Master Control To Tackle IP, Virtualization, 4K

Perhaps the trends in master control that will receive the most attention at the NAB Show will be the role of IP transport as an attractive alternative to baseband signal distribution and routing. But also attracting attention in Las Vegas next week will be 4K Ultra HD, more tightly integrated master control and traffic workflows and VOD. For a resources guide to the companies mentioned in this story, click here. Read all the 2016 NAB Hot Topics stories here.

Not unlike the television industry at large, the technology and workflows at the heart of TV master control are undergoing a rapid transformation fueled by new demands being placed upon broadcasters and a desire to achieve greater operational efficiency.

At the 2016 NAB Show, which opens next week in Las Vegas, master control technology vendors will present their latest offerings aimed at meeting those demands.

Perhaps the trends in master control that receive the most attention will be the role of IP transport as an attractive alternative to baseband signal distribution and routing, and the virtualization of master control and playout functions in the cloud — both on-premise and public.

But they are far from the only important tech trends happening in master control.

What to do about 4K Ultra HD, accelerating the availability of linear TV channels as VOD, and more tightly integrated master control and traffic workflows will also play prominent roles in the booths of master control vendors at the show.

And even as those trends are playing out, a new set of demands stemming from the impending TV spectrum repack and this week’s petition for an FCC rulemaking to authorize ATSC 3.0 will likely fuel conversation about what will be expected of master control in the not too distant future.


IP Transport And Virtualization

“Transitioning from SDI to IP lends itself to the drive toward virtualization and cloud-based playout,” says Andy Warman, director of production and playout strategy and market development at Harmonic.

While there will be no fewer than four competing IP standards and protocols present at the NAB Show, the goal of each is essentially the same, he says.

That is enabling “carriage of lossless or visually lossless video, audio and data over COTS [common off the shelf] networks and support [for] switching and routing of signals to create the desired final output with the same level of interoperability as we are used to with SDI,” Warman says.

The speed with which broadcasters begin replacing their SDI routing with IP transport will vary greatly, says Steve Rose, director of product management at Grass Valley. While large broadcast networks may be pushed into making the move sooner because they are at the outer limits of their baseband router signal handling capacity, local broadcasters are likely to take a more gradual approach and time their transition to IP transport to coincide with ordinary equipment replacement cycles, he says.

“The big guys have a lot to gain, quickly, [by moving to IP],” Rose says. “But that doesn’t mean the benefits of IP aren’t there for the smaller guys.”

Smaller broadcasters will increasingly begin to receive IP signals, which they will be required to convert to SDI to introduce into their workflows.

ATSC 3.0 (which is an IP signal stream) and other output requirements will mean more IP, Rose adds. “If you are doing those things, you begin to say, ‘I am spending all of these dollars on conversion.’ It may not be a driver to rush out and buy new master control, but I think it is important to consider that when it is refresh time you wouldn’t want to buy a master control that couldn’t do the IP natively,” he says.

The Benefits
Once video and audio content is in the IP domain, the idea of virtualizing master control functions and playout in on-premise or off-site datacenters becomes practical, and broadcasters are beginning to take note.

“More and more broadcasters are ready to adopt cloud-based technology as it offers greater flexibility and affordability for content delivery,” says Don Ash, president of PlayBox Technology.

At the NAB Show, PlayBox will debut its CloudAir for cloud playout that can run on broadcasters’ existing servers or can be licensed from a third-party service provider, he says.

The reasons for the growing popularity of virtualized, software-defined solutions for playout and master control are simplicity, speed and flexibility, says Mike O’Connell, EVP at Pixel Power. “The potential gains are enormous, and we could finally be seeing the real benefits that were previously expected from channel-in-a-box solutions but were never truly achieved,” he says.

Managing master control and playout in a virtual environment makes it possible for broadcasters to “deliver highly flexible service levels with less hardware, with less power and rack space, while changing the game with the business model,” he adds.

At the NAB Show, Pixel Power will make the U.S. debut of its StreamMaster playout platform for complex channels, which can run on dedicated hardware or virtualized in a datacenter. The company’s Gallium workflow and automation engine has integrated API control of StreamMaster, O’Connell says.

Virtualizing master control, playout and ad insertion will be a big topic at the Imagine Communications booth.

The company announced April 1 that its Versio integrated channel playout, SelenioFlex Live encoding an xG ad insertion for multiscreen, is available on the Microsoft Azure cloud as Microsoft Azure-certified solutions.

“We are in the Microsoft Azure Marketplace,” says Tim Mendoza, Imagine Communications VP of product development for playout. “Literally, you can go to the marketplace, spin up an instance and bring a channel live to air in under five minutes.”

Mendoza says the ability to load Imagine software in the cloud on demand and have video playing out in minutes “is incredible, a huge first for companies that want to spin up a channel and [have] disaster recovery at a very affordable price.”

Eric Openshaw, general manager of Pebble Beach Systems, says that with the right tools and the right software platforms it can be an “incredibly fast and painless exercise” to spin up new channels from the cloud.

“In the past that was hundreds of thousands of dollars and weeks of integration. Really now it can be a matter of minutes with a high level orchestration tool to get that channel up and running,” Openshaw says.

At NAB, Pebble Beach Systems will be showcasing its Orca IP-enabled virtualized integrated channel — what Openshaw calls “the channel in a box without the box.”

Orca essentially runs Pebble Beach Systems’ core products, including its Marina automation system and Dolphin baseband integrated channel, in virtual machines.

“There will not be an SDI cable in our booth,” he says.

At the show, Evertz will introduce Facility 2020, a software-defined data center for broadcasters. By leveraging its Software Defined Video Networking, SDVN, Evertz allows broadcasters to deploy a data center model that supports virtualization of master control and playout. New channels can be spun up and spun down as needed.

On the far end of the virtualization continuum is Deluxe MediaCloud. “We have built an end-to-end, software-centric platform that is operational and on air,” says Alec Stichbury, company CTO.

“The smart broadcasters are adopting a software-centric approach and embracing IP,” he says.

At the NAB Show, Deluxe MediaCloud will unveil the latest version of PORTALIVE, its software-centric, browser-based master control platform. The product includes features for both local and global live signal management.

Not so fast, says Shawn Maynard, VP and general manager of Florical: “Cloud playout is probably very good for a narrow scope of playout, but it is not a mass master control playout practicality. I think channel in a box is still the biggest trend where people are actually going to be spending their money.”

Maynard points to a recent project Florical did for Media General to centralize ingest at a hub in Indianapolis as an example of the strength of channel in a box and weakness of cloud playout.

He says the station group is realizing “tremendous ROI” with its centralized ingest and master control, which transports programs as files to Florical’s Acuitas channel-in-a-box solutions at stations as far away as Hawaii days in advance of airing.

Streaming high-bandwidth live IP video over fiber optic lines to spoke stations eats up any hoped for cost savings and ROI in fiber charges, Maynard adds.

On The Way To 4K
The appearance of 4K is beginning to impact master control and will likely play an increasingly bigger role as the push is on to make ATSC 3.0, with its support for the Ultra HD format, a reality.

“ATSC 3.0 with its 3840 x 2160 @ 60 fps broadcast standard is certain to put yet more strain on the existing paradigm of feeding individual signals over individual [SDI] cables,” says Andrew Ward, business development manager at Cinegy.

“Signals transmitted via an IP network-based infrastructure are much more easily managed.” As a result, ATSC 3.0 will “bring the last reluctant adopters of IP-based broadcasting” into the fold, he says.

Ward adds that Cinegy’s UHD support is “already firmly in place” and positions the company to help broadcasters make the move to 4K when the time comes.

Tim Felstead, head of product marketing at Snell Advanced Media-SAM, sees 4K a bit differently.

The company recently set up 4K master controls for broadcasters in the U.K. and Canada. “They are what many would view as a conventional system in that they were playout servers, master control switchers, audio processing capability and SDI routers,” he says of the new 4K installs.

“This may not be the master control people dream of [when considering an IP future],” Felstead says. But the baseband approach was the most appropriate alternative for the 4K master control projects, he says. “Certainly with the massive increase in data rate between 4K and high definition, the technology has to go some way to enable those two [IP and 4K] to happen,” he says.

Ultimately, IP will be the 4K master control answer, says Grass Valley’s Rose. “If you are looking at 4K, and you have an old traditional setup it’s a bigger challenge.”

The traditional approach requires master control switcher, servers, automation and branding. “That’s a lot of devices that have to be 4K and get connected,” he says.

At least with a software-based, virtualized model to master control, that challenge is one piece of software for 4K, Rose adds.

Traffic, VOD And More

For years, station traffic departments and master control have sat side-by-side exchanging content, schedules, last-minute changes and as-run reports.

Tools like BXF, or the Broadcast eXchange Format, have made the process easier. But there needs to be even tighter integration of the two station departments, says Imagine’s Mendoza.

“Going forward, master control is going to be integrated very tightly with the traffic system,” he says.

At the NAB Show, Imagine will show its next-generation traffic and scheduling system producing a schedule that is a playlist for master control.

“They will be the same, so we are putting the playlist back into the world of traffic and scheduling where it should be,” Mendoza says.

That doesn’t mean that BXF won’t continue to play an important role at the master control booths around the NAB Show floor. For example, Rushworks will unveil BXF traffic import functionality for its A-List channel in a box.

The BXF support adds “a significant and cost-effective alternative to those stations struggling to maintain older Sundance/Avid systems,” says company president Rush Beesley.

Another workflow change to expect in master control relates to preparation of VOD content.

“The big thing that is sneaking up on all of us is what I call the VOD monster,” says Grass Valley’s Rose. Grass Valley will introduce its iTX-On-Demand at the NAB Show to help broadcasters tame the VOD beast.

The new product addresses the problem broadcasters are having creating VOD content quickly, he says. The product not only can help broadcasters offer VOD content of live shows — like news — shortly after they’ve aired, but may also be used ahead of airtime with prerecorded programming to prepare VOD catch-up and make it available as the programming airs.

“That gets you greater credit in the C3 period and it makes you more money, Rose says.”

Other master control developments that will be on display in Las Vegas include enhanced SCTE control, tighter integration of master control and news control rooms, and channel-in-a-box developments.

DNF Controls will highlight its work to tie in SCTE control with existing automation to provide manual overrides to deal with live breaking events and playback mishaps.

Bitcentral will feature its work to more tightly integrate news and master control. It will introduce Continuum at the NAB Show. Continuum enables control of program content playout via newsroom computer systems, including ENPS and Avid iNews, and commercial playback control via a station’s traffic system.

“On the one side, you can populate your master control through iNews or ENPS, on the other side, you can run your master control the way you always have run it,” says Bitcentral founder and CEO Fred Fourcher.

Aveco has been integrating master control with production control for several years, says Jim O’Brien, the company’s global SVP of sales. “This enhances master control operations profoundly, so you have smooth transitions between MCR and PCR operations,” he says.

It also helps master control operators to be more in tune with what stories are being covered “to avoid the occasional embarrassment” of a news story being followed by “a commercial that is embarrassing to the commercial owner,” he says.

At NAB, the company will introduce Redwood Lite, a playout-with-graphics product for simple master control and production playout applications. 

At NVerzion’s NAB booth, the emphasis will be on the CloudNine video server with updates to improve operational efficiency. “We have really pushed CloudNine to run a whole channel with routing, effects and EAS on it,” says NVerzion founder and President Scott Murphy.

New CloudNine features include internal transcoding and network trigger monitoring and management.

Fade To Black
Even as the 2016 NAB Show will feature the latest advancements in IP transport and virtualization as well as answers for 4K master control, new questions are being raised that will soon demand answers from master control vendors.

Will the FCC’s TV spectrum repack and emphasis on channel sharing have ramifications in the master control room where competitors could one day share infrastructure?

Now that a rulemaking petition for ATSC 3.0 has been filed at the FCC, will new demands be placed on master control to support more than just linear playback, but playout of customized channels aimed at individual viewers as well?

Will ATSC 3.0 mean that broadcasters, who otherwise were content to let their SDI master control and playout ride for the foreseeable future, accelerate their plans for IP transport and virtualization?

These and other questions will likely be raised at this year’s NAB Show. The answers, however, probably won’t emerge for some time.

For a resource page of the companies mentioned in this story, click here. To download the resource page as a PDF, click here. See all 2016 NAB Hot Topics stories here.

Read all of TVNewsCheck‘s NAB 2016 coverage here.

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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