTE 2110 / 2022, TCP/IP, and containerisation.
Such skills may simply be part and parcel of the incoming workforce. “Software defined technology will help attract young generations into the industry,” Gilbert says.
Aside from client training, Evertz have also tried to eliminate the learning curve, by creating UIs and feature sets to provide something that feels the same as operators are used to.
“For example, when we come to routing in a MCR environment, Evertz MAGNUM and VUE provides the same source, destination take familiarity, even if in the background its routing feeds up and down from the public cloud,” says Martin Whittaker, Technical Product Director, Evertz.
It is hard to be specific about what workflows might emerge but we can say that workflows are no longer set in stone and they evolve constantly and iteratively. We are now in a world where we are continuously tweaking and refining our operational practice and customer experience.
“Leveraging faster release cycles from the vendors we partner with as well as carrying out a significant amount of development in-house allows us to solve small issues with quick feature releases or small applications,” says Richard Cranefield, Head of Product for Playout Services, Red Bee Media.
It’s important to note that you won’t just need to measure the behaviour of the playout software application; you also need to monitor the behaviour of the entire infrastructure. Simply verifying that video and audio are playing does not give you the full picture. The range of available monitoring options in an SDI environment usually far exceeds those available in the IP domain. Diagnostics can be harder for IP too, so you’ll need to investigate what tools are at your disposal, as well as staff who are able to interpret the results.
“Operational monitoring is also critically important, especially in public cloud scenarios,” Robinson alerts. “As well as monitoring latencies and considering how and where your operators will monitor the playout, you need to consider any control latencies that will need to be added. Playout automation may need to send out control commands taking into account the monitoring latency for the user.”
The transport streams a playout infrastructure generates will go through the enterprise network switches and so can overload the network bandwidth potentially impacting on-air performance. That’s despite the fact that the playout software application may be running on a completely separate network.
Robinson’s advice is to check that the playout software vendor will give you access to the raw data that shows how the application is really performing on the virtualised platform. Among the multitude of parameters that can be measured, the sleep/wake time of processors of certain hypervisors may not be good enough for real time playout, he says. Latencies and behaviour will vary depending on the hypervisor you test.
The principal barriers to achieving a transition to truly virtualised playout and MCR operation are time and expertise, according to Red Bee Media which has gone through the process. Its platform is entirely software-based, including multi-viewers, and alarms and monitoring.
“We believe that you have to emulate all of your legacy appliances in software and not just some of them,” reports Cranefield. “To do so has meant integrating emerging technologies from multiple vendors and taking on responsibility for the performance of the hardware that those technologies now run on. In taking software from broadcast vendors and then running on our own cloud we’ve taken on responsibility for the fabric that everything runs on. The cloud infrastructure is now the part of the system that would have been the PCB in an old-world appliance. Who is accountable for a ‘device’ not working is now much more blurred, so we have had to upskill our engineering and network teams to deal with a greater level of responsibility in keeping the platform working, or understanding why parts of it are not.”
The R&D project that got Red Bee to this position lasted two years and was deliberately not pegged to any customer projects until they’d nailed it.
“Many broadcasters who want to undertake software transformation for themselves will still have to do this work, but they may struggle to dedicate the time and cost of developing the intellectual property required to get it right and can only leverage that investment over their own channels,” he says.