While the growing momentum behind so-called channel-in-a-box technology is intriguing and makes a lot of sense, some broadcast engineers say tech vendors have jumped the gun, racing to market with technology that is not mature enough for American TV station operations. “The single box units are now being utilized more for cable channels than anything else,” says Sinclair’s Del Parks. “At the end of the day, a TV station is probably a little more complex to the degree that it may need some specific pieces of equipment.”
TV Techs Doubt IT-Based Playout Readiness
Top broadcast equipment vendors are rushing to market with advanced IT-based playout technology that they believe can now handle master control in complex, news-producing commercial TV stations.
Last week’s announcement that Grass Valley had acquired PubliTronic and entered the market already crowded by Miranda, Florical, Evertz, Snell and Pixel Power, plus talk that Harris and Harmonic may be developing products have created a sense that the technology is poised to make a real impact in local TV broadcasting.
But broadcast engineers contacted by TVNewsCheck say the vendors have jumped the gun, racing to market with the so-called channel-in-a-box technology that is not mature enough for American TV station operations.
“They all work on the surface and the idea makes a lot of sense,” said Dave Folsom, chief technology officer at Raycom Media. “But when it comes down to it, each of these systems falls short a little bit. I’ve been checking with my peers to compare notes and to make sure I’m not seeing it incorrectly. A lot of the big groups are doing the same thing for the same reasons and we are all coming to the same conclusion.”
Folsom said he has challenged the manufacturers, telling them what the systems need to do. “Each one said, ‘Yeah, ours will do that.’ But when you get down to it, you find out they really can’t.”
In essence, channel-in-a-box technology integrates many pieces of traditional hardware that make up the master control and playout chain — switchers, servers, graphics, channel branding, audio and routing — into a single software application that runs on generic IT-based hardware.
Del Parks, VP of engineering and operations for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, also likes the idea, but not what he is seeing so far.
“The single box units are now being utilized more for cable channels than anything else,” Parks said. “At the end of the day, a TV station is probably a little more complex to the degree that it may need some specific pieces of equipment.
“We’ve just designed new master control rooms for our stations and we’ve deployed about eight or nine of them so far. Because of everything that occurs outside of playback, you’ve really got to have that variety of specialized equipment.”
Sinclair is actually doing “a channel in three racks” rather than in a box, he said. “It’s about as compact as you can make a master control room these days and still have all the functionality and specialized equipment that you still need.”
At Belo, Craig Harper, VP and chief technology officer, said he has yet to test the technology, he is following the trend with interest.
“I know about Grass Valley’s acquisition and I think it was smart move for them,” Harper said. “They’ll refine it and I think that might make it more palatable for commercial broadcasters. Maybe this will be the change in that paradigm — having a real broadcast company owning that kind of technology. It’s definitely something we will keep up with, but at this moment I don’t have any real interest in it.”
Jim Ocon, VP of technology at Gray Television, is also following the technology closely. “Part of the challenge for any company that wants to do an automated production control is the translation into the traffic system. This is especially true with station groups like Gray,” Ocon said.
“You want to make sure that things like secondary events are handled well. I think this is a good trend, but it comes down to how your core network infrastructure is already architected.”
Ocon and Folsom said they are experimenting with the technology, but neither would name the vendor or vendors they are working with.
In an effort to test all emerging broadcast technologies, Gray has set-up a broadcast testing laboratory at Ross Video in Ontario, Ocon said. “Ross is very good at being neutral. I’ve invited all the Gray vendors to submit equipment and software.
“If a company wants to come in and plug in their box to see if its works, we’d like that. We were tired of waiting for the development to come from the factories, so now we are just doing it ourselves.”
One channel-in-a-box fan in the station ranks is Commonwealth Public Broadcasting in Richmond, Va., which last April installed Snell’s ICE system at three separate stations—WCVE and WCVW in Richmond and WHTJ in Charlottesville.
“We bring all our ingest into the ICE off our PBS satellite receiver,” said Mark Spiller, VP of engineering and digital operations at Commonwealth. “We also have an Omneon SD server that we had prior to our digital upgrade. We take our Omneon files and transfer those over to the ICE and play those out through the ICE up-conversion.”
Spiller said that ICE serves as a switcher. “You can bring ICE into an existing switcher and have it as an HD server playout or you can bring SD files into the ICE and play out upconverted files out of the output.”
Joe Zaller, president of Devoncroft Partners and a representative of the International Association of Broadcasting Manufacturers, said there is major interest in channel-in-a-box technology throughout the world. “Without a doubt, the global market is looking for ways to do more with less and be more efficient. This technology absolutely fits that bill.”
That said, Zaller is not surprised at the skepticism expressed by broadcast engineers. “Very little is more mission critical than what this technology replaces in the broadcast chain,” he said. “This is a very big shift. It’s not that the software has to do one big thing, but it has to do a thousand small things and do each of them as well as current hardware products.”
But the engineers are talking to the vendors about the technology, he said. “That means there is a lot of activity and opportunity ahead. We are in the early days of an important trend.”