Master Control Slowly Moving To Cloud, Pt. 1

Broadcasters increasingly are getting comfortable with the idea of replacing their existing baseband master control and playout infrastructure with a cloud alternative when the next technical refresh happens. However, for those looking to the public cloud questions remain about live TV. There’s also a nagging concern that must be addressed before broadcasters hand their cash registers over to something as ethereal as the cloud. Be sure to look for Part II on Monday, April 17. Click here to access TVNewsCheck’s NAB 2017 Resource Guide listing of master control and playout vendors and products or here to download it as a PDF.

Broadcasters contemplating what to do about master control and playout find themselves balancing three interrelated and competing factors: what’s technically possible, what’s psychologically acceptable and what financially will be the most beneficial.

At the 2017 NAB Show (April 22-27 in Las Vegas), they will have ample opportunity to see the latest tech developments for themselves, talk through their concerns and control issues and perhaps begin planning how their stations and station groups can shape the future of master control and playout to realize greater workflow efficiencies and maximize revenue.

Already, there are indications many have begun a serious evaluation.

“A lot of people have been rethinking what they will do with their next-generation master control system and playout servers over the past year,” says Andy Warman, director production and playout strategy and market development at Harmonic, which will show its Spectrum X Advanced Media Server system at the show.

“It’s not that many virtualized [master control and playout] systems are coming on air, but people are taking a moment in time to look at what these systems will be.”

Virtualization is the next logical step in technology development for master control and playout functions, Warman says.


Master control has a history of transition, moving from big iron controlling all of the discrete devices needed to play back, squeeze down, brand and do all the other on-air manipulations needed in television, to channel-in-a-box solutions.

“One of the key enablers [of virtualized master control] was the move to channel-in-a-box technology where we became CPU-based rather than ASIC- or FPGA-based,” Warman says.

Relying on a CPU in a channel-in-a-box system made it practical to migrate to a rack of servers on premise or off-site in the cloud, he adds.

Broadcasters now are looking to take the next step into the cloud where they can take advantage of lower-cost common-off-the-shelf servers in on-premise datacenters or the outright elimination of capex by turning to the public cloud.

“Virtual playout frees broadcasters from the need to possess, operate and maintain their own hardware,” says Don Ash, president of PlayBox Technology, which will be unveiling several new features for its CloudAir cloud-based remote playout solution at the NAB Show. “The savings in space and staff overheads can be substantial, especially for a channel located in the center of a major city.”

Large broadcasters with multiple channels to put on air have a lot to gain from tapping into the cloud, says Eric Openshaw, general manager of Pebble Broadcast Systems, which will show its Orca virtualized channel-in-the-cloud running under its Marina automation in Las Vegas.

“Tier 1 networks and service providers with a much higher volume and a little more dynamic schedule with sporting events [and similar live events] stand to gain a lot by building agility into their master control,” he says.

That’s particularly important to broadcasters that must spin up multiple channels for the duration of a special event like the Olympics and then turn them down, Openshaw adds. “Those kind of use cases are driving this technology into the cloud.”

Moving channel playout to a public cloud service like Amazon Web Services (AWS) is starting to become a reality, says Mo Goyal, director of product marketing at Evertz, which will show its Mediator-X/Overture-RT Live at the show.

“Media companies are definitely seeing that to get content out there and generate revenue faster, they need to shift away from the dedicated hardware model to something where they spin up a channel for a little bit,” he says. 

Doing so gives them to chance to test new concepts for channels without committing the capital expense previously needed to start a new channel, and make some revenue in the process, he says.

Broadcasters at the NAB Show will find no shortage of vendors singing the praises of the cloud. However, they would be well served to listen carefully to what vendors say can and cannot be done in a public cloud.

There is a disagreement among some over whether virtualizing master control and playing out content from the public cloud — at least for the moment — can handle the rigors of live TV and a fluid ad schedule.

For example, Sony has two big notches in its belt when it comes to leveraging IP signal transport and the cloud in broadcast operations: the April 2015 launch of centralized cloud-based media management and distribution from WGBH Boston under the Public Media Management banner, and a newly launched cloud-based syndicated programming content prep and distribution operation for Tegna — a collaborative project done with Crispin. 

(Note: Click here to access TVNewsCheck’s NAB 2017 Resource Guide listing of master control and playout vendors and products.)

In fact, the company views this year’s NAB Show as its “coming-out party for cloud-based applications,” says John Studdert, Sony’s VP of sales and marketing.

But even with these major successes and this show’s focus on the cloud, Studdert says it will likely be a couple of years before TV from the cloud is as reliable and predictable as it is from today’s baseband master control and playout approach.

“Given that master control is really the cash register for the group, there can’t be any risk associated with it,” he says.

Doing all the things master control does today in the cloud is a problem, especially placing commercials closer to air time so stations can maximize the value of their spots, he says. “Many see this [cloud-based master control and playout for live TV] as an eventuality, but solving the puzzle remains a challenge.”

Those challenges eventually will be overcome, says Shawn Maynard, VP-GM of Florical Systems, which at the NAB Show will be celebrating its 32nd anniversary of providing software-based TV automaton solutions.

“The future of playout, quite frankly, is in the cloud — whether that is a private cloud or a public cloud,” he says. 

Evertz has done some proof-of-concept work to demonstrate the public cloud can handle both scheduled and live events, says the company’s Goyal.

But until the “definite obstacles” to live TV from the cloud are overcome, a combination of both private and public cloud may offer the best approach, he says.

Combining the two gives broadcasters a way to dip their toes in the water when it comes to live from the cloud while having a backup physical location to move that channel to on premise, he says.

There’s more to a cloud migration than technology, however, says Maurizio Cimelli, managing director of Deluxe MediaCloud, which will highlight its latest advancements in its cloud playout services for broadcasters at the show.

While broadcasters over the past year are beginning to rethink master control and playout, and some are embracing the shift to the cloud, a fundamental challenge remains: giving up a sense of control, he says.

Many broadcasters regard master control and playout as their cash registers, giving them an understandable reluctance to lose physical control, he says. “We still get asked the question: ‘In the MCR, I know everything is in software, and there is no hardware. But can we still have the big red button for failing over?’ ” he says.

The irony is such button would be connected only to a piece of software, not hardwired into a baseband playout system in the next room,” Cimelli says. “It just goes to show that technically we are there, but now we are at the point of managing the emotional attachment that comes with having hardware sitting very close to the MCR.”

Rush Beasley, founder and president of Rushworks, which will highlight the latest advancements in its A-List automation and streaming solution at NAB, is a little more direct.

“It’s strange to me that broadcasters will roll over with it [the cloud] and totally depend on it,” he says. “I mean, if I am depending on that for my living, I don’t like it.”

Even for broadcasters who have come to terms with pushing their cash register into the cloud, there remains a desire to provide a way for a person to take control when necessary, says Dan Fogel, CTO of DNF Controls, which will feature its Flex Control Network at the show.

“We are getting calls from lots of people who have realized you can’t really eliminate the humans, and when you virtualize you better give humans some way of touching something to be able to react to what is going on.”

(Note: Be sure to look for Part II on Monday, April 17. Click here to access TVNewsCheck’s NAB 2017 Resource Guide listing of master control and playout vendors and products.)

Read all of TVNewsCheck‘s NAB 2017 news here.

Comments (2)

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Cheryl Thorne says:

April 13, 2017 at 10:22 am

There go more jobs….The only safe jobs that will be left will be those who come up with effective content and those who can market and sell the content

Thomas Hubler says:

April 13, 2017 at 11:56 am

We’re sorry to announce that today’s coverage of the SportsCam2000 will not be available. Joe6Pack on a backhoe severed our fiber line and corporate is too cheap to pay for any redundancy.