Traditionally, playout has been a defining feature of what it is to be a broadcaster. It's the final link before transmission where programming is synchronised with graphics, branding, subtitling, channel interstitials or commercials and played out from tapes by an automated system according to a predefined schedule.
Demands for greater flexibility and the ability to deliver digital files to multiple channels and multiple platforms (across multiple territories) have added vast complexities to the operation.
As these developments hit home, the UK's terrestrial broadcasters have entrusted this vital task to external organisations. The BBC outsources its playout operations to Red Bee Media; Technicolor Network Services (TNS) handles ITV; Ascent Media Network Services has managed Five since the channel's launch while Channel 4 is the latest to transfer its broadcast and post-production, also to Red Bee.
“It's increasingly difficult to divorce traditional playout from the many other ways of distributing a signal,” notes Roger Henderson, Ascent Media Network Services managing director. “Any content provider moving to tapeless technology and trying to react to an increasingly uncertain and ever-changing market faces huge pressure on its resources when it should be concentrating on its core creative business of programme-making.”
An outsource provider, the argument goes, can harness economies of scale to tool up for any delivery platform the market comes up with - be it IPTV, open internet downloads or streaming, distribution to mobile handsets or VoD - at only an incremental cost to the client while shouldering all the risks of expensive technology investment.
“The traditional point-to-multipoint model of broadcast television has been largely replaced by a new point-to-point approach where content providers target their services at individual consumers,” notes TNS senior vice-president Maurizio Cimelli. “As a result, broadcasters no longer wish to be encumbered with the additional responsibility of being the infrastructure provider, upgrader or even operator. Media companies are turning in ever greater numbers to service providers which can help them navigate this period of rapid change and turn pressures on their businesses into opportunities.”
Tapeless transmission and the reduced cost of kit mean that new facilities can undercut the running costs of older, in-house TX facilities, particularly those based on cumbersome automation systems which tend to be heavy on staff and maintenance.
C4 claims its move will create annual savings of 15%. “Making our content available across new digital platforms is placing considerable financial and technological demands on the channel,” confirms group finance director Anne Bulford. “Outsourcing these functions will allow us to tap into the considerable and flexible resources of a big, specialist provider and help us stay competitive in the face of rapid technological change.”
It may even be anachronistic to use the term “playout” at all. Adrian Scott, chief marketing officer for technology vendor Pro-Bel, prefers the term “delivery” since playout “conveys the impression of a fixed schedule of events played out in sequence when the reality is that playout now encompasses a wide variety of processes from ingest to transcoding and media management, metadata production, scheduling and billing.
“The technology, workflow, staff skills, audience demographics and the way audiences consume media has radically altered what was a relatively straightforward bolt-on function,” he adds.
The types of services broadcasters need vary widely. Some want help managing the distribution and transmission of their content. Others require assistance with subtitling, reversioning material or its digitisation and long-term archiving. Some providers manage the post-production of promo material or create it themselves.
Broadcasters increasingly want the flexibility to alternate between an automated schedule and live transmission; to alter the schedule according to audience requests (received by SMS for example) or rapidly adjust the length or content of a commercial break according to unpredictable live events (in cricket for example when a wicket falls).
“The distinguishing feature of outsourced transmission is a convergence of IT and broadcasting,” notes Carl Petch, content management facilities manager for Globecast's Grays Inn Road facility. “We've already seen this happen in post-production and it's only logical that it should be applied to channel delivery too. It's not just a technology change, the skillsets of the personnel are new too.”
“Five years ago, servers for playout came within the realm of broadcast technology,” confirms Arqiva director of broadcast sales, satellite media John Bozza. “Now they're based on IT systems. The people operating them have to be retrained and if a company isn't outsourcing then its costs increase because it may have several sites to staff and upgrade. For any broadcaster to have that skillset and experience in-house is extremely rare.”
The playout division
Mark Errington, chief executive of technology vendor On-Air Systems, suggests there's something of a divide in the level of activity in the UK playout market. “For large broadcasters whose focus is on programme content and advertising opportunities, playout is seen as non-core, particularly when their brand is just extended by adding more channels,” he says. “The focus of smaller broadcasters is still on controlling the entire workflow chain including playout, as they feel they need to have control over the broadcast and any changes to it. Many start-up channels start by using playout services and then invest in their own facilities. It all comes down to whether there are significant capital costs.”
Portland TV, the production arm of Northern & Shell, built its own TX facilities three years ago in a bid to cut outsourced playout costs for 16 channels including Television X and Red Hot TV. It built a 32-channel all-digital centre for£1m, digitised a 5,000-hour library and has since attracted several external channels including X League TV and US channel Mav TV in preparation for a planned£200m flotation later this year.
“While outsourcing we were ingesting loads of Digi Beta tapes every day, making three copies of each tape,” says head of engineering Jon Anthony. “It was a lot of work and quite expensive. We realised we could do this ourselves at far less cost and retain total control over programming.”
MTV Networks Europe recently conducted a review of its own playout operation, opting to build on its existing Camden headquarters, the European hub for 42 Viacom channels.
“Before we embarked on the review, we took a step back and analysed whether it made sense to get out of this part of the business altogether, or relocate out of London at a greenfield site or have playout managed in Camden by a third party or - the cheapest option - take it to Budapest,” explains vice-president, technology Dave Colfer. “We decided to stay in Camden largely for business culture reasons. Transmission is an integral part of our business and it's good for the production teams to be able to follow the route of their product out of the door. MTV is a very reactive and fast-moving organisation and we need the interface between our creative and playout teams to be completely transparent.”
The facility is being retooled for a completely tapeless operation, increased to 60-channel capacity and linked to its US parent and European offices by a new high-speed digital network.
“There are a lot of benefits to using the big outsource providers but we felt that the only ones with a clear understanding of our own workflow were ourselves,” Colfer says. “We can be very demanding of playout and felt it was best to keep it closer to home.”
Two years ago Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) Europe swapped its 24-strong European channels including CNN, TCM and Nuts TV from Ascent Media to playout in-house across Europe from its London base for largely the same reasons.
“It's about control and the management of assets,” says Steve Fish, vice-president, engineering. “If you're broadcasting a few channels then the overheads in terms of technology and support staff are high and it can make sense to outsource. Above that number and the economics start to reverse. A significant share of our library is owned by the group and the rest acquired under licence, so it makes sense to want to control all aspects of its production, repurposing and delivery under one roof.”
Platform TV's Anthony suggests there's a potential downside to keeping TX in-house. “When you go out of house you get accountability. Schedulers need to be able to feel comfortable making demands of playout and the problem with working with an internal department is that it is not treated as a client.”
Discovery Networks Europe operates a hybrid of in-house/externally contracted playout by tasking Ascent Media with transmission of its 45 channels on site at the company's European headquarters in Chiswick Park. Yet Ascent and Discovery share the same parent in Liberty Media.
The notable exception, domestically, to the current outsourcing activity is BSkyB. It has retained control of and invested heavily in its own playout facilities and satellite uplinks, a decision that some observers believe has contributed to its success.
“Technology is an area on which UK terrestrial channels should be putting a premium rather than losing,” remarked former C4 executive David Brook to the Guardian. “Is this really an area to outsource? If it's not important, why does Sky take it so seriously?”
Responding to the criticism, C4's Bulford replies: “Sky has the scale of resource that we simply do not. We are a comparatively small player and having access to the breadth of resources of Red Bee helps us stay competitive.”
The London hub
It's no coincidence that the current flux of activity in the playout sector centres on London. Largely for cultural and language reasons the capital has been the traditional gateway to Europe for foreign broadcasters.
Ascent's Henderson has noticed “substantial growth in playout business targeting, in particular, central and eastern Europe from US and UK clients”. He points to a recent report which suggests there will be 2,000 thematic channels broadcast across Europe by 2015, many transmitted from London - a 50% increase on current levels. “Brands want to reach the new developing consumer markets across the continent.”
London's benefits include access to a high-quality skills base and to all the key vendors. “It's the biggest post centre outside LA and offers rapid, robust connectivity via a vast telecoms infrastructure,” explains Red Bee head of business development Dave Adey. “Service providers based here can add value to big US brands which want to make sure they extend their content as far as possible. If you want to get to a remote place in Europe, a broadcaster is more likely to do so from London than anywhere else.”
There may be a more prosaic reason: the strength of the pound and now the euro against the dollar is attractive to any US company wishing to tap into local advertising revenue.
The playout, master control and automation operation is one of the last areas of broadcasting to be overtaken by the IT revolution. These hardware-driven playout functions are being replaced by software-based content management and delivery systems including Pro-Bel's Morpheus, often used in conjunction with Omneon servers; On Air's combined server/automation system Play Kast; and Omnibus Systems' iTX. The latter is a new product which replaces the functionality of a playout chain in software running on standard PC-based servers.
The key technology is metadata - information about content that travels in digital form alongside the content at all times.
“Without metadata there is no content,” says Scott. “You simply won't be able to find it, let alone exploit it.”
Unfortunately there's no globally accepted standard for metadata, which can make content exchange problematic. “In fact there are so many companies working autonomously to define new standards for everything from encoding and distributing to storing and protecting video that the word standard is becoming meaningless in this context,” states Jon Folland, who runs consultancy Nativ.
A real asset
A service provider will typically ingest content once and store it digitally. An asset management system (either off-the-shelf or proprietary such as with Ascent's Viia service) will read the metadata attached to each item and make it available throughout the playout centre from compliance (trimming length, removing ad breaks) to creative editing (trails, programme links) or straight to air. The transfer of media by tape is commonplace, but playout systems that can handle multiple-format files are important to reduce the need for transcoding materials.
Red Bee's operation for Virgin and Channel 4 makes low-res images available for desktop browsing at Virgin and C4's London offices with playout managed at Red Bee's Broadcast Centre.
“We're looking to provide 99.99% reliability,” says Adey. “Not many industries come close to that and it's down to the right combination of technology and people.”