A host of tech players are introducing new integrated master control technology at this year’s NAB Show. However, the fast-growing technology is not yet for everyone. “There are many reasons why traditional automation is still very viable for a lot of companies,” says Miranda’s Scott Rose. “But integration is really the trend. It’s too early to say traditional automation has had its day. There are still a lot of uses for it. But I don’t know many station engineers who want more boxes in an even longer chain.”
Channel-in-a-box technology may be the “new thing” in master control automation at this year’s NAB Show, but most major hardware vendors — even those selling it — warn it’s not yet for every customer. That’s mainly because TV channels vary in sophistication, and complex installations may work best with traditional control room automation.
By definition, channel-in-a-box term means collapsing the many pieces that make up the traditional master control and playout chain — switchers, servers, graphics, channel branding, audio and routing — into a single integrated software application that runs on generic IT-based hardware. This integration, proponents say, makes it simpler to install and maintain, and cheaper to purchase and operate.
Driving the trend to more integrated control rooms is the expansion of channels across new viewing platforms. Broadcasters are expanding with subchannels without clear predictability of profit. They don’t want to spend a lot of money on hardware or operators.
“It’s always interesting when someone says I have a channel and I want a channel-in-a-box,” said Tom Gittins, director of sales at Pebble Beach Systems. “You always have to define what they think a channel is.
“There’s a wide spectrum of channel requirements from relatively simple click-based playback from local storage to hugely complex output chains with multiple tiers, multiple master control switchers, Dolby D encoding and re-encoding and re-synchronization. For more complex installations, we think it will be some time before a channel-in-a-box offers a solution,” Gittins added.
At NAB, Pebble Beach is joining a host of major players, including Grass Valley, Harmonic and Harris, in introducing new integrated master control technology, whether they call it channel-in-a-box or by another name. These will join pioneers Florical, Miranda, Snell and many other smaller companies in this fast-growing category.
Grass Valley, which purchased PubliTronic, a broadcast automation company, last fall, is introducing its K2 Edge playout solution at NAB. Based on PubliTronic’s technology, the new Grass Valley unit beefs up the computing frame and adds graphics and video capability. It’s aiming for the high end of the market.
“We offer a professional broadcast solution rather than taking some IT and trying to use it in the broadcast domain,” said Harold Vermeulen, vice president of media playout solutions at Grass Valley. “We have taken the best from it and specialized it for broadcast functionality.”
K2 Edge is a superior option to an automation system driving a number of discrete systems, Vermeulen said. “The big difference is where we are in time. We, as vendors, will grow in our experience. We will be able to replace all the automation as well, but that will take time.
“For some customers, it’s here now. For others, it’s not here yet. We strongly believe in three years that every automation vendor will have integrated solutions; every server vendor will have graphics and automation; and every graphics vendor will have automation and servers. That’s very clearly the route the market is taking.”
Though channel-in-a-box is still a relatively new technology, Vermeulen said many of Grass Valley’s customers have told the company this is the last time they will go the traditional route for master control automation. “We are almost there to take the integrated route, but we have some legacy equipment still there or its too big a change for the operators.”
Harmonic is also new to the channel-in-a-box market, but is taking a unique approach since the company already has more than 10,000 Omneon Spectrum servers in the North American market.
The company’s video server architecture has three components: the server, storage and a MediaPort, which is effectively an encoder/decoder device. Harmonic’s new channel-in-a-box device is called ChannelPort. It replaces the MediaPort and is backward-compatible to all Omneon devices.
“Within ChannelPort we have branding capability so you can do tickers, bugs, logos and lower thirds. Its dynamic text rendering capability can be used for things like emergency systems. You can pass your triggers, audio and text feeds directly to ChannelPort and it will dynamically switch to your emergency template,” said Simon Eldridge, product line management for applications at Harmonic.
Harmonic teamed with Adobe to create an engine in ChannelPort that will port any broadcast graphics to the new system. Though ChannelPort runs on commodity hardware, Eldridge said the company offers customized computing packages that increase density and lower power consumption. The cost, he said, is a fraction of other solutions since users can plug-and-play ChannelPort with existing servers.
Harris is another major player expected to show some sort of channel-in-a-box product at NAB, though the company is not calling it that or exactly describing it. “At NAB, we will continue to evolve our products into an overall content delivery platform that will support linear and nonlinear delivery of a complete content lifecycle,” said Chris Simons, vice president of automation and asset management at Harris.
“Although linear playout still generates the vast majority of our customers’ income, they have to support an increase in the number of additional platforms. That needs to be integrated into an overall system. We will be showing the evolution of our product to support that mixed platform approach.”
Harris said it will show a new human interface dashboard at NAB that integrates both video- and file-based workflows. A single user can adjust all parameters on the fly. The company will also introduce new file-based workflows, including ones that allows users to support elements in the cloud.
“We want to make sure that our channel-in-a-box solution, when we launch it, is capable of integrating into existing workflows,” said Simons. “We don’t want to force our customers into this, but have them move forward when they are ready.”
At Crispin, the company will partner at NAB with another vendor on a yet unannounced “lean mean” box, said COO-CTO Rodney Mood, who played down the importance of channel-in-a-box systems.
“We keep hearing that while channel-in-a-box is an intriguing value proposition, not many people are realizing the savings there,” said Mood. “So when you say it’s cheaper, you’ve got to quantify that with measurable variables. What makes it cheaper? Is it upfront cost or ongoing maintenance? What we’re seeing is that value hasn’t quite been delivered. It’s more than just a buzz word, but I’m not sure it’s the only solution.”
With hundreds of channels of master control automation including NBC and CBS Sports, Crispin is a leader in master control automation. New to its traditional systems this NAB will be real-time BXF integration with WideOrbit’s traffic and automation systems and more tools for managing a file-based workflow. “Those two things people have been wanting for years,” Mood said.
As for cost effectiveness, Mood cited Crispin’s Cameo and Veranda, two new software-as-a-service products for broadcast stations and cable operators. Cameo and Veranda automate and optimize master control operations and include all hardware, software, training and ongoing support and warranty at a fixed monthly subscription fee.
Cameo is a single server automation solution with a starting price of $399 per month for a single channel and $150 per month for additional channels. Veranda is a full-spectrum automation solution for larger multichannel operations that can benefit from asset management tools.
“You buy nothing and we control it all,” said Mood. “We provide all the hardware. If you want a better cost-per-channel, try this solution. It’s more cost effective than channel-in-a-box.”
Utah Scientific, with about 800 channels of master control installations in the U.S., is sticking with its traditional automation systems for now. “Channel-in-a-box will be a growing thing, but right now it’s not established enough that it’s pushing into our space very much,” said Scott Bosen, director of marketing and international sales for Utah Scientific.
“The old story is when you buy something in a shrink wrapped package you’ve got to take all the pieces that come along with it,” he said. “But if you like company A’s automation and company B’s master control, you gotta pick one. We live in the space where people want to pick the best of breed for one of those items. What will really cause it to change is when people start working more with files rather than chunks of video. At the station level, however, files are really not there yet.”
At NAB, Utah Scientific’s new product introduction involves enhanced master control graphics. In one example, the company is moving a newsroom function to master control. “We can handle a news ticker being fed 24/7 by an external news service or sports scores,” Bosen said. “What customers are doing is selling that news ticker as a sponsored item. It’s like a new revenue stream for the stations.”
Pioneering channel-in-a-box companies are ready to take on new competition at NAB and have been doing enhancements on their own. The Snell Group said it is doing a major channel-in-a-box project for one of the Big Four networks, but could not yet name it. “We are finding that people are now ready to deploy this technology in primetime on premium channels,” said Neil Maycock, Snell’s chief architect. “That’s a big change.”
Snell, which combines its ICE channel-in-a-box product with Morpheus automation, has added integrated 3D graphics and computer graphics functionality with timeline control and the ability to populate fields from Morpheus automation schedule events, as well as external data sources. Integrated SAN storage brings shared storage to the platform and aids in optimizing system performance and overall broadcast workflows.
In Morpheus v3.0, Snell will demonstrate new second-screen capabilities, such as enhanced e-commerce functionality with user transaction and purchase models, and other tools that allow broadcasters to monetize their assets via second-screen applications. Version 3.0 offers virtual machine support that facilitates lower space and power requirements while improving system resilience.
Addressing criticism from some broadcasters that channel-in-a-box technology won’t do everything they want, Maycock offered a reality check. “None of the products are ever going to have all the features that everybody wants,” he said. “One of the nice things about ICE is that anything we don’t have in the box can be done with Morpheus. Any third-party device can be connected to Morpheus and integrated into the whole system. We offer a hybrid approach to embrace any device, where others don’t.”
Florical is continuing to enhance its Acuitas channel-in-a-box system. “We are adding more file type playback, better graphics capability and are enhancing the quality for up-conversion,” said Shawn Maynard, vice president and general manager of Florical Systems. “We are partnering with Matrox, who is providing some new video cards that offer higher scale up-conversion.”
“What separates us from most companies is that all of our stuff is non-proprietary,” said Maynard. “We OEM the Matrox board, we don’t do any custom firmware, we don’t do custom software and we utilize off-the-shelf HD server hardware. We’re not putting our customers in a box that they can’t enhance their set-up without dealing with the vendor.”
Miranda, maker of the iTX system, is also a veteran in the channel-in-a-box business, now running more than 1,000 channels around the world and 400 channels at a single U.S. facility, which it would not name. For NAB, the company is adding Miranda’s XG graphics to the iTX system.
“This is perhaps the first time you will see this level of graphics power in a channel-in-a box,” said Scott Rose, product manager for iTX. “Graphics is being driven by the need to cross-promote channels more. Audiences are becoming so fragmented across different platforms. Broadcasters need to drive their audiences to platforms where they actually make money. This branding is also critical on over-the-top, IPTV and video-on-demand. Those platforms are not really making a lot of revenue yet.”
Change is in the air in the channel-in-a-box and master control automation markets, Rose said. “In the past year we are hearing that people who previously wouldn’t have considered it are taking a second look. They have no new staffing budget for the new screens so they need to drive more efficiency.”
Yet, Rose admitted, the technology is not yet for everyone. “There are many reasons why traditional automation is still very viable for a lot of companies. But integration is really the trend. Customers are asking for more integration with fewer moving parts. It’s too early to say traditional automation has had its day. There are still a lot of uses for it. But I don’t know many station engineers who want more boxes in an even longer chain.”