Broadcasters Want Big Business Changes From Cloud
Broadcasters have already made significant progress in moving key parts of their operation to the cloud, including playout and archiving, and several large groups are eyeing live production as a logical next step. But top executives speaking at TVNewsCheck’s TV2025 conference last week said that in general, they weren’t interested in simply moving the same workflows from on-premise hardware to software running in the public cloud.
Instead, they are looking to the cloud for big changes in their processes that give them new flexibility and scalability for their business. And they want to be able to adjust such capabilities on the fly, in order to most efficiently use cloud resources and avoid unnecessary costs.
For vendors, that means that doing a “lift-and-shift” of hardware-based systems to make them work in the public cloud simply isn’t good enough. That was a key takeaway from the panel Technology, the Cloud and the Station Group of the Future, moderated by this reporter last Wednesday.
Tegna Media has been moving as many workflows to the cloud as possible, said CTO Kurt Rao, using a mix of public and private cloud “based on the risk profile” of its various businesses, which include traditional broadcast, multicast entertainment networks, OTT products and the Premion ad tech business.
Tegna’s OTT streams and its Premion business run from the public cloud. Ingest, conversion, processing and playout for the multicast networks also run in the public cloud, managed by Amagi software. Those same functions for traditional broadcast programming are run in a private cloud that Tegna built.
Rao acknowledged that moving products to the cloud is a “massive investment” for legacy broadcast vendors, who not only have to move from hardware to software but also adopt a microservices-based, container-based architecture. He said some of Tegna’s vendors, whom he calls “partners,” are making progress but that the process will take time.
“To me, there’s a general realization with most partners that they’re going to have to make the leap into the cloud, and it’s not just taking the piece of code that you have running in your data center and just putting it on a server in the cloud,” Rao said. “To me that doesn’t really buy us anything, and probably for the partners that come to me with that solution, we’re going to say we’re going to run it instead internally rather than in the cloud.”
Tegna is examining how it can use the cloud for live news, sports and weather production. For the past six months, it has been testing cloud-based products from its weather graphics and data provider, IBM’s The Weather Company (formerly WSI), which has proven successful. The immediate goal is to share more graphics across the company.
As for producing an entire newscast via the cloud, Rao said that it’s “still in the early days” and he doesn’t think the current software solutions are ready to be deployed at one of Tegna’s CBS or NBC affiliates. But he is eager to keep experimenting.
“The next big thing to look at is the front end, the content creation process,” Rao said. “Can I move production capabilities to leverage the cloud versus what exists today?”
Sinclair Preps To Scale With Demand
Sinclair Broadcast Group first moved playout of its diginets to the cloud several years ago. In the past year it has moved all of its content ingest, preparation and distribution functions for commercials, paid programming and syndication into a centralized “cloud media pipeline,” where functions like ingest and metadata management that “used to happen 100 times” across the local stations now only happen once, said Sinclair SVP and CTO Mike Kralec.
But the benefits of the new system (whose development was accelerated in response to the October 2021 ransomware attack that hit Sinclair) go beyond just eliminating duplicative work to become more efficient.
“We’re also leveraging the cloud to be as effective as possible with the infrastructure that does all of that,” Kralec said. “So, if tomorrow the workload doubles, every piece of that puzzle, every component there, scales with the demand. If tomorrow we’re handling 2,000 files instead of 1,000 files, for example, everything will come up — the transcode will come up to meet the demand, the distribution will come up, the ingest will come up. We’re only provisioning the infrastructure required for that precise point in time.”
The next workflow that Sinclair plans to move to the cloud is playout, so instead of taking content from the media pipeline back down on premise it will simply play that content out of the cloud. That shift should start within the next few months.
“For our traditional media infrastructures, for our master control, we’ll start building playout systems to deliver that as a full distribution down to the markets,” Kralec said. “It will allow our master control operators to be remote from wherever they are, to centralize, to build resilient infrastructures for this.”
CBS Eyes Cloud Playout
The CBS Owned Stations have not been as aggressive as Sinclair or Tegna in moving to the cloud, said CTO Jeff Birch. The group has been focusing on using the cloud for “back office” functions including editing, graphics and archiving.
“We all learned a lot of lessons in the last two-and-a-half years, and the advantages of having a common place that everybody can access,” Birch said. “The cloud’s perfect for that. The place where I’m still a little reticent is live to air. I’m not ready to put a control room in the cloud just yet. I’m not saying we won’t at some point. But live to air, with the immediacy, I’m just not prepared to go there.”
In the interim, the CBS stations are learning from their corporate cousins in Paramount’s cable networks, who are steadily moving to cloud playout using a new “cloud control center” Paramount has built at the former HBO broadcast facility in Hauppauge, N.Y. About 20%-25% of the Paramount cable networks have shifted to cloud playout so far, most notably Showtime, which has moved its entire library to the cloud while maintaining an on-premises backup.
“Showtime actually does live-to-air events through that facility,” Birch said. “Everything they’ve got, the entire library they’ve got, is an instance in the cloud. They still have an instance on the ground right now, they haven’t let go of it, but they’re slowly migrating everything out to a cloud-based playout. For all the reasons that everybody here has mentioned — the efficiencies, the ability to get to it and the DR functions.”
Breaking The Cloud
A couple of the CBS stations have experimented with cloud-based production for their local streaming product, CBSN. But they ran into some technical difficulties, most notably with the CBSN lower-third ticker, which incorporates time and temperature data as well as a news crawl. The cloud had a problem processing the crawl, which resulted in jittery or pixelated video. CBS engineers tried several solutions to no avail, including a “back door” fix where they brought the feed back down to the station and inserted the ticker via SDI before sending it back up to the cloud.
“We broke it again,” Birch said. “We haven’t quite figured out what it is that we’re doing that whatever is in the cloud doesn’t like. We’ve still got it broken. But we’ll get there. We’ll figure it out.”
Cloud For Live News And Sports
For its part, graphics and asset management vendor Vizrt has several customers relying on its cloud products for live news and sports production, said Jon Raidel, the company’s global lead for live production in cloud. One popular application is using the Viz Trio graphics system in the cloud to provide supplemental graphics for live sports productions that are created by a remote graphics operator working back at the studio or from their home.
“You’re removing somebody from the road, and that operator now doesn’t have to be getting on and off planes,” Raidel said. “They can work more events, and you can have your ‘A’ crew of people who are familiar with your shows.”
In addition to graphics, Vizrt also has its channel branding and media asset management systems running in the cloud and is looking at playout as well. The company has also created a live switching product for the cloud, Vector Plus, that delivers greatly improved latency of less than half a frame, he added.
But from Raidel’s point of view, the biggest technology progress in the cloud over the past year has been the proliferation of NDI, the royalty-free IP networking protocol initially created by NewTek in 2016. Since acquiring NewTek in 2019, Vizrt has set about licensing NDI to a wide range of broadcast vendors for both hardware and software-based products including cameras, codecs, graphics systems and switchers. It also developed NDI Bridge, a tool that allows sharing of NDI sources and can also act as an interface between 2110 and legacy SDI plants and the cloud.
“The biggest jump I’ve seen is with the adoption of NDI, and that’s all due to the cloud,” Raidel said. “It was quite amazing to me on the NAB [Show] floor that before the pandemic NDI wasn’t really spoken about by larger broadcasters or large vendors. Now when you go to the booths, everyone has some type of offering for it.”
One Control Room, Multiple Time Zones
In the long term, Birch sees potential in using a single cloud-based control room to produce news for multiple time zones, thus avoiding the downtime typically experienced with traditional on-premise infrastructure. Such a move could make for significant savings in real estate and power costs while also reducing the stations’ carbon footprint.
“If you look at our group across the country, when my East Coast stations are doing the 5 [a.m.] show, at the West Coast stations their facilities are dark,” Birch said. “The Mountain stations may be just beginning to ramp up. So, if I were able to leverage a cloud-based production facility, I don’t have to build something in every television station. Now I have maybe two or three instances. I spool them up at East Coast stations, when they’re done, the Central stations can pick it up, when they’re done the Mountain, and so forth. So, there are economies there.”
Kralec and Rao agreed that such a cloud-based production model could make sense for big groups, particularly with content demands increasing for local stations.
“Ultimately, for us in this business it’s about how do you produce more compelling content?” Rao said. “So, if you can spin up, spin down and use the same talent to produce a lot more content, I think there’s an opportunity for us to improve the consumer experience.”
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