The Broadcast Technology Survey 2011: Broadcasters and In-house facilities

Middle management and senior staff with kit-buying influence at large-scale London-based broadcasters were the majority respondents to this portion of the survey, with most characterising themselves as either “early adopters” of new technology (29%) or “enthusiasts, ahead of the curve” (29%), something that surprised John Maxwell Hobbs, head of technology, BBC Scotland.

“I would have expected the larger area to be pragmatists,” he says. “Some could be said to roll out ahead of the curve [BSkyB’s Harlequin 1, Pacific Quay], but the reality is that there are fewer early adopters than this survey suggests.”

It could be that people prefer to be perceived as technological groundbreakers when a more pragmatic approach is borne out in practice. However, there is broad agreement that file-based workfl ows and the parallel shift to HD present the most highprofile challenges in the year ahead.

Less than a third of respondents say that SD is the most prominent format, with the transition to HD well under way and coinciding with decisions to migrate to tapeless operations.

That, in turn, causes issues for storing increasingly large volumes of HD files from card-recording cameras.

“Because most post systems still use proprietary and fairly expensive storage, we are having to manage a massive amount of media, far more than we can hold in a work-in-progress post environment,” says Maxwell Hobbs.

“There’s still a missing step in the workflow, which is post ingest, pre-post - normally viewed as the logging phase - where we need an easier way to log and consolidate media before sending to post.”

Turner Broadcasting Systems vice president of engineering Steve Fish still sees a huge amount of tape but also calls for a universal interchange format “because I can guarantee if I have a tape, it will play first time but if someone sends me a file, it won’t”.

The categories of archive and metadata were not included in the list of tech challenges because these elements are viewed as part of a file-based workflow, suggests Dave Colfer, vice-president, technology, Viacom International Media Networks.

“By its very nature, file delivery has to be intertwined with discussions and solutions covering workflow, IP networking and content delivery, and how this content can be stored and archived,” he says.

Given the conversations the production community is having about second- screen viewing and the general rise in on-demand consumption, the individual issues of multiplatform delivery, VoD (both 18%),

IP networking and online video (both 15%) were not flagged by broadcasters as highly as anticipated.

Collectively, though, they represent a vital part of strategy and an area that is set to grow in importance with the penetration of connected-TVs and smart devices.

Fish admits surprise that the response was so low “because multiplatform VoD is without doubt one of the most painful places to be at the moment. The issue is that every single deal you do has a different spec.”

MTV is piloting a VoD and multiplatform project in Germany and could provide the basis for further deployment across the MTV enterprise. Colfer forecasts “a far closer connection and integration with our linear systems and services over the next 18 months”.

As far as stereo 3D is concerned, most respondents (32%) are taking a watching brief, with another 29% saying they won’t get involved at all, while 21% claim they are pioneering the format.

A year into the launch of Sky 3D and with more than 100 hours of original 3D commissions under its belt, BSkyB is arguably leading the way in this field, while most commercial and public-service broad casters have yet to find a business and technical model that works.

In the first category, Turner is “experimenting and thinking about how best to exploit it”, says Fish. “But we have doubts about the current home experience of 3D.”

In terms of procurement, it seems broadcasters are circumspect in their buying procedure, at pains to gauge opinion and information from a wide variety of sources. While 43% obtain at least two quotes for a contract, views are also sought from peers, and product or systems demos are important for more than a third.

The internet is also an important tool for comparing and contrasting prices and specifications, according to 29%. Investment decisions are largely the result of standard upgrades (47%).

However, attempts to gain a technological edge over the competition, a changing approach to workflow and systems intended to cut costs weigh in equally (40%).

Indeed, return on investment is considered the most important buying criteria by more than half of respondents but, interestingly, no one rates price alone as the key reason to purchase.

“We actively shape our buying decisions; it is not down to any procurement department,” says Fish. “Our criteria centres on functionality. If it’s bleeding edge, we build in extra time to make sure it works because it will never be the same as you envisioned or how the salesperson described it.”

Playout: Hunting for a universal format

In the playout and managed services sector, there’s a clear trend towards integrated software systems, using off-the-shelf IT hardware for channel provision.

“We are seeing playout servers with multifunctional operation including playout in any file format, multiple graphics layers, up-down conversion and audio limiting,” says WRN Broadcast head of engineering Dave Travis.

“The nature of a particular channel will dictate whether it’s possible to move to software systems,” explains Steve Plunkett, director of technology and innovation at Red Bee.

“A movie channel, for example, with very predictable, nonlive content is easier to migrate to an IT based platform than perhaps regional opt-in/opt-out channels, which require a more traditional broadcast infrastructure.”

“Clients are less concerned about technology, so long as the solution meets their requirements,” says Jean-Louis Lods, head of projects and proposals at Chello DMC.

“We still do best-of-breed technology as appropriate, but it’s a balance of achieving what clients need at the lowest price.”

It’s difficult to put a specific deadline on the end of tape since there will be some requirements to visit a tape archive for some time to come. At Chello DMC, 70% of all content is file delivered, and it processes 9,000 components (MXF files, WAV audio files and subtitle files) digitally per month.

“Today, about 30% of digital delivered material is HD and we think by the end of the year that will be around 40%,” reports Lods. At WRN, 80% of content is file delivered - all of it HD.

“We are pushing people to go to digital file and we try to encourage that with financial incentives,” says Travis.

Like Fish, Plunkett notes that the swift move to data is throwing up a level of incompatibility when transcoding between fi le formats, which didn’t happen with the more predictable nature of tape.

“When we receive [an MXF-wrapped] file, we have a much higher degree of uncertainty that it will play on our system,” he says.

“If we receive a fi le shortly before a transmission window, we suffer signifi cantly if that fi le is not as accessible as anticipated. It is in everyone’s interests to come up with some common file format that is genuinely interoperable.”

He points to the Digital Production Partnership (DPP), a coalition driven by the UK’s broadcasters, as leading the hunt for a new universal file format.