ABC Blazing Trail To Brave New IP World

The network is taking a big technological leap this fall, running its master control and routing functions with a cloud-based hybrid IP-baseband system with critical hardware and software products from Imagine Communications. While the network’s transition to a hybrid IP-baseband environment is profound, it will be completely transparent to ABC affiliates and O&Os, which will continue to receive a baseband signal via satellite as if nothing has changed. In the photo above, Disney/ABC’s Vince Roberts (l) and Imagine’s Charlie Vogt announced the decision to go IP at this year’s NAB Show.

If all goes as planned, the ABC Television Network will be distributing its programming to ABC O&Os and affiliates this fall via a hybrid IP-baseband master control and playout system in which traditional gear has been replaced with the virtualized equivalent running in the cloud, says Todd Donovan, SVP, ABC Broadcast Operations and Engineering.

“The overall relevance of the cloud for us was when you need more capacity, you just turn it on,” he says. “You simply beget more capacity as opposed to the classic approach of every time you need to do one more thing having to add one more piece of equipment sitting in a rack.”

Disney/ABC’s Vince Roberts (l) and Imagine’s Charlie Vogt.Vince Roberts, CTO of the Disney/ABC Television Group, revealed the move, internally dubbed Project Columbus, at an Imagine Communications event at the NAB Show two weeks ago.

ABC is relying on Imagine for critical hardware and software components. They include the VersioCloud playout in the cloud software application, Magellan Orchestrator command-and-control system for hybrid control networks and UCIP (uncompressed over IP) gateway modules to bridge the baseband and IP worlds.

The project grew out of the Disney’s work with OTT services like Watch ABC and Watch Disney Channel, which give viewers the ability to view shows on their media tablets and smartphones, says Donovan. The platforms also give ABC and the Disney Channel sophisticated control over what users watch, including program and commercial replacement, and support dynamic ad insertion, he says.

The OTT services also demonstrated the importance of scalability and how common-off-the-shelf Blade servers running in a data center offer viable alternatives to traditional broadcast hardware.


Rather than adding all of the baseband broadcast servers, encoders and other ancillary hardware needed to deliver multiple different versions of the same content in different formats for OTT viewers, Disney/ABC turned to the data center and cloud model.

“The solution was to orchestrate all of this virtually,” Donovan says. “We can do all of the encoding, all of the CDN [content delivery network] stuff and all of that virtually and host it in a cloud.”  

While this cloud-based approach was appealing, it lacked one critical element needed for broadcasting: support for insertion of live television that originates as HD-SDI baseband video into the cloud-based IP environment.

“The ABC Television Network is about 50% live,” Donovan says. “We needed an environment that could handle live. That was the trick.”

The complexity of that trick becomes apparent when considering the architecture of the system. Playback is done from two fully redundant data centers — one a Disney-owned and managed datacenter at the Kings Mountain Technical Center in the Charlotte, N.C., market, and the other a Disney-maintained data center at SUPERNAP in Las Vegas. Recorded programs, promos and commercials exist in parallel in these data centers, which operate in perfect sync, as uncompressed SMPTE 2022-6 encapsulated, packetized video, says Imagine Communications CTO Steve Reynolds.

Live video, such as a newscast or news cut-in, originating in HD-SDI at ABC’s broadcast center in Manhattan is converted to JPEG 2000 (J2K) for transport over a Disney backbone network to the data centers. J2K offers the dual benefit of being visually lossless and reducing the number of bits that need to be transported over the backbone network from 3 Gb/s for a 1080p signal to hundreds of megabits per second, Reynolds says.

At the data centers, the live J2K video is converted into SMPTE 2022-6, cut into the program stream, converted back into J2K and transported via the IP backbone back to the New York City. “In our testing in the actual environment, we are seeing roundtrips at about 10 frames [of latency]. That is a lot of work that is occurring in only 10 frames,” Donovan says.

Co-locating the data centers with live video origination at the broadcast centers in Manhattan and Los Angeles would have reduced the latency a bit; however, the benefits of leveraging existing Disney data center resources far outweighed doing so, Donovan says.

When the new system is launched, the return J2K stream from the data centers will be converted back to HD-SDI and uplinked to two different satellites via the network’s antennas in New York City and at its Prospect Studios near Hollywood, Calif.

While the network’s transition to a hybrid IP-baseband environment is profound, it will be completely transparent to ABC affiliates and O&Os, which will continue to receive a baseband signal via satellite as if nothing has changed, Donovan says.

Another big challenge was how to maintain the talent pool of technicians at the network who run master control today while leveraging the benefits of the Disney data centers hundreds of miles away. The solution was to separate the master control interface from the execution of master control commands and origination of the programming, branding, graphics and other elements that go into playback, says Reynolds.

“What we have done is taken our master control surfaces — whether those are hard panels with traditional pushbuttons or a soft surface in the form of a software-defined master control panel — and we’ve now mapped those things into this IP domain,” Reynolds says.

As a result, master control operators working in New York or Los Angeles will push a button to execute a switch that occurs in a data center hundreds of miles away in the same way they switch video executed in a rack of equipment a few feet away today.

“You also need something on the other side of that transaction, which is where our software-define networking orchestrator comes in,” explains Reynolds.

“Our Magellan Orchestrator is the tool you need to actually set up, commission and provision a hybrid network — the elements necessary to manage the IP side of that network and all of the elements required to manage the traditional baseband side of that hybrid network,” he says.

Between the two Disney data centers, ABC ultimately will be running more than a dozen instances of VersioCloud software, which plays out scheduled events, executes digital video effects such as squeezebacks, inserts “L” bars, generates text and adds branding, snipes and other on-air graphic elements.

Some VersioCloud instances will be used for disaster recovery, others for time zone delays and still others to meet new playout needs. One instance that’s currently in use today is for the creation of an alternate playlist of the TV network with the same commercials but different graphics and snipes for VOD playback, Donovan says. “There’s no point telling you to watch Scandal next (in a VOD environment). If you don’t click on Scandal, Scandal is not next for you. That becomes a distraction,” he says.

Today that alternate playlist is being created in the data centers and sent to cable headends to eliminate that “distraction” for VOD viewers who use their set-top boxes to timeshift.

Donovan adds that the same Imagine Communications-driven data center master control and playout model will be rolled out for Disney’s cable networks, including ABC Family and Disney Channel, this fall.

While deploying this hybrid IP-baseband model may appear to be at the bleeding edge of technology in the television industry, virtualized workflows are nothing new to the IT world.

Taking the IP plunge for television now seemed like the right thing to do, given the lifecycle of traditional “big iron” broadcast technology, Donovan says.

 “You only get a chance to rebuild a broadcast center every decade or so, if even that often,” he says. “It seemed foolish to just go buy off-the-shelf equipment and technology and do another on-prem automation, on-prem playout, big, heavy iron audio-video environment.

“We figured this is the right opportunity to prepare ourselves for the future.”

To stay up to date on all things tech, follow Phil Kurz on TVNewsCheck’s Playout tech blog here. And follow him on Twitter: @TVplayout.

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