TV Nets, Stations To Ride IP Wave Into 2019
The adoption of IP-based infrastructures by TV stations and networks is expected to accelerate in 2019 as they look to replace aging HD-SDI equipment and more efficiently produce and distribute programming with cloud-based operations and remote integration (REMI) production.
On the station side, for instance, NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations plans to launch a cloud-based news operation at its Telemundo station in Las Vegas (KBLR) that will rely on back-end equipment located at a data center in Dallas.
Also next year, cable’s Discovery will shift playout of its newly acquired Scripps Networks properties to the public cloud and also begin building two new private data centers in Europe that will support round-the-clock REMI production for its Eurosport sports channels.
The major benefits of such IP-enabled production and playout models are cost savings and increased flexibility. TV producers can replace traditional on-premise “big iron” equipment with common off-the-shelf hardware located in remote data centers. And once content flows through a data center, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can be used to generate metadata and direct the future distribution, repurposing and archiving of that content.
That could mean everything from a news segment being shared across multiple stations to sports highlights being delivered on-demand directly to a consumer through an OTT or mobile platform.
Sinclair Broadcast Group already uses cloud-based playout for its KidsClick children’s programming block, and CTO Del Parks expects that Sinclair and other local broadcasters will eventually look to the cloud to launch new services using the next-generation ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard, whether that’s new mobile services or 4K UHD programming.
“I think it’s an evolution that makes sense as we all look at deploying ATSC 3.0,” says Parks. “Whether it’s on-premise or off-premise, public or private cloud, that’s economics. But I think more and more operations will move to the cloud, and you’ll see that accelerate in 2019, 2020 and 2021.”
A recent customer survey by Grass Valley, one of the biggest broadcast technology vendors, suggests that overall the IP transition is now well underway. The company’s “2018 Global IP Barometer,” which surveyed some 750 media professionals around the world with one-third in the U.S., found that 43% of respondents already have an IP deployment underway and another 26% plan to start an IP project in the next nine months.
The Grass Valley survey also found that “improved infrastructure flexibility” was the leading reason to go IP, with an “open standards approach” being the key technology consideration.
Research firm Devoncroft Partners has tracked the broadcast technology market for the past 10 years with its “Big Broadcast Survey,” based on the feedback of several thousand broadcast professional worldwide. Multiplatform content delivery has been the top trend for all but the first year, when the hot trend was the conversion to HDTV, says Devoncroft founder Joe Zaller.
As the industry heads into 2019, multiplatform delivery, including Web, mobile and OTT, continues to be top of mind for broadcasters and is certainly driving some of the current investment in IP infrastructures, says Zaller. But he notes that several recent IP builds have been driven by more pressing commercial interests, such as real-estate issues.
“When the new building has one-third the amount of space for equipment as the old building has, virtualization becomes more important,” says Zaller.
Zaller notes that despite the focus on new IP technology, many large vendors’ revenues are flat to down this year. He thinks a lot of broadcasters have been holding off on new investment as they watch “a couple of big marquee projects” such as Telemundo Network’s new plant in Miami, the new BBC Wales facility in the U.K and Swiss TV’s IP build.
“They’re going in as sort of the leading edge, and folks are looking at that to determine which way we should go,” says Zaller.
Spending may pick up in the next couple of years, Zaller says, “as a number of broadcasters have told us they’re facing this ‘capex cliff’ ” as first-generation HD equipment nears the end of its useful life. Most HD gear in the U.S. is around 10 years old, with equipment in Japan being several years older and Europe perhaps a couple years newer.
“That stuff is wearing out, and needs to be replaced,” he says.
When newsroom and media management system provider Dalet Digital Media Systems talks to its customers, multiplatform remains the priority, says Arnaud Elnecave, Dalet’s VP of marketing.
“Their top challenges are how to produce for multiplatform while doing their existing stuff, having the right mix of quality and speed,” he says.
To that end, Dalet has been incorporating machine learning and AI into its newsroom products to help accelerate news production by automatically finding relevant content in either incoming feeds, social media platforms or content archives.
“With the rise of machine learning and AI, we put a lot of effort in 2018 into working with key customers on how that can be leveraged for news,” Elnecave says.
Dave Cohen, Grass Valley VP of marketing communications, concedes that there was some hesitation to invest in IP in 2016 and 2017 as the industry hashed out the 2110 standard and vendors tested interoperability.
“Folks were waiting for a standard, and for a real freedom of choice, “ says Cohen. “They wanted to be able to build workflows with the level of ease and certainty they had enjoyed with SDI. I think in 2018 the industry really turned the corner in that regard.”
Grass Valley has been tackling the IP transition on two different fronts.
On one, it has been developing software to work with IT hardware from vendors like Cisco, Arista and Juniper for customers who want to move their existing broadcast operations to IP infrastructures using COTS hardware. NBCU’s new IP-centric home for WCAU-WWSI Philadelphia, which uses Grass Valley “gateways” as a link between a Cisco IP network and HD-SDI gear, is a good example of that type of installation.
“We’re well into dozens of deployments,” says Cohen. “The proof is there. We’re able to do it in a stable way, and not lose anything in production quality or efficiency.”
On the other front, Grass Valley has been creating versions of its playout and automation software that can run in a cloud-based environment, whether that is a virtual, on-premise private cloud or a public cloud supplier like AWS, Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud. Its GV Flex integrated playout product is one example.
Perhaps the biggest advocate for the cloud in the media space is Discovery Inc., which first moved to cloud-based playout for its U.S. channels in fall 2017. Since then, the cable programmer has been steadily migrating the rest of its non-sports programming (Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, etc.) to the Amazon Web Services (AWS) public cloud. The European channels completed their move last August.
The Scripps properties are now simulcasting on the AWS cloud and will officially switch in early 2019. Then Discovery will begin migrating its Latin American and Asian networks.
The reliability of content aggregation and playout through the cloud has been “super high,” says Simon Farnsworth, Discovery EVP technology and operations, EMEA and APAC. And the computing power of the cloud opens up new possibilities for Discovery in today’s multiplatform world, where delivering content directly to the consumer is of growing importance.
“The real key for us is having control of your content,” says Farnsworth. “Now that we’re on-ramping everything to the cloud, it’s running through AI and machine-learning algorithms for metadata tagging. That’s really exciting as we move forward in this multiplatform publishing ecosystem.”
For example, one of the channels now being delivered through the cloud is MotorTrend Network, the rebranded Velocity. Farnsworth says that AWS’s technology is sophisticated enough to automatically discern the brand and years of cars, and “smart enough to pick out a 1964 Ford Mustang” and log that information in metadata.
So a MotorTrend viewer interested in ’64 Mustangs could thus easily find and view on-demand clips of any programming in which the car was featured, without any human curation of the content.
“I’ve been amazed at how quickly this technology is evolving,” Farnsworth says.
Discovery still takes a feed from the cloud and then redistributes it via convention satellite or fiber to traditional MPVD partners, and based on existing fiber and satellite contracts and the needs of affiliates that is unlikely to change anytime soon. But virtual MPVDs like Hulu and Sling already get their Discovery content directly from the AWS cloud today.
In general, says Farnsworth, direct distribution from the cloud should get a boost in the future after AWS’s recent announcement that it will be creating a dozen earth stations worldwide to allow AWS cloud customers to connect directly to satellites for data transport (The immediate application for broadcasters is likely to be for special events rather than 24/7 program distribution).
Producing and broadcasting live sports through the public cloud has generally been a non-starter for broadcasters because of latency issues, and Discovery still relies on traditional distribution for its Eurosport channels in Europe.
But Farnsworth says Eurosport will soon be adopting cloud-based workflows for all of its live production by making a hefty investment in its own “private cloud data centers” — one in London and one at another yet-to-be determined location in Europe. The two data centers will ingest all live camera and host broadcast feeds and provide access to directors and other production staff located anywhere.
Eurosport has already been doing REMI production — backhauling camera feeds via fiber to a remote studio where a live broadcast is actually produced — for over a decade.
The new private cloud model takes REMI one step further, says Farnsworth, by “abstracting the control surface from the guts of the technology.” It will use a redundant 10-gigabit network that Discovery already set up throughout Europe to help produce coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“We’ll be taking cameras in from all over the world, and the host broadcaster feeds, into the data centers and having all the ‘heavy lifting’ computing power there,” says Farnsworth.
“So you could have operators or a director anywhere in Europe, but all the processing is in the data center. Simultaneously, as soon as a picture will be produced, it will be ingested in the cloud and AI and machine learning algorithms will give us the richest metadata possible. We produce in 22 languages, and we’ll be immediately using speech-to-text to translate.”
Besides giving flexibility in staffing and allowing Eurosport to quickly spin up and spin down production control rooms, the private cloud model will allow the sports programmer to better share resources across multiple productions, thus further reducing costs.
“Typically, you would have one EVS [replay system] allocated to any one control room,” says Farnsworth. “We’re not going to do that any more.”
Improvements in available bandwidth and compression codecs have reduced latency across Europe to between 50 and 100 milliseconds, says Farnsworth, making the private cloud model viable for efficient live production. Reduced network costs are obviously a big factor as well.
“The encode and decode of JP2 [JPEG 2000] is not an issue, and telco bandwidth is now just becoming increasingly commoditized,” says Farnsworth.
“You can buy a 10-gig network from Norway to London for 800 bucks a month. That’s nothing compared to the cost of an OB [outside broadcast] van or flights for three or four crew [members]. The trick is building the right resiliency into the network, so it’s all auto-self-healing and it’s got enough reliability.”
Sinclair is taking a measured approach to adopting the cloud, and IP technology in general, throughout its production operations.
“We look at it very practically,” says Parks. “IP is essentially and initially a transmission format. Now that IP technology has made its way into the studio, it’s really fundamentally a question of affordability and compatibility.”
The first question is whether existing HD-SDI gear even needs to be replaced. Some Sinclair HD plants are 10 years old, says Parks, while others are only a couple years old. Then there is the question of whether one really needs to do it. The new facility that Sinclair will build for Tennis Channel in the next few years will likely be all-IP and future-proofed for eventual 4K UHD production; the typical Sinclair call-letter station is likely a different story.
“I have to evaluate, does it cost more to build an IP facility than a traditional 3-gig HD/SDI facility?” says Parks. “Then the next question is: What am I gaining in going all-IP? What’s the purpose of building an IP facility? If you’re building an IP facility to move ultra-hi-def signals around, OK, that’s important. But if you’re only ever going to do 1080p/60 HDR [High Dynamic Range], do you really need an IP facility to do that?”
Other areas of technology focus for Sinclair next year will be continuing current initiatives toward overhauling advertising technology and broadly deploying ATSC 3.0 broadcasts. Sinclair CEO David Smith has already said that the group will try to roll out 3.0 broadcasts to 25 stations in 2019.
“It will take us a while to get cranked up,” says Parks. “But it’s definitely doable and on our to-do list, and we’re serious about it.”