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Channel in a Box: What’s the secret?

By 2012 a growing community is recognising the potential of the Channel in a Box concept. So how is it really working in action? This year Columnist Russell Grute talks to heads of Ops and engineering at broadcasters and service providers to find out how it is going.

By 2012 a growing community is recognising the potential of the Channel in a Box concept. So how is it really working in action? This year Columnist Russell Grute talks to heads of Ops and engineering at broadcasters and service providers to find out how it is going.

From a solutions architecture viewpoint, everyone was hoping for a self-contained playout building block. One that replaced the appropriate broadcast server(s) and signal path(s) and that comprised the automation; or, a reliable and self-contained add-on to the mam workflow — a ‘channel-in-a-box’, in fact.

This is now working well for many types of channel. Notwithstanding the complexities of channel branding graphics and subtitling workflow, many CiaB solutions are now cost effectively and reliably playing out multilingual long-form and commercials, adding goodies such as high quality SD upconversion and aspect ratio conversion etc where required. So far so good.

As long as all the content and the schedule are accurate, valid and delivered on time, every time, then everything is ‘tickety boo’ (British for acceptable performance…). Often however, this is not the case.

Key scheduling and content preparation processes are usually managed by departments upstream of playout or, in the case of a service provider, by the client themselves. And so are any errors; individually or systemic. It’s not easy to improve and streamline these processes and many report that there is still a huge gap between optimal scheduling and playout process integration.

Maksim Butsenko at Levira AS manages 21 channels from its media centre in Tallinn, Estonia. “Using a software-based channel in a box, we offer a streamlined platform. Some clients have worked closely with us and we can now trust them to deliver reliable schedules and content. Others require us to do more work checking their content against the schedule, often at the last minute,” he says.

Computer says No

Accurate content validation is now a key issue in deploying CiaB successfully from an operational point of view. Particularly when working on a larger scale, where dramatically increased content throughput is required to serve more platforms and territories.

Content validation means all the upstream planning, scheduling and content preparation processes ensure that TX can be certain that programmes, ads, promos and graphics are correct and ready for air. Whether material and its metadata is changed a lot or just a little, secure validation is crucial. Seeing red in playlists, or the wrong graphics or subtitles coming-up-next, is still not the preferred way to manage multichannel playout.

Even when content has been safely ingested and has passed a manual or automatic file-based technical QC, cleared for compliance and parted for commercials, further on air problems are common. These are caused by schedule to playlist errors such as incorrect transmission timecode and segmentation, incorrect programme titles and graphics template errors.

Monitoring playout ‘by exception’ is now the future for many channels or certainly parts of the schedule. It helps if playout staff can be sure that all incoming material is valid and can be trusted without further routine checking, while they attend to more complex live events and unexpected problems – as they simultaneously manage 10 or more channels.

Simplified transfer processes

Most frequently though, it’s errors during file transfers that are the most difficult to manage; such as from archive to TX via transcoding for example. Usually, acquired content recently ingested/uploaded or from the library is transcoded to the transmission standard. Interestingly there is an opportunity here to dispense with unnecessary intermediate transcode processes, possibly avoid unnecessary archive use, and play content as ingested using the library master format. HD is an interesting example.

Richard Allingham at IMG explains how its HD football production workflow and library, managed by Ardendo, uses material encoded using Avid’s DNxHD at 120Mbps. To launch a new HD UK Premier Football League playout service in 2011 and simplify the TX workflow TWI selected an ‘integrated channel device’ that could natively play DNx. This meant that no additional content transcoding or checking was required. For some types of channel it is now cost effective to manage content at 120Mbps and higher in a playout subsystem.

So what’s the secret?

Channel in a Box is finding its place less as a standalone device and more as a high performance edge device or application, plugged into the core media management ecosystem. However, it’s not always designed to work ‘out of the box’ and to get the best results, careful end-to-end IT broadcast workflow design is required.

Summarised nicely by Peter Elvidge at GlobeCast, “to streamline workflow and gain operational advantage with Channel in a Box, content preparation and validation processes have to be improved, in order to make them highly robust and reliable. Otherwise, the additional checking and intervention required by playout staff would sometimes negate the potential benefits and cost savings.

“It remains our strategy to ensure that the core media management (MAM) architecture and workflow are correct so that we can choose whichever Channel in a Box suits our clients’ on-air requirements.”

As the proposition stabilises, it’s what happens with people and processes around that box that has the greatest effect on success. A ‘Kaizen’ type approach, continuously improving the scheduling and content preparation workflow upstream and working ‘outside the box’, is perhaps the secret.