A growing number of stations and station groups seem finally ready to entrust critical functions to cloud-based solutions.
Station Cloud Forecast Is Clearing
When Aframe made its debut at the 2012 NAB Show to demonstrate its cloud-based media asset management technology, only small documentary and movie production companies stopped by, says CEO David Peto.
“This year, it was … NBC, CBS, ABC, HBO, Showtime — the senior teams that came down to at least take a look,” he says. “That’s massively different from a year ago.
“I definitely think there’s a big shift in the mindset of the CTOs and CIOs of some of these larger broadcasters, in that, actually, there is something to this cloud thing.”
This “cloud thing” involves taking content and applications and storing them on hosted or in-house servers where they can be accessed from anywhere by anyone with a broadband connection.
Today, broadcast vendors are pitching cloud-based solutions that do everything from storage and media asset management to more mission-critical applications found in a traditional master control room, like ingest, transcoding, playout and graphics.
And they promise that the technology will lower hardware and maintenance costs, facilitate content sharing and make scaling easier and more cost-effective.
In the end, it’s all about saving money, says Maurizio Cimelli, managing director of Deluxe, a cloud-based technology provider. Broadcasters have to avoid acquiring clunky, heavy hardware and the costs associated with it, he says.
“You have the boxes, the space it needs to go into, the power it needs to run it, the cooling, the engineers that need to install it, the engineers that need to maintain it, the engineers that need to upgrade it, the maintenance contract that needs to be kept up-to-date — it’s huge.
“Cloud is seen as a new dimension where you can plug yourself into this thing and get all those services you had before, but better and without that capex.”
Broadcasters have been experimenting with cloud applications and storage for several years and, as Peto suggests, they are starting to warm up to, and deploy, the technology, despite lingering concerns about security — that is, about putting valuable content in remote servers owned by others.
Because of security concerns, broadcasters may choose to make their cloud private, meaning the servers that receive and send out content are stored in-house at the station or at a station group’s hub. That’s opposed to using a hosted solution like Amazon Web Services, which operates server farms located around the world.
At Young Broadcasting’s KRON San Francisco, reporters and photojournalists use the station’s personal cloud to upload content to in-house servers using South River Technologies’ TitanFTP, software that protects files coming in and out of the server.
“The best thing is that it’s really robust from a file-transfer standpoint and the security is really good. If someone tries to hit you, it’ll basically lock out IP addresses to keep the troublemakers out who are sniffing around all the time,” says Craig Porter, KRON chief engineer, adding it’s not uncommon to have hackers trying to break into the station’s system.
“We can see them in the logs,” he says. “We haven’t had any problems, though. Our system takes care of that.”
But Porter also says he would feel comfortable storing his station’s news archives at a third-party hosted server and plans to explore that option soon.
And the cost is not too high, he says. “When you look at just the original content of the news shows, over the course of the year we’re probably archiving less than 4 terabytes. That’s hardly anything to those guys.”
For other broadcasters, concerns about security have given way to clear operational benefits.
“To be able to store and manipulate our assets in the cloud fits right into our workflow,” says Jim Ocon, Gray Television VP of technology. Gray is the first major U.S. station group to adopt Sony’s solution and hopes to deploy some aspects of it this year.
Ocon says he’s still ironing out details on how his stations will use Sony’s solution, but would prefer his stations’ content be stored at a server facility operated by Sony.
Aframe’s solution lets broadcasters upload, store and retrieve content in any resolution for multiplatform workflows. Instead of dealing with massive files over the Internet, Aframe lets broadcasters browse, play back, organize and do basic cut edits of media proxies. The user can then download the content at their choice of resolution for any format.
Aframe lets users buy storage, in addition to integrating with in-house servers.
Signiant’s Media Shuttle is another asset management solution that, like Aframe, lets users store content in-house or at a third-party facility.
Media Shuttle might be best described as Drop Box — a consumer cloud-based storage solution — on steroids. “Drop Box is drag-and-drop, who do I want to send it to, and away it goes,” says Tom Canavan, VP strategic development at Signiant. “The problem with those services for media companies and broadcasters are numerous. They can’t handle large files, they don’t accelerate those files and movement from point A to point B is slow.”
Because content is stored in a central location, cloud technology allows stations within a group or consortium to share files and collaborate.
One of the first platforms to allow them to do so, ChyronHego’s Axis World Graphics, began in 2004 and lets stations share entire libraries of graphics, from news templates to over-the-shoulder images.
With Axis, stations don’t need a local graphics application. They open a browser, log in and start sifting through the library.
April’s Texas fertilizer disaster offered one example of how stations can use the cloud to boost their on-air look. “One of the big goals of the groups is they don’t want people creating the same fertilizer story graphic 500 times around the country,” says Todd Martin, SVP of ChyronHego’s strategic solutions group. “Why not just be able to go in — [no matter whether] you’re on the West Coast or the East Coast —and grab that graphic. You can collaborate and repurpose content based on the story.”
Gannett was one of the early adopters of Axis World Graphics and has been on the system for five years now. Jeff Johnson, VP of technology there, says the workflow lets artists produce higher quality graphics because they can rely on graphics created by other stations and don’t have to create as many in-house, especially for national stories.
“If there’s a big story in one market that requires graphics, like a map, other markets could be the first in their respective markets to have that more in-depth graphic,” Johnson says. “Mapping is one of the workflow’s strong points.”
Young’s stations have also been using Axis. Young’s Porter says the software’s capability not only allows other markets to air more in-depth graphics, but it ensures those stations are receiving the most updated information.
“If our graphic artist needs to make a critical update to a map or some other kind of graphic that’s already set to run in another market, that station doesn’t have to worry about uploading a new graphic,” he says. “It does it all live, which makes it a really good system.”
Storage and asset management in the cloud might be easier to swallow than future cloud applications based around critical tasks like master control.
But companies like Deluxe and Snell say the flexibility and ability to scale channels in a multiplatform world make cloud-based — or virtualized — master control a logical choice.
“What we’re pitching is the next step of channel-in-a-box,” says Neil Maycock, Snell chief architect. “Channel-in-a-box takes traditional TV infrastructure and puts it in a box that is basically a PC, but dedicated to doing that job.”
Maycock says virtual master control should resonate with broadcasters because of all the platforms over which they need to distribute programming.
“In the past, if you had to put a channel on the air, you could rack up all this video equipment, you could make a big capital purchase, then you could write off those costs against the advertising revenues coming in,” he says. “Some of these newer services now, it’s less certain what the revenues will be, and they might be much less.”
At this year’s NAB Show, Snell said that Fox Networks is testing its technology to see how it would work at a network level. Maycock expects the technology, called Snell On Demand, to be marketed to station groups and be available in 2014.
Snell also plans to move some of its existing hardware products to the On Demand framework, with the first solution being Alchemist, the company’s standards conversation and restoration product. It’s expected to be available in the fourth quarter of this year.
The virtualized playout functions are expected to hit the market in early 2014. Software licenses for Snell On Demand are a one-time cost of $40,000-$80,000, depending on complexity. That’s about 20% less than ICE, the company’s channel-in-a-box solution.
Maycock expects most broadcasters to host their own cloud, using existing servers in-house, for security purposes.
Deluxe, a relative newcomer to the industry, is taking a similar approach to Snell’s with its Deluxe Broadcast Services solution, but it’s giving stations the option of letting Deluxe host the cloud to run the software.
Deluxe’s Cimelli says that with the Deluxe solution a broadcaster could launch a channel from anywhere.
“You could show up in your new office, plug your laptop into a network connection and gain access to all the tools you would see in a TV station,” he says. “You could then create your playlist, and start playing out your channel immediately.”
The technology also lets broadcasters access those same tools from tablets and smartphones while on the go.
Deluxe is currently running 14 channels out of London (a few for demonstration purposes), but has been quietly working with other networks, which Cimelli declined to name.
He says he hopes to go live with some additional European customers this summer, with the U.S. to follow.
How far U.S. broadcasters go with the cloud remains to be seen. Joe Zaller, a TV technology business analyst with Devoncroft Partners, says the technology may not make sense for every station or station group.
“It’s about what impacts the business model for the end user,” he says. “Broadcasters are looking to increase efficiency and find new revenue streams. If some cloud-based technology helps them do that, they’ll employ it. If it doesn’t, they won’t.”
This story originally appeared in TVNewsCheck’s Executive Outlook, a quarterly print publication devoted to the future of broadcasting. Subscribe here.