The broadcast industry is undergoing significant changes that impact nearly all aspects of business and technical operations. In this Q&A sit-down, Ian Valentine, engineer and business director, Video Products at Tektronix discusses three major trends impacting the broadcasting industry, covering both content production and delivery. As Valentine explains, these trends will require that video engineers and technicians adapt to some significant changes and embrace new tools and workflows.
Q: The video industry is undergoing significant change. What’s your perspective?
A: Indeed, it’s no secret that the broadcast industry is changing—it’s changing, quite literally, in front of our eyes. From the quality of content to the platform we view it on, from the standards we follow to the methods we use to deliver content, the broadcast industry has never been in the midst of so much change at once.
The broadcast industry can be grouped into two primary segments: the front-end, including content creation and production, and the back-end, the actual delivery of that content to the home. It’s not just one or the other of these segments that’s in transition—there are big shifts occurring in both the production and delivery of content. These shifts make our role as a supplier of quality solutions critical to enabling our customers to successfully navigate through what could be some pretty stormy waters.
Q: Let’s start with the front end. What are the trends you’re focused on?
A: Starting with the front-end, the first trend is a shift from a point-to-point Serial Digital Interface (SDI) connection to an Internet Protocol (IP) connection for moving video around the facility and through processes. This switch presents a huge change for broadcast engineers. You have is a situation where broadcast engineers now are having to deal with a network as opposed to the traditional SDI point-to-point single connection. In SDI environments engineers know what’s being carried on the wire, in a network environment they’re having to deal with a lot of content on a single pipe.
Although cost saving is often quoted as being the main reason driving this trend, it is clear that those savings aren’t there yet. What’s really driving this trend is the system flexibility offered by switching to an IP network. As standards and format requirements change and expand in the future there should be less reason to rip up and replace the broadcast facility infrastructure.
The second major trend in the front-end is the increasing use of wide color gamuts (WCG) and High Dynamic Range (HDR). This trend differentiates itself from past transitions, such as monochrome to color, color to SD, and SD to HD, in that it’s driven not by consumer demand so much as by the industry itself. Many broadcasters and content providers see WCG and HDR as a way to differentiate themselves from other providers and will allow them to compete more effectively against the new generation of streaming media providers.
The difficulty with this trend is that many of the current instruments in the industry are unable to measure high dynamic range, and a mix of technologies means content producers may find themselves switching back and forth between the different technologies. What Tektronix has done is introduce a set of tools that will help our customers transition between those environments.
Q: And what about the back end or the delivery segment?
A: The critical change here is the transition from linear delivery of content to over-the-top (OTT). In essence, this describes the transition from a traditional cable TV model to video streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. If you’re a provider of linear content and you have a network that’s set up to do that, you’re going to end up having to deal with both linear and OTT technologies to deliver to the home. Both use different technologies to get the content to your home and apart from the costs of having to encode your content twice for delivery through the different networks, OTT is a complex technology with opportunities for a lot to go wrong.
One of the difficulties with delivering OTT content is that it must account for the bandwidth of the end user. When the content is encoded, it must be broken up into small chunks (say every two seconds), each of which is then divided into profiles of varying resolution and bitrate. Stitching this all together for the end user is no easy task. That’s why we’ve developed tools to ensure that there is frame alignment across all of the different profiles to ensure that should a switch occur it is invisible to the viewer.
Tektronix also provides tools to check whether OTT files are encoded correctly, but there’s a second difficulty of OTT content delivery: encryption. Since OTT content is encrypted before being sent to the end user, it can be difficult to monitor the actual quality of the asset being sent to the user which can have a large impact on their user experience. To help with this, we have developed mechanisms to help people de-encrypt the content that’s there as authorized users within the network. Working with network operators we have been able to safely and legally de-encrypt and tell providers whether a piece of content is going to be okay when it gets delivered. This is important as it will help to reduce churn at a time where it is increasingly easy for viewers to switch providers.
Q: Does content assurance and measuring Quality of Experience have a place in OTT content delivery?
A: The short answer to this question is yes. As we have become more involved in monitoring OTT content being streamed in real customer networks we have noticed there are differences in how customers talk about QoE. In the OTT world QoE tends to be associated with viewer statistics -- how long did it take to find a requested asset, how long did it take to start streaming to the viewer, how long did the viewer watch it and so on. It’s important to understand these parameters especially if you are an advertiser or a content provider.
What is often overlooked is the common denominator for all of this, the quality of the actual content provided. It is good to know that the content got delivered, but it is vital to know that what was delivered was good, problem free, high quality content. If it is not, the real quality of experience will be poor and viewers will not tolerate this for long. The new OTT models make it easier than ever to switch suppliers if viewers are dissatisfied with the quality of what is being provided. Customer acquisition and retention is a major cost for providers and protection against churn is of paramount importance.
Q: Transitions in the video often take many years to gain wide adoptions? How is Tektronix helping customers get through transition periods?
A: Let’s consider the SDI to IP transition here. While the ultimate goal may be an end-to-end IP infrastructure, huge investments in existing technology and workflows mean that video and network engineers will need the tools to diagnose and correlate both SDI and IP signal types. Some monitors convert IP inputs signal into an SDI signal at the front end, but such an approach lacks true IP media analysis or detailed diagnoses of IP traffic issues.
The ideal monitoring solution for a hybrid IP/SDI network is one that can perform a diverse variety of IP layer measurements as well as monitor video and audio content. Monitoring and ease of use are critical to ensuring QoS (Quality of Service) levels across complex broadcast environments with transmissions through SDI and IP signal paths, and that’s something we’ve worked hard to deliver in our PRISM hybrid SDI/IP monitoring platform. The great thing is that since this instrument is actually software-based, we can continually roll out updates that accommodate today’s fluid and rapidly changing production environments.
Ian Valentine, engineer and business director of video products at Tektronix
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