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Playout & Transmission Global Viewpoint – February 2016

The Need For Automation

Technology makes it easier than ever to manage playout. Even so, as broadcasters increase the number of program streams they provide, it soon may reach the point where the playout task could be better handled by even more sophisticated automation systems or those that specialize in centralized automated playout and services.

I recently purchased a new television set. After almost a month with the set in place, today I took some time to browse through the non-broadcast options. I was both amazed at the quantity and dismayed by the quality of some of the Internet-sourced entertainment.

Like many, if not most, new television sets, the 4K display came with a full complement of what the company calls “Extras”. There is even a special button to call up those features. But in drilling down into those features I came away less enthused with the offerings than I had hoped.

The non-broadcast extras

Of course there were the common extra features/channels, some of which I had earlier tried with my Apple TV. Those included Netflix and YouTube. The new set provided access to a much greater range of options to waste my time. With the new television I can now access, in addition to the Internet, HBO Go, Amazon Video, VUDU, sports, weather and about 30 other ‘channels’ and games

Most disappointing were the games. One game, called “Cave of Hades”, is nothing more than a simplified version of the popular game Tetris. Have you ever tried to play Tetris with a TV remote-control’s arrow buttons. Once was sufficient for me.

Today's televisions come with a plethora of extra, non-broadcast, programs, channels and gaming features. Image: Amazon

Today's televisions come with a plethora of extra, non-broadcast, programs, channels and gaming features. Image: Amazon

I then tried the game “Dracula’s Coffin”. Here the gamer tries to move Dracula’s coffin from sitting on top of some boxes to ground level by rearranging storeroom boxes so the coffin falls lower until it is at ground level. Again, press arrow, hit enter, press another arrow—oh darn, timed out! I have an Apple iPad game called "Unblock Me", which is offers a similar scenario, but with a much better GUI.

A hint to the effort Samsung put into the games was the English used in the game Help Menus. Some of the games’ instructions used obviously improper English. Here is one example; “Dracula must go to sleep, but his coffin is stack!....Beware you have only limited amount of move before you run out of stength.” No, the word strength is spelled just like you see it in the previous sentence. And the other grammar mistakes also are from the game instructions.

I hope the electronics were assembled with more attention to detail.

Broadcasters do better

In a roundabout way, the less than exemplary quality control my TV's "extra" channels reminded me of my early days in television.

While working in TV I never saw the local newscast begin with misspelled words or poor grammar. The graphics were always correctly spelled and used proper English. Staff was expected to get things right or get out of the business.

Before servers, tapes had to be loaded, cued for proper playback by a TD or engineer. At one of the stations I worked, we had to log all errors, even black lasting more than two seconds.

As broadcasters face the need to deliver new and more channels, it becomes harder for managers, engineers and operators to cross every t and dot every i--even with automation.

Moving forward, local stations may need to distribute multiple channels. How many output feeds can one station handle before it becomes too many?

Moving forward, local stations may need to distribute multiple channels. How many output feeds can one station handle before it becomes too many?

Managing multiple channels

Today, technology and automation makes it much easier to manage playout channels, even multiple ones. Even so, broadcasters may soon reach the point where it becomes more efficient to hand that task to other vendors.

European broadcasters have long left the physical playout business to others. Instead of spending millions of Euros on Cap-X hardware for each station location, they centralize the playout functions to specialists. Now the costs become Op-X charges. No more software updates, replacing drives, and in general, spending money chasing technology.

But the US has yet to widely adopt the pay-for-playout model. Perhaps it is based in an over-sized technical ego. Engineers often want local control over their systems. But market conditions may force changes in this model.

Cloud to the rescue

One key factor in outsourcing playout is the cloud. It is accessible everywhere, has almost zero up-front cost and off loads a 24x7 staffing situation. Is the solution perfect? No, but it deserves consideration. And, the cloud may offer the best of both worlds, off-site playout, but on-site control.

Some benefits a cloud solution brings to content playout:

●Redundancy and resiliency can be easily accommodated with a cloud playout solution.

●Scaling no longer becomes a CAP-X expense, often requiring months of planning. Additional servers can be spun up in minutes to handle higher, but temporary, loads.

●SaaS solutions are a simplifier solution for the broadcaster. Forget about computer code, data file formats and needing a IT crew that wouldn't know video if it bit them. Instead, a playout partner can handle all of that.

●The playout system can be controlled from anywhere with a simple GUI.

●Lower costs and no front-end investment.

With software as the solution, engineering and business managers need no longer be concerned about ROI on hardware. There is no maintenance, no upkeep and little staff training required.

Cloud playout is not perfect for every situation. Channel-in-a-box solutions are inexpensive and easily incorporated into a broadcast workflow. Automation can be as inexpensive (or expensive) as you want. Today's automation solutions are far more reliable, even cost effective, than ever and service can be "part of the deal".

Let us know what you think…

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