An industry assessment of the UK’s move from tape to file

On the 1st October last year UK broadcasters, led by the Digital Production Partnership (DPP), officially waved goodbye to tape with the introduction of a common standard for the file-based delivery of programmes.

Over the past 12 months, some 10,000 programmes have been delivered to the UK’s broadcasters in the AS-11 DPP file format.

Broadcast spoke with some of those involved in the process of shifting from tape to find out what went well and what remains to be done.

Bill Brown, head of media standards at ITV and DPP commercials workstream lead

I was always dreading that moment when something would go wrong on air, because it was quite a seismic change, but it’s gone remarkably smoothly.

Since October last year, ITV has taken delivery of around 3,000 AS-11 files, which is about 95% of all our commissioned content. We have eradicated tape from our workflow with one exception – we still allow people to deliver on tape if they’re delivering 48 hours or less before TX, due to playout limitations. This year we have gone through a playout modernisation programme with Ericsson, so that 48 hour window will hopefully reduce in the coming months.

At the end of the day, with file delivery, you have to be able to deliver a file within a finite period of time. It takes a period of time to transfer the file and to go through the various processes – including transcoding and subtitling - it has to go through downstream. That’s one of the reasons we have been so vociferous about having content delivered on the contracted delivery date rather than the TX date. The days of being able to deliver your programme really close to the wire, where you just threw your tape in the machine and got on air with seconds to spare are gone.

Ian Beushaw, head of digital media, Deluxe Media

In the early days we experienced some issues when people used non-compliant platforms to create some of these files, usually in cases where systems weren’t upgraded. But once things were upgraded we had very few problems at all. We take in 100 hours a week in DPP files, and it’s very rare now that we have rejections.

Issues only persist where material created on non DPP-compliant equipment is delivered and the supplier doesn’t have the ability to addressthe problem in a timely fashion.

So, with the agreement of the broadcasterand supplier, we put the file through what we call a source prep processes at our Acton site, where we essentially open up and rebuild the file to make it DPP compliant.

The only thing that there has been some resistance to is the late delivery ruleset. ITV, for example, has a cut-off of 48 hours, after which the programme must be delivered on tape. There were initially some instances of suppliers who would leave it a little late and supply on tape, but the broadcaster jumped on that and it’s all fine now.

I’m quite a fan of the DPP. It was exactly what the industry needed. [File delivery] impacted our business a little bit, because with files we don’t have as much preparation work coming in [as we did with tape], which was obviously a revenue stream for us. But we are providing services to create DPP format deliverables for suppliers outside the UK, so it’s moved the revenue around a little bit for us as an organisation.

JP Dash, managing director, TC Soho

Although officially it was October first last year that file delivery came in, we had been delivering files for months before then. As I recall, last year’s file delivery day seemed quite uneventful. There was no mass burning of tapes in Soho or anything like that.

The workflows and tools we use to create AS-11 files are much more stable now than 12 months ago, which means it’s easier to predict delivery times, which was the reason for a lot of trepidation.

One issue is archiving; a lot of companies we work with have a challenge about how they keep all this file-based media…there still seems to be a lot of request for tapes, even after file delivery. We’ve been offering things like LTO as an archive service and cloud storage too, which a lot of the post houses have provided.

Neil Hatton, chair of UK Screen’s Technology Working Group

It was a huge change, and the DPP pulled it off in a very short amount of time with remarkably few incidents. Had the DPP not been in place it would have been chaotic. 

One of the things we have learnt is that the compliance programme was introduced far too late in the process.

As a result, a lot of facilities firms had to take a huge leap of faith that the encoding solutions and the QC solutions they purchased would be compliant with the AS-11 spec. In the end, all worked out ok and I don’t know of many companies that regret their purchasing decisions.

There are minor inconsistencies between broadcasters related to who gets notified when a programme has been received, and who is told that it has been accepted for transmission. And we are working our way through late delivery. Some series are still commissioned on tape because producers are not confident that the file delivery process is fast enough to give them the ability to deliver close to the wire.

By the time of the industry’s next technology refresh, perhaps in two to three years’ time, processing power will have increased so it will take less time to create a master file from scratch.