By Ian Fletcher, CTO, OmniBus Systems.
‘Channel in a box’ is a convenient term for understanding the basic proposition of a raft of new products now available to broadcasters. But it’s also a misleading term if it persuades the market that all IT-based automation and playout systems are necessarily boxed in, limited and compromised in their capabilities.
A typical channel in a box system offers some advantages of convenience and cost saving – but these almost always come with disadvantages of limited functions, and limited capacity to integrate with the broadcaster’s wider environment. While there is a place for these products, buyers need to understand that in principal and in practice, advanced IT-based systems are quite capable of doing much more: in fact they can be better at delivering the sophisticated, multi-faceted functionality and performance today’s broadcasters require.
As ever, buyers need to look beyond obvious assumptions and labels when considering major purchases: not all IT-based systems that claim to provide an automation and playout solution are equal. The idea that complex, high-value, primetime television can only be delivered by conventional, multi-vendor, hardware-based transmission chains, belongs to the last century. In the same way that software running on standard IT hardware revolutionised editing and other areas of post production, top-end IT-based automation and playout is now transcending the limitations of conventional technology, and making it possible for broadcasters to develop new approaches to the business of putting channels on air.
However, there are genuine applications for the typical channel in a box system: broadcasters sometimes want to run a channel without integrating it fully into the wider transmission operation, and without requiring any significant automation capability. The attraction of a PC-based, plug and play solution for applications such as shopping channels or religious programming is that a broadcaster can get a channel on-air quicker and at lower cost than with conventional infrastructure. And the fact that the channel is ‘boxed in’ is not a disadvantage in these situations, or is at least an acceptable disadvantage.
For today’s broadcasters and media companies, speed-to-air is an increasingly important factor. The speed of installation and getting to air, the saving in capital expenditure on equipment, the reduced rack space and lower energy requirements all add up to a strong case for the channel in a box solution – in the appropriate broadcasting application.
The difficulty with the typical channel in a box product arises when broadcasters look for these advantages, but want to deploy a system that fits into their operating framework and doesn’t compromise what they can do with the channel. This is where broadcasters risk disappointment if they are not careful about evaluating the real capabilities of the transmission and automation options open to them today.
There are three choices today: the conventional transmission chain; the channel in a box product; and the full-featured IT-based transmission platform. The last of these is the logical successor to the conventional option and will replace it within a few years.
A fundamental limitation of channel in a box products using a video card instead of a video server is their inability to deal with some of the important but less obvious requirements of broadcasting, such as AFD (Aspect Format Description), closed caption insertion, Dolby surround sound, and all the triggers and codes that go into a video signal to meet the requirements of most broadcasters today. Such systems can’t support these functions because they are limited to functionality of the video card.
For broadcasters who clearly understand and are happy to accept the limitations of the product they choose, the channel in a box approach can work well in the right application. Broadcasters need to look beyond this if they require a solution with full automation facilities, multi-client, multi-user capability, driving a large number of channels, with enterprise-class asset management, and want to be able to monitor, manage and update the systems easily. There’s no reason why today’s channel in a box products can’t develop these capabilities in time, if they are developed by manufacturers with enough expertise and experience in the field of broadcast automation and transmission.
The true potential for IT-based systems in automation and playout is realised with an end-to-end all-software transmission chain. With this approach, it’s possible to exceed the capabilities of the conventional, multi-vendor transmission infrastructure, and provide a system that delivers the convenience and cost advantages of the channel in a box, but in a no-compromise form capable of the most demanding primetime applications including live broadcasts, with full integration into highly-developed broadcasting environments.
Operating hundreds of channels from a single workstation, from ingest, through material management, to automation and playout; working with a fully distributed architecture, where operators can watch and control any number of channels, sharing control and reassigning configurations hour by hour, according to broadcasting needs; integrating fully into the engineering, monitoring, and asset management environment – these are some of the advantages of an advanced IT transmission platform. As the first and most evolved IT-based transmission system, OmniBus iTX provides these capabilities, allowing broadcasters to run complex, high-value primetime channels efficiently and flexibly – without getting boxed in by technology compromises.
By Ian Fletcher, CTO, OmniBus Systems.