Whether live news or infomercial, the content has to come from somewhere. By Howard Twine, product manager, SGL.
The sheer proliferation of channels looking for revenues combined with the current economic climate has led suppliers to continue to try and lower the cost of technology ownership. This is largely being achieved by developing IT-centric solutions to combine previously discreet technologies and workflows; channel-in-a-box products are a key case in point.
This ongoing move to IT-based systems in recent years – while still full of challenges -- has made combined solutions a possibility, potentially lowering cost and therefore providing vendors and broadcasters with new revenue opportunities. Smaller broadcasters with limited budgets and those that require the rapid roll-out of additional services are looking for an alternative to the set-up, running costs and time that it takes to put a channel on-air using a traditional broadcast infrastructure and workflows
So what is a channel-in-a-box? By taking a self-contained PC, a high capability graphics card bundled with shared central storage and the ability to combine multiple playout devices -- master control, graphics capabilities, subtitle insertion, DVE functions and other peripheral devices -- a broadcaster has a complete channel-in-a-box system that can create, schedule and playout a branded channel at a relatively low cost.
The question is: is there really a market for this type of device given the compromise that is inevitable? We would say yes, there is, given the overall capital expenditure. There are substantial cost savings to be made on the initial outlay, as well as maintenance savings as operators manage multiple channels. If the broadcaster wishes to expand later down the line it simply buys another box.
However, support is going to be a key factor for broadcasters that deploy this type of device. Suppliers of these solutions must, by the very nature of the technology, move into areas that are new to them, or at least in which they are very inexperienced. This will inevitably provide challenges when it comes to support. The emphasis with platforms like these is the critical nature of the software. Care has to be taken when maintaining these platforms. For example, the IT approach would be to apply all the Windows updates available. One incorrect ‘update’ and the channel could be off-air.
Levels of storage
Of course this doesn’t spell the end for the traditional broadcast infrastructure. For a start, manufacturers don’t want to cut across their own revenue streams. Channel-in-a-box technology is certainly not going to be used by providers of premium channels or live news or sport – although premium channels may look at this option when rolling out additional services. However, there are a plethora of dedicated cable, satellite and DTV channels with fixed demographic and advertising potential that will benefit greatly.
While channel-in-a-box technologies are designed to provide a complete – if simplified – playout solution, they don’t provide high levels of storage. Combining this with the fact that so many broadcasters need and want to repurpose their content for their own or other outlets there is therefore a requirement for these systems to be linked to some form of archive. A SAN, which is scalable in bandwidth and capacity, may be sufficient if you’re a shopping or infomercial channel, in which case there’s no business model for any long term storage. However there are a whole host of channel types that need to take advantage of a fully scalable storage facility. After all, the content has to come from somewhere.
HD, and the inherent performance requirements behind it, is another consideration. In this instance the broadcaster will require some kind of central repository in which all its ingested content is stored, based simply on the volume of storage required. Therefore why not deploy a self-contained archive that sits beside the channel-in-the-box infrastructure and provides further opportunities to maximise revenue? This is entirely achievable.
Established broadcasters playing out multiple channels will already have an archive in place. When expanding their services they can simply bolt a channel-in-a-box solution on to their existing archive infrastructure. There is a great appeal for existing broadcasters to deploy a channel-in-a-box on the basis that they can get a channel to air very quickly and cost effectively, again with the proviso that it is not a complex channel with all that entails. A premium broadcaster can roll out subsequent channels for around one tenth of the original cost, which means they can significantly increase profitability and time to market.
By adding an archive the broadcaster can take a manual, semi automated (with watch folders etc) or integrated lightweight approach using an XML API to extract content. The XML API is an important element for smaller broadcasters who write their own applications tailored to their specific requirements as it allows them to write directly to the archive control system. This scenario is almost as simple as producing an XML file from an Excel spreadsheet, which provides the schedule for the channel-in-a-box. The archive can then retrieve the required content.
Channel-in-a-box technologies don’t fundamentally rewrite the rulebook, rather they provide a new avenue for channel creation that exists largely in the software domain. As described, there are limitations but we are living in the IT world and this development is a part of that move. But whether the workflow is hardware or software-based, the fundamentals of broadcasting still apply.