The playout and transmission market is on the brink of massive change, so how are providers and broadcasters geared up for a future of content-to-mobile and HDTV? A Broadcast survey took their pulse. By Chris Forrester.
The playout and transmission market is on the brink of massive change, so how are providers and broadcasters geared up for a future of content-to-mobile and HDTV? A Broadcast survey took their pulse. By Chris Forrester.

Broadcasting is changing - and fast. In The Next Big Thing, a book edited by UKTV's head of media, Mary Collins, she quotes Sir Alan Sugar's warning to commercial TV staffers to "get another job, because at the moment it is advertising that pays your wages. In eight or nine years' time, the advertisers will not want to pay you because no one will be watching the adverts. It is as simple as that."

Some broadcasters, and most playout facilities houses, are already well advanced in preparing for that tomorrow, where broadband might be the only player in town, and where the whole concept of "channels", let alone networks, might be very old hat. Of course, Sir Alan might be wrong - in the future, Corrie and Pop Idol might still rule most of the roost despite the rollout of ITV 30, a channel devoted solely to 30-second mobisodes sent in by viewers, with a matching 30-second ad break.

Whatever the future holds, the playout houses have to be prepared and Broadcast's latest survey throws up some fascinating trends. Our survey is based on the results of two questionnaires that were sent out to gauge the trends in the playout and transmission market.

The first was sent to a selection of UK broadcasters, polling them on their playout provisions; the second polled UK playout providers on the services they offer. Most of the playout operators declined to give us their revenue data, and some, like BT, bury the divisional income deep within their corporate accounts. In other words, trying to obtain real guidance simply from a company's report and accounts is a challenge. But trends do come through loud and clear.

The bigger players

Discovery Networks Europe moved its playout from Ascent's Stephen Street premises to its new Chiswick Park HQ in April. Ascent Media looks after all of Discovery's 48 broadcast feeds to the UK and Europe, and a massive 103 different streams if one takes into account language and subtitling variants.

That's an especially complex operation, and probably vies with the BBC in terms of transmission challenges (now handled by Red Bee Media, the former BBC Broadcast). Indeed, Discovery's playout contract was high on Red Bee chief executive Pam Masters' wish list of new business for its sparkling new White City centre.

However, US media tycoon John Malone's Liberty Media holds considerable influence over Discovery and Ascent. Back in July, Liberty floated its 50% stake in Discovery, along with its 100% ownership of Ascent Media, into a new Nasdaq-quoted company, Discovery Holding - it was inevitable that Discovery's transmissions would stay with the facilities group.

Red Bee isn't doing so badly, however. It has 64 (mostly) domestic channels and feeds under its belt, with 1,100 staff, compared to Ascent's 399, and£109m annually in revenues, or a respectable£99,000 per staffer. It has just won the valuable Flextech playout contract, which will boost that sum considerably over coming years. Flextech is moving its business out of Ascent's Central London facility over to Red Bee, impacting Ascent commensurately.

Flextech's director, commercial and operations Jon James says the move gives Flextech staff and cash savings and greater creative options with benefits in workflow and speed to market for new services. "It's a big deal," he says.

But compare Red Bee's income per head with GlobeCast's 300-odd channels being pumped out globally from London, Paris and elsewhere, with a mere 95 staff and earning Euro350m a year (about£236m), or an earnings ratio of£2.4m per head. If only this was all profit. But included within GlobeCast's service is satellite transponder rental, and that's expensive.

Content to mobile was high on almost every broadcaster's agenda, and not surprising considering that 78% of broadcasters on our survey were already streaming content to the web.

Scott Monks, Emap's operations and interactive director, says DVB-H and related technologies, including 3G streaming - and IPTV-based streams for broadband - is likely to happen for the firm within two years. Emap (which publishes Broadcast) is increasingly focused on accessing smaller, niche markets and the only way to achieve this is "by embracing new technologies". He sees a strong need for greater staff flexibility and "multiskilling", and possibly outsourcing of some more specialised tasks.

All of the major broadcast networks are testing DVB-H as part of the O2/Nokia/Arqiva trial in Oxford, and there's little doubt that by around 2008 there will be near-national coverage of the technology. But meanwhile there are plenty of 3G activities going on from companies like Sky and Channel 4.

Steve White, head of channel operations at C4, says the broadcaster is already feeding content on to broadband, streaming to 3G mobiles and testing DVB-H. With 3G operator "3", C4 is supplying 6 x 15-minute mobisodes of Dubplate Drama, an interactive story for which viewers can vote on the shape and content of the next episode. The show was aired first on C4 and MTV earlier on this month.

QVC, the UK's top home-shopping retailer, says it's already extending its broadband and web-based output (handled by BT Broadcast Services) as well as looking to growth from 3G and DVB-H technologies. Richard Burrell, QVC's director of engineering and operations, says QVC is already planning "multiple streams of video behind our existing single channel location on Sky". Tellingly, he adds: "Would that we had the bandwidth to do it elsewhere."

He predicts that as broadband, VoD and IPTV-based content availability grows, broadcasters will need to transmit identification metadata so that viewers can find such programming. QVC is readying for this by moving to full video server architecture at its HQ.


Someone else capitalising on next-generation streaming technology is The Mill, which also has a growing playout business under its Beam.TV division. Director of broadcast Noreen Connolly says that at the moment they are generally specialising in handling content from Soho's creative agencies, but also aggressively looking for mainstream material.

"Beam came about initially to electronically handle daily rushes from Gladiator. Now we traffic and transmit finished commercials for many of the agencies, feeding material direct into the broadcaster, via InterMedia and their Omnion servers. We are now very much gearing up for high-def and most commercials are now mastered in HD, currently down-converted into SD. But we understand we have to be ready to start feeding high-def commercials into people like Sky from January."


We now know about the BBC's and ITV's plans for HDTV, and the extent to which certain broadcasters (such as BSkyB) are actively commissioning and preparing for high-def. This also extends to C4 and Five. Stephanie Holm, head of operations at National Geographic, says it also sees itself embracing broadband, and the streaming of content on to DVB-H and 3G-type mobile services. The broadcaster is also moving to a tapeless environment, and HDTV, which is imminent.

But Flextech's James says HDTV is not important just at the moment. He is much more enthusiastic about content to mobiles. "We are currently broadcasting Living TV on one mobile platform and Bravo on two. We expect to launch on other platforms; it is about extending our brands and learning about how consumers consume our content differently."

A firm fan of HDTV is Globecast's vice-president, communications Steve Fairbrother, who says there is a groundswell of interest in high-def right across Europe. "Currently it's mostly focused on next summer's World Cup and to a certain extent this winter's Turin Olympic Games. We are also in conversation with a number of UK broadcasters, and the BBC is a major client. Nobody's asked us to transmit HD just yet, but once set-top boxes start appearing, the channels will follow."

Fairbrother says another trend is in the handling of non-traditional broadcasting of content. "We are already supplying material for Orange in France, and Wanadoo in France and Spain, and we are talking to mobile operators here about 3G, and also keeping a close eye on DVB-H developments. We see our business moving more and more towards the manipulation and repurposing of content."

Discovering high-definition

A big move of premises by Discovery heralded the start of its first foray into European HDTV - for Germany's Premiere. Chris Forrester explains how they and Ascent did it.

Discovery's Chiswick Park facility was delivered to Ascent Media on 18 April, and the past six months have been spent migrating channels and staff to the new building.

The facility houses a total of about 450 staff, 48 video streams and 103 channel sub-sets once language and local variations are added to the mix. Discovery is only days away from starting its first European HDTV service (for Premiere in Germany). The UK high-def service is not far behind, says San Cabraal, senior vice-president, technology and business services for Discovery Networks Europe.

"We are playing out Discovery channels from Greenland down to South Africa, and over to Kazakhstan. It's a complex operation with language variants plus subtitle versions, and then we have to insert the right advertising into the right market, on a market-by-market basis."

Discovery decided to keep playout "in-house", albeit with Stephen Street-based Ascent Media running the operation, having once invited industry majors like the BBC to bid. "We deliberately went through a bidding and procurement process with potential vendors," says Cabraal.

"The technologies are sufficiently mature so that it was less an engineering question and more a service-based question.

"Even though the playout is within our own building here, Ascent is running it for us, and our decision to partner and co-locate with them gives us all the benefits of service delivery. The dynamic for us is that we are interested in getting the right material to the partner, and their responsibility is to get it to the right platform."

Cabraal admits the number of companies who could handle this task was limited. "Our challenge was to have this major conversation in the first place, and from my perspective, Ascent is a vendor who can deliver." He explains that Ascent runs a similar pan-regional operation for Discovery out of Singapore, for the Asian and Far Eastern markets, "and we meet at about the Himalayas".

"We installed an IP-based TV system internally, so if someone wants to see precisely what's being played out to Sweden, say, they have as part of the single wire that delivers telephony, broadband and TV to each desk, a mini-set-top box that has its own EPG and allows a user to tap into any of the feeds," says Cabraal.

Bob Gentry, senior vice-president at Ascent Media, adds: "We have worked on a channel-by-channel basis, which is more or less also a market-by-market approach. There was a huge discussion before this started with Discovery as to how this should be handled, paying high regard to balancing ingest volumes, for example."

Gentry says the main challenge was trying to build for the future, and predicting what might be happening five years from now, let alone 10 or 15 years, was a tough one.

"The design takes account of a 60-channel environment, but is also as future-proof as we can be as to what might happen longer term, with the emphasis being on how media might be played out in the future."

Gentry admits that not every contract is quite as valuable as Discovery's. "I like to think of the playout challenge in terms of screen sizes. Take full-aspect HDTV at the top of the scale, down through standard widescreen, 4x3, smaller screen TVs, iPod TV, console-sized screens and then cellular usage, right down to a wristwatch-sized screen.

"As you come down through these multi-layers, at the top end of the scale the content has incredibly high brand-value, and at these levels the playout solution is absolutely not commoditised.

"The further down you go, the content becomes more of a commodity, with material repurposed to fit the screen size. Stephen Street can handle all of these variations on a theme, and as Ascent develops in the market we will expand its role to suit these new developments."