The once blue-sky tech that replaces a host of master control gear with a single unit is gathering more fans and deals are expected at the NAB Show.
Channel In A Box Comes Of Age
Broadcasters have long been wary of replacing their station’s master control with a channel-in-a-box solution.
“They work on the surface and the idea makes a lot of sense, but when it comes down to it, these systems fall short a little bit,” Raycom Media CTO Dave Folsom, told TVNewsCheck in October 2011.
But attitudes have been changing over the past year.
Those who once saw CiaB as an over-hyped technology suited mainly for simple channels without live production and dynamic commercial demands now see it as the next step in station efficiency. Some have made plans to take the leap.
“Sure, there were healthy degrees of skepticism, but we think that it has proven itself to work,” says Brett Jenkins, VP of technology for LIN Media. “The real advantage of channel in a box is the lower capital infrastructure costs; it makes it easy to scale and add more channels and it works nicely in multichannel environments. All of those reasons make it a nice fit for LIN.”
CiaB is a single-box solution that collapses the many pieces of hardware found in a traditional master control and playout chain, including switchers, servers, graphics, channel branding, audio and routing.
All the major vendors in the industry are now selling their own version of CiaB, including Miranda Technologies, Harris Broadcast, Evertz, Snell, Florcal and Grass Valley.
LIN Media has been exploring CiaB options and hopes to add a few channels using the technology soon, Jenkins says. “It’s not just one operator doing one channel anymore — you want one operator to be able to service multiple channels and that’s one of the reasons why we are intrigued and looking at that technology.” Jenkins declines to identify which vendors he is working with.
Even Folsom’s doubts about CiaB have dissipated a bit. He says he has been experimenting with solutions from Florical, Miranda, Snell and Digital Broadcast. Some are on the air today, supplemented by other hardware components.
“I have confidence in the technology, but it’s still naïve to ask a box to do so many things at one time,” he says. “If you ask it to do a couple of things at one time, it does it very well, but if you expect it to do 10 things at once, you’re incredibly naïve.”
And if a station combines CiaB and a few components, it could cost nearly as much as an all-component operation, he says, noting that Raycom does all of its transcoding outside of the boxes.
“And then if you decide to use just the box, you need another box for backup, because what happens if the power burns up in your main box? Now you’re in a position where you’re not really saving any money, which is one of the main incentives for these boxes,” Folsom says.
The biggest endorsement of the technology came in February with news that ABC Owned Television Stations was installing Miranda Technologies’ CiaB solution called iTX at its eight O&Os.
David Converse, VP of engineering for the group, said at that time he hoped to have the boxes up and running in the second quarter of this year to bring more efficiency and uniformity across its operations.
Uniformity is key, he said. “Philosophically, when you want to address a problem, you want to address it the same way. Right now, when we have a problem, we have to solve it eight times. Do you want to solve it eight times in the future, or one time?”
Vendors understand that adoption of new technology always takes time.
“Nobody wants to be the first one to use it, especially if you’re putting it on your main revenue-generation channel,” says Mo Goyal, director of product marketing for Evertz.
Joe Zaller, an industry analyst and owner of Devoncroft Partners, wasn’t surprised to hear about ABC installing Miranda’s CiaB solution across its O&Os. He says the business benefits of the technology are compelling and he is confident the technology will continue to evolve and improve. “The vendors aren’t sitting still. They’re competing very aggressively with each other, which is good. A lot of innovation is going to come out of that.”
Much of that innovation comes from the feedback that vendors have received from early adopters. Grass Valley has adapted its K2 Edge playout solution to include more features that broadcasters need in North America.
“The original feature set was more for a channel service provider,” says Charlie Dunn, Grass Valley VP of production solutions. “It didn’t handle the mixing of live content well. It now has features to better accommodate what a local station in North America might encounter, like when they are cutting back and forth between a network and other sources. We are adding feature sets around that.”
The competition among vendors is giving customers more confidence in the technology, says Karl Mehring, senior product manager for ICE, Snell Group’s CiaB solution. “One of the big changes in the past year has been acceptance in the marketplace. Last year, people were quite nervous to put channel in a box in for primetime TV, but more people are now going out with it in a traditional infrastructure. There’s definitely a swing there.”
Snell plans to announce a major network customer at the NAB Show and demonstrate how ICE — its CiaB solution — can run up to four HD channels per unit.
Harris Broadcast also plans to announce some sales of its CiaB solution called Versio, says Andrew Warman, senior product marketing manager for servers at Harris.
Miranda Technologies will also make customer announcements at NAB. Scott Rose, senior product manager for Miranda’s iTX solution, expects CiaB to be a big story at the show. He says Miranda will show off the different setups of iTX and how they can work for different kinds of operations.
Not every master control vendor has plunged into CiaB.
“The fact that channel in a box collapses everything into a single component is scary from an engineering perspective,” says Reed Haslem, director of sales for NVerzion, a Salt Lake City-based broadcast automation company. “If you lose any of those components in the chain, you lose everything and there aren’t any work-arounds.”
For several years, NVerzion has teamed up with Ross Video and Utah Scientific to pair its automation software with specific master control components that a station may need.
At NAB, the company will announce CLASS — component level automation system solution — through its longstanding partnership with Ross and Utah. Utah will provide routers, Ross will handle servers and station engineers will choose between the two companies for graphics. NVerzion provides automation and traffic.
Skip Orvis, chief engineer of WJRT Flint, Mich., says CiaB could be a practical approach, but not for an established station with existing hardware that still works. “If you’re building a brand new station, I think it would be pretty appropriate because you need everything. If you like some of your existing components, however, moving to a channel in a box becomes more difficult.”
Zaller expects the handful of vendors selling CiaB solutions to make a hard sales push at NAB this year, but with better results than the past two years. “Up until now, vendors have just been hyping the technology. I think this year, there will be more people actually shopping for it. The business model is too compelling.”
Frank Beachum contributed reporting.
This story originally appeared in TVNewsCheck’s Executive Outlook, a quarterly print publication devoted to the future of broadcasting. Subscribe here.