Broadcasters Cite Progress In Cloud Playout
Broadcasters have already found success in using cloud technology instead of on-premise hardware for the playout of preproduced programming such as diginets, cable networks and OTT channels. Now some are seeking to expand their use of cloud playout to live programming, including sports and local news, as they steadily retool their broadcast infrastructure for an IP world.
Paramount Global wants to move playout of all of its programming to the public cloud. The media giant already has over 130 networks originating in the cloud including the new CBS Sports Golazo Network, which features a mix of live soccer games and studio programming with prerecorded elements. And Sinclair, which has been playing its diginets from the cloud for several years, is now starting to move playout of its local stations to the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud. The first station should go live next month.
Improvements in playout software designed for the cloud are enabling these wholesale shifts in networks’ and stations’ architecture, said broadcast engineers and vendors who gathered last week for the TVNewsCheck webinar, Live Playout in the Cloud: Advances for 2023, moderated by this reporter. But technical challenges remain in playing out broadcast programming from the cloud, particularly for stations with a hefty slate of live local news content. And getting an accurate idea of how much the cloud will actually cost is still difficult, though early adopters point to long-term benefits that can be gained by reducing duplicative functions across multiple sites, cutting down real estate costs and hiring remote workers.
Graham Media’s On-Prem OTT Playout Launching Soon
Graham Media Group wanted to use the public cloud as a new playout system for OTT programming from several of its local stations and began doing proofs of concept (POCs) late last fall. But by March the station group still hadn’t found a solution that it felt could comfortably handle linear playback as well as live local news, said Anthony Plosz, VP and CTO, Graham Media Group.
“The biggest obstacle is really moving in and out of unscheduled live events with ease,” Plosz said.
He explained that Graham often uses its OTT platform for breaking news that it can’t do on its over-the-air broadcasts, either because it doesn’t want to preempt network programming or needs to go live but doesn’t have a control room available. But many of the cloud platforms “don’t handle these situations with grace,” Plosz said. Graham also found difficulties with the SCTE 35 messaging standard used widely for digital ad insertion and content replacement.
“In the short term, the true live is really not quite there yet for us,” said Plosz of the cloud playout options.
So, Graham pivoted and went to Plan B, working internally to develop an on-premise playout platform for OTT that it will launch this summer, some months after its initial goal of this past spring. Plosz said that Graham is continuing to talk to cloud platforms about AI tools that could potentially curate archive programming for OTT channels in the future.
Steady Progress For Sinclair
Sinclair, which centralized its content ingest, preparation and distribution functions in the cloud over the past two years, is more optimistic about the near-term potential of the cloud for playout. The company has seen major improvements in cloud playout tools over the same time period, said Walid Hamri, AVP, media systems engineering for Sinclair. That applies to both latency and the core architecture of the solutions themselves, as vendors have moved from a “lift and shift” microcontainer on the cloud to true microservices.
Sinclair has actually been doing POCs of linear playout at a few stations for more than six months. It strategically picked several stations that have less complexity than a hub with multiple newsrooms, such as a big Fox affiliate. Instead, a few CW outlets are serving as pilot stations for cloud playout.
“We had to start somewhere, so we’re now moving forward,” Hamri said. “We probably should have the first station up and running in the next month or so.”
Hybrid Model Reliability
Broadcast customers often express uncertainty about whether they should run playout on-prem or in the cloud, said Ian Fletcher, SVP enterprise product strategy for Grass Valley’s media business unit. But he said it “shouldn’t be a binary choice,” as Grass Valley’s AMPP was built as an edge compute platform that could run on-prem, in a private data center or on the public cloud, or on some combination of the three.
Fletcher said the “control plane” for AMPP, including the database, messaging architecture and other back-end function, should usually run in the cloud. But the “data plane,” where the actual pixel processing occurs, can run anywhere. That means that customers can easily employ a hybrid model with some channels playing out of the cloud and others running on-prem.
Fletcher said that with various vendors already offering cloud playout software, Grass Valley decided to differentiate by focusing on supporting live production and playout in the cloud for “difficult use cases” like breaking news and live sports.
“How would you do live breaking news, how do you join back in-progress?” Fletcher said. “How does an operator who might be working at home or somewhere else remote from where playout is actually happening, how do they get confidence that when they press ‘Take’ that they’re going to see the result straight away?”
A good example of a live use case is Golazo, which launched in April using Grass Valley software running on the AWS cloud. There are no physical facilities at all for Golazo, except for its studio, and all of its master control operators are remote.
“So, you can now change your recruitment policy,” Fletcher said. “You can recruit where the talent is, instead of forcing everyone to come into a New York center just to sit and press some buttons on a master control switcher. If you think differently as to how you’re going to use these technologies to redesign your business, that’s how you’re going to get some real significant cost savings.”
Paramount Global actually doesn’t recruit on a geographic basis for any of its video engineering positions today. That is just one of the big changes the company has made since it started moving its broadcast workflows to the cloud back in 2019, when it launched its first domestic channel with the “Cloud Playout 1.0” platform.
Now it has 131 networks originating on the cloud and has moved to “Cloud Playout 2.0,” based on Grass Valley’s AMPP software, said Stuart Baillie, SVP media engineering and distribution, Paramount Global. Paramount’s second-generation cloud platform is more scalable, has more agility in software deployment, uses more automation and provides richer data for reporting purposes, he said.
Paramount started with thematic channels before moving the Showtime networks to the cloud, where it started to do live production in a hybrid model leveraging both the cloud and on-premise 2110 hardware. Paramount has also moved its entire Amsterdam facility to the cloud, which involved a high volume of live channels, and created a “Cloud Control Center” in Hauppauge, N.Y., to help manage its global cloud operations.
“We’re slowly going to be moving forward with some extra complexity looking at the CBS channels as well, with lots of live sports and news,” Baillie said. “For us it’s really been a steady progression, but certainly an aggressive rollout to the cloud.”
Moving To The Public Cloud
New broadcast technology player swXtch.io is looking to expand broadcasters’ existing on-premise routing workflows into the public cloud with CloudSwitch. The product is a virtual switch that behaves like a physical Juniper, Arista or Cisco switch that would typically run in an on-prem data center but is in fact just software which runs on all of the major public cloud platforms.
CloudSwitch allows broadcasters to build contribution workloads in the cloud, such as for playout or master control, using the same tools and exhibiting the same behavior as an on-prem network, said Geeter Kyrazis, chief strategy officer for swXtch.io.
“The notion is to extend broadcast networks into the cloud, to enable hybrid and multicloud workflows that have similar features,” Kyrazis said. “If you build an on-prem network and you have a 2110 workflow, where you implement [SMPTE 2202]-07, so you have to have multicast and PTP and multiple geographic routes, and you want to move all or part of that workflow into the cloud, obviously the cloud networks may or may not support all of the network features that those workflows require. So, what our cloud switch does is implement those features on the cloud networks, such that they are an extension of the broadcast network. And features like high-performance multicast are available on all four clouds.”
Kyrazis said that CloudSwitch was successfully used earlier this month as part of a POC done by the NBA, where live coverage of NBA Summer League games was played out from the cloud; technology partners in that trial included Microsoft, Evertz and Cinefilm. He said swXtch.io is also in POCs with several large broadcasters to explore similar live playout applications from the cloud.
One common observation from the panelists was that moving playout to the cloud generally won’t save money unless it is part of a broader overhaul of workflows and infrastructure. And the panelists all said that predicting the costs of launching playout in the cloud is very difficult, though vendors do work closely with customers to try to provide predictive models of their cloud spend.
“Going into the cloud for us, one of the challenges we’ve seen is it’s really hard to get a decent estimation of your costs on the cloud from Day One,” Hamri said. “We’ve done it, and we end up with massive Excel spreadsheets that we have to keep maintaining. So, this is something that overall, I think we have to do a better job, for all the vendors and partners that we’re working with, in being able to more precisely predict the costs of running a global solution.”