TV Techs Doubt IT-Based Playout Readiness

While the growing momentum behind so-called channel-in-a-box technology is intriguing and makes a lot of sense, some broadcast engineers say tech vendors have jumped the gun, racing to market with technology that is not mature enough for American TV station operations. “The single box units are now being utilized more for cable channels than anything else,” says Sinclair’s Del Parks. “At the end of the day, a TV station is probably a little more complex to the degree that it may need some specific pieces of equipment.”

Top broadcast equipment vendors are rushing to market with advanced IT-based playout technology that they believe can now handle master control in complex, news-producing commercial TV stations.

Last week’s announcement that Grass Valley had acquired PubliTronic and entered the market already crowded by Miranda, Florical, Evertz, Snell and Pixel Power, plus talk that Harris and Harmonic may be developing products have created a sense that the technology is poised to make a real impact in local TV broadcasting.

But broadcast engineers contacted by TVNewsCheck say the vendors have jumped the gun, racing to market with the so-called channel-in-a-box technology that is not mature enough for American TV station operations.

“They all work on the surface and the idea makes a lot of sense,” said Dave Folsom, chief technology officer at Raycom Media. “But when it comes down to it, each of these systems falls short a little bit. I’ve been checking with my peers to compare notes and to make sure I’m not seeing it incorrectly. A lot of the big groups are doing the same thing for the same reasons and we are all coming to the same conclusion.” 

Folsom said he has challenged the manufacturers, telling them what the systems need to do. “Each one said, ‘Yeah, ours will do that.’ But when you get down to it, you find out they really can’t.”

In essence, channel-in-a-box technology integrates many pieces of traditional hardware that make up the master control and playout chain — switchers, servers, graphics, channel branding, audio and routing — into a single software application that runs on generic IT-based hardware.


Del Parks, VP of engineering and operations for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, also likes the idea, but not what he is seeing so far.

“The single box units are now being utilized more for cable channels than anything else,” Parks said. “At the end of the day, a TV station is probably a little more complex to the degree that it may need some specific pieces of equipment.

“We’ve just designed new master control rooms for our stations and we’ve deployed about eight or nine of them so far. Because of everything that occurs outside of playback, you’ve really got to have that variety of specialized equipment.”

Sinclair is actually doing “a channel in three racks” rather than in a box, he said. “It’s about as compact as you can make a master control room these days and still have all the functionality and specialized equipment that you still need.”

At Belo, Craig Harper, VP and chief technology officer, said he has yet to test the technology, he is following the trend with interest.

“I know about Grass Valley’s acquisition and I think it was smart move for them,” Harper said. “They’ll refine it and I think that might make it more palatable for commercial broadcasters. Maybe this will be the change in that paradigm — having a real broadcast company owning that kind of technology. It’s definitely something we will keep up with, but at this moment I don’t have any real interest in it.”

Jim Ocon, VP of technology at Gray Television, is also following the technology closely. “Part of the challenge for any company that wants to do an automated production control is the translation into the traffic system. This is especially true with station groups like Gray,” Ocon said.

“You want to make sure that things like secondary events are handled well. I think this is a good trend, but it comes down to how your core network infrastructure is already architected.”

Ocon and Folsom said they are experimenting with the technology, but neither would name the vendor or vendors they are working with.

In an effort to test all emerging broadcast technologies, Gray has set-up a broadcast testing laboratory at Ross Video in Ontario, Ocon said. “Ross is very good at being neutral. I’ve invited all the Gray vendors to submit equipment and software.

“If a company wants to come in and plug in their box to see if its works, we’d like that. We were tired of waiting for the development to come from the factories, so now we are just doing it ourselves.”

One channel-in-a-box fan in the station ranks is Commonwealth Public Broadcasting in Richmond, Va., which last April installed Snell’s ICE system at three separate stations—WCVE and WCVW in Richmond and WHTJ in Charlottesville.

“We bring all our ingest into the ICE off our PBS satellite receiver,” said Mark Spiller, VP of engineering and digital operations at Commonwealth. “We also have an Omneon SD server that we had prior to our digital upgrade. We take our Omneon files and transfer those over to the ICE and play those out through the ICE up-conversion.”

Spiller said that ICE serves as a switcher. “You can bring ICE into an existing switcher and have it as an HD server playout or you can bring SD files into the ICE and play out upconverted files out of the output.”

Joe Zaller, president of Devoncroft Partners and a representative of the International Association of Broadcasting Manufacturers, said there is major interest in channel-in-a-box technology throughout the world. “Without a doubt, the global market is looking for ways to do more with less and be more efficient. This technology absolutely fits that bill.”

That said, Zaller is not surprised at the skepticism expressed by broadcast engineers. “Very little is more mission critical than what this technology replaces in the broadcast chain,” he said. “This is a very big shift. It’s not that the software has to do one big thing, but it has to do a thousand small things and do each of them as well as current hardware products.”

But the engineers are talking to the vendors about the technology, he said. “That means there is a lot of activity and opportunity ahead. We are in the early days of an important trend.”

Comments (6)

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Julie Caracciola says:

October 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm

WHDT Miami (DMA: Miami-Fort Lauderdale) and WHDT Stuart (DMA: West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce) have used a fully-online master control and traffic system since the summer of 2011. It handles all HD delivery, format transcoding and verification requirements 24/7, including satellite tone insertion and local switching. The system was designed for us by Cinetechnik LLC.

david michaels says:

October 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm

I think both pro and con views are correct. On the pro view, automation has made incredible advances to the point in which a channel-in-a-box / hybrid system can do all the necessary functions required by master control. This is clearly a trend that is here to stay. This trend has increased in speed recently and is driven, not only by technology, but by cost demands. On the con side, I challenge both broadcasters and automation companies to think outside the box and think 99.9% uptime. Broadcasters need to review and renew their workflows. If a broadcaster can afford to pay the operational cost of an existing workflow, more power to you. Keep on trucking. If not, then I suggest a review and a renewing of your operational workflows and the addition of cost-saving automation. Both will provide you with the success and cost-savings needed to operate a broadcast quality operation. For automation manufacturers, I strongly suggest more attention and effort in the area of 99.9% uptime. I see this as a top automation issue. “Hot” auto fail-over backup options should be standard in all channel-in-a-box / Hybrid systems. Warm and Cold backups are just not good enough. A channel-in-a-box / Hybrid system should be able to switch to secondary video & audio, automation software, network, and third-party device control with zero glitches and zero loss of service. At the end-of-the day for broadcasters it’s all about what you can or can’t change in the area of workflow and what you can or can’t afford. Sid Guel – Broadcast Automation Consulting

    len Kubas says:

    October 20, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Anyone thinking 99.9% uptime should NOT be in the broadcasting business. If your station is on 24/7, you are on 8765 or so hours a year, and 99.9% uptime means that — in this content — your ingest/playout is “only” down 8.765 hours per year. Multiply the hourly figure by the average revenue per hour, and most have lost more than they saved in using crappy gear. In IT, 99.999%(five 9’s) uptime is promised by some vendors (even fewer deliver) which means ingest/playout only being down 5 or so minutes per year. Any vendor of real-time systems (like playout/ingest) needs to do at least six nines. Traffic and automation (which aren’t really real-time) can get along with five nines. It’s not just the downtime: mean time to repair/fix/discovery of downtime is also a big issue.

    len Kubas says:

    October 20, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    “Hot” failover is another old, hopefully dead, concept. You need multiple coordinated systems, and redundancy in each. Hot failover is the type of system that did Research in Motion so “well” last week and may have accelerated their decline.

Teralyn Wade says:

October 21, 2011 at 9:55 am

Replacing all of the specialist technology in the traditional playout chain is certainly a big ask, and the lukewarm reception that some solutions are getting in the US is not surprising if vendors’ claims are exceeding what the kit can deliver in this mission-critical space. However the truth is that this is not a one-size-fits-all technology, so generalising that channel in a box is not mature enough for American TV station operations may fail to take into account the capabilities of individual vendors.

There is already a huge range of offerings suitable for an equally large range of budgets and technical requirements, and as more vendors enter the space, this is set to increase. It’s a fact that most broadcasters can’t simply throw everything away and start again, they may have workflows based around legacy equipment and devices that haven’t yet reached end of life, so automation specialists Pebble Beach Systems have taken more of a ‘thinking outside the box’ approach with their Dolphin channel in a box solution. Dolphin operates under control of Pebble Beach Systems’ own automation technology and, as well as being available as a ‘pure’ channel in a box for simple channels, it can integrate alongside best-of-breed video server, graphics and captioning devices for more complex prime channels. Equally systems can be deployed as hybrid channels, mixing Dolphin with best-of-breed discreet devices. This ability to integrate to other devices helps broadcasters transition to this new technology, and if their needs change in future, the ability to add traditional devices to the mix means that they aren’t totally dependent on the functionality in one box or provided by one supplier. A key advantage is that all devices, regardless of the vendor, are brought together under a common unified user interface within the automation system.

So whilst there are horses for courses it is always important to study the form before placing your bets!

robin droppa says:

October 21, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Coupling new technologies with traditional broadcast processes is challenging. Channel-in-a-Box solutions encapsulate most of the playout, switching and keying functionality required for a TV or Cable channel, and they can reduce the initial cost of getting a new channel on-air, but that content still needs to be provided and managed. Unfortunately, many of the software tools that support Channel-in-a-Box systems don’t always compliment the existing workflows and business processes. The information and content required to support a Channel-in-a Box solution is certainly within the walls of the broadcast facility, but the challenge is finding software solutions that bridge both new and existing technologies. Middleware that can capitalize on the existing operation to support the new technology without expanding the current workload is an important component. There are solutions that leverage existing information to harvest content and data from the operational silos within the existing facility and feed the single box solutions in the machine room in a reliable and consistent manner that meets the mission critical requirements of broadcast television.