The Vanishing Broadcast Infrastructure

As broadcasters moved from analog to digital, new doors opened to automating processes—and important to the front office—the possibility of lowering staff costs. Above, Ross Overdrive can enable live production and playout to be managed with a minimal staff.

As television studios began moving from analog to digital technology, building the broadcast infrastructure became far more complex. Facilities were suddenly faced with a collection of analog, digital and file-based islands of equipment that had to be interconnected and work flawlessly together.

Not only that, when computers took over control of such facilities, a second infrastructure of computer network components had to be overlaid with the broadcast infrastructure. Broadcast facilities began to take on a very different look after the analog era.

This complexity suggested a solution. All the components in the broadcast plant, which had to operate simultaneously and without image degradation, needed to be easier to assemble and customized for each unique facility. So a building block approach was begun that allowed broadcasters to purchase plug-and-play modules that would work together. The modules made up a smart, flexible and centrally controlled infrastructure.

By “smart,” I mean a computer-controlled infrastructure that automatically configures new modules as they are plugged in. With a set of smart infrastructure building blocks, engineers can build bridges between different generations of broadcast equipment and adapt quickly to an ever-changing palette of new requirements and services.

An early leader in this area was Snell with its IQ Modular line of plug-and-play components. With over 400 modules now in production, complex systems can be put together and altered quickly. Snell’s automated control and monitoring systems keeps them all running with minimal operator intervention. Turner Broadcasting System in Atlanta runs on more than 7,000 Snell IQ Modules supplying more than 30 channels around the world.

The Snell IQ products can process and manage a wide range of signal types, from SD to HD and up to 3G. The system uses two enclosure sizes, 1U, which can house up to four modules and 4U, which houses up to 16 modules.

There are currently over 250,000 Snell modules in service globally. They include format conversion, fiber interfacing, audio processing, loudness monitoring, signal path protection, intelligent monitoring and quality control, synchronizers, distribution amplifiers and routers — all capable of operating at any resolution and with the flexibility of being used in multiple ways and configurations.

The integrated intelligence in the design of such a system provide major benefits and flexibility for broadcasters at all stages in a period of constant change. For example, a small broadcast station can upgrade to a digital switcher while still using analog studio cameras. Bridges can be built between the two generations of equipment while preserving the best image quality possible. Larger facilities can bridge an existing SDI plant with HD and file-based technologies.

Another company with its own take on broadcast infrastructure is Harmonic, with its Spectrum Media Server Solutions. It provides a modular platform for growth and quick change as well, simplifying playout workflows with channel-in-a-box solutions.

Harmonic’s MediaPort 7000 I/O modules perform system-wide encoding and decoding for real-time ingest and playout of content on Spectrum media servers.

The modules attach in manageable increments so that Spectrum systems can be configured to meet exact requirements for channel count and video compression formats. When expansion is needed, additional MediaPort 7000 modules can be added without taking down the system.

MediaPort modules accurately capture and replay all information contained in the video stream — including VBI and VANC. The modules support up to 16 channels of embedded audio — fully supporting even the most demanding multi-language broadcasting requirements.

Codec support on MediaPort 7000 units include SD/HD MPEG-2, SD DV (DV 25, DVCPRO 25, DVCPRO 50), DVCPRO HD, XDCAM HD, ProRes 422, AVC-Intra (Class 50 and Class 100) and VC-3 (SMPTE 2019-1). All codecs present in the modules are available for frame-accurate back-to-back playout.

Of course, because computers tie together and control most broadcast facilities today, they must be networked in the facility as well. KVM switches (for “keyboard, video and mouse”) allow a user to control multiple computers via software from one or more keyboard, video monitor and mouse. Hardware KVMs connect a smaller number of computers together and are typically port and distance constrained.

Black Box Network Services, a systems integrator based in Lawrence, Pennsylvania, provides KVM technologies specifically for broadcast studio operations and control. The technology allows the physical separation of users and their computers, provides a quiet environment for directors and others without background noise and heat, gives the user real time access to servers with no connection issues, and also integrates SDI video, studio touchscreens, keyboards and other input devices.

KVM Extenders transmit from the central equipment room to end users. The transmitter of the KVM Extender encodes the signals (video, USB, audio and serial) from the computer and sends them over a transmission media such as optical fiber or CATx cable, to the receiver of the KVM Extender in broadcast control or the studio.

The receiver provides ports to connect all devices (mouse, keyboard, monitor, audio speakers, USB devices, etc.) required by the users. These individual extensions can be easily combined through a KVM Switching system, to establish a cost effective and high performance switching matrix. Using existing network infrastructure, video signals can be transmitted simultaneously with peripheral signals (such as a mouse or keyboard) while the USB interface ensures easy integration.

Switching is instant and can be controlled centrally or directly by the user via hotkey commands. KVM systems can be combined with external control devices that enable an IT system to connect with broadcast signals.

There are a wide range of studio technologies to choose from. However, one thing all broadcasters should keep in mind is that technology is quickly moving away from individual hardware components. Many separate devices formerly used in broadcast facilities are now collapsing into integrated software.

This is being driven by economics, which changed dramatically after the economic crash of 2008. Integrated software is much cheaper to purchase and to operate and may be easily updated. It started with channel-in-a-box technology and is now heading toward single integrated systems that can run an entire television facility. Just as important, the new technology can be operated by a single person, which translates into lower labor costs.

One good example of automated integration is Ross Video, a company that has continued to combine the functionality of its products — gradually making virtually all its major products compatible with its OverDrive broadcast automation technology.

At IBC in 2014, Ross announced the integration of its OverDrive Automated Production Control System and mid-priced Carbonite Production Switcher Series. This integration makes automated production available to many more price sensitive customers given the lower cost of a Carbonite systems versus larger production switchers.

Scott Bowditch, marketing product manager for the Ross Video Over Drive automation product.

“We’ve had customer requests for some time to integrate OverDrive with Carbonite so that the benefits of automated production can be enjoyed without requiring a large, expensive production switcher,” said Scott Bowditch, marketing product manager for OverDrive. “The combination of OverDrive with Carbonite creates a high-end production automation solution for a mid-market price that is unmatched in the market today.”

By combining Carbonite with OverDrive, Ross is driving the cost of the automated technology down. In the past three years, Ross also purchased two robotic camera companies, integrating their technology in OverDrive. As this automation trend continues, fewer and fewer people and component parts will be needed to operate a broadcast station.

Overdrive is already in operation at several television stations of the Sinclair Broadcast Group. NBC is using the technology at its O&O stations in Los Angeles, Chicago and soon at WNBC in New York City.

The drive to station automation and vast changes in broadcast infrastructure is moving fast — driven by economics and more powerful computer technology.

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