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Encouraging innovation in the broadcast sector

The changes wrought by digital disruption will continue to sweep through the broadcasting sector. The window that broadcasters have to define and execute their vision for competing in an increasingly digital market is rapidly closing.

Broadcasting has been going through a period of significant change for several years, with many broadcasters having had to rethink their business models. Naturally, this is affecting every area of the industry, with studios, broadcast control rooms, and production houses alike all working to streamline processes and adapt workflows. Simultaneously, those who use equipment in these environments are increasingly looking for products that will also enable them to work in a more intuitive way. This highlights the fact that broadcast media is arguably the most innovative technology landscape around. 2019 saw advances in cloud workflows and grappled with next-generation storytelling, while the wider availability of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) promised a new wave of automated production processes. Elsewhere, the industry witnessed developments in the arrival of 5G, object-based broadcasting, and the rise of virtual-studio technology.

Broadcast infrastructure

Broadcast infrastructure is arguably one of the most essential aspects of on-air presentation, and at present, broadcasters are seeking cost-effective solutions to improve their efficiency and overall output. The significant rise in the popularity of over-the-top (OTT) video-streaming services, along with ascending internet penetration, worldwide, is likely to aid the growth of the broadcast-infrastructure market in the near future. Owing to remarkable advancements in technology over the past decade, viewers seek the flexibility of viewing content from any location, on any device, and at any given time. Key participants in the market are thus focusing on providing high-quality content across various networks, including digital terrestrial television (DTT) and broadband.

In their quest toward attaining commercial flexibility and agility, market players are developing new solutions in conjunction with the existing ones. This approach has paved the way for infrastructure duplication, isolated systems, and various other operational characteristics. However, at the back of these developments, players in the broadcast infrastructure market have expressed that operational costs are on the rise, and a sustainable delivery model is the need of the hour.

Eyeing potential of IP technology

The onset of fresh video formats has played a key role in improving the adoption of IP technology in the last few years. Established market participants are currently exploring the potential benefits of this technology to overcome the barriers put forward by the existing content-delivery models. The integration of IP technology will not only allow broadcasters to provide high-quality video formats, but also assist them with remote production and content delivery. For instance, by adopting IP technology, broadcasters at Wimbledon could use any signal from any court without a different routing infrastructure. The adoption of IP technology within the broadcast companies is expected to grow at the back of the entry of SMPTE 2110 into the market. SMPTE 2110 is a major step in moving broadcast production toward IP, and will enable broadcasters to adopt a flexible workflow, as they can efficiently differentiate audio, video, and ancillary data.

Industry experts are of the opinion that the adoption of IP technology is one of the most disruptive trends within the broadcast-infrastructure market sector. However, despite numerous benefits of this technology, at present, only a few media companies are completely relying on IP, as the inclination toward selective dissemination of information (SDI) infrastructure still remains high. As broadcasters continue to recognize the potential of IP, significant uptake of this technology is expected in the next 5 years. With broadcast infrastructure swaying toward IP and cloud, media companies and broadcasters are expected to invest in cybersecurity to fend off hackers.

Switchers respond to expanding demands

Production switchers continue the industry trend of absorbing more functions in the quest to make operations easier, faster, and more accurate. What used to be the province of selecting among cameras, recorders, and remote feeds (with an occasional keyed title), is now a single-operator control station that can roll in pre-recorded material, interface with IP video, control cameras, and program a broadcast. And more functionality is on the way.

One of the biggest trends today is toward greater IP video capability. Migration to IP-based media production is now inevitable. IP connectivity translates very well into one of the leading trends that is being seen with switchers technology. Years ago, remote production burst onto the scene, giving content creators the ability to deploy a reduced number of resources to cover events that demanded a lower budget. The advent of IP technology helped to drive that trend, and it has now grown from just covering sporting events to also covering major events in entertainment and news.

Now, content creators are looking at different ways to design or re-design their facilities, using IP technology. Instead of a specific resource, like a camera or switcher, assigned per studio or control room, they are looking at ways that the same resource could be shared across multiple studios, or even facilities. More and more facilities are being integrated into enterprise-wide networks, which bring the question: Can a switcher located in a broadcast center in New Delhi be used to run an HD production located in Mumbai? Yes, but can that same switcher be used to run a 4K show in New Delhi simultaneously? With production resource sharing, the answer to that question is also yes.

Despite the general acceptance of IP connectivity, SDI is still widely used in the broadcast industry. The industry is responding to the increased market demand for flexible systems that are capable of SDI and IP, which is certainly true when it comes to video switchers. And while IP demand grows, the industry is still in a transitional phase.

What is more certain is 8K – even with its select use at present, such as with large stadium-sized screens, NHK has been broadcasting in 8K for a year now. Add to that the fact that NHK and others have announced 8K plans for the upcoming 2020 Olympics, and 8K will remain in the spotlight. The thought of 8K might sound reserved for a select few national broadcasters, but there are affordable and feature-rich switchers currently available that deliver HD, UHD, and 8K capability in a single unit. 8K might be the wow that comes with major sporting events, but there is also good work being done at 4K and even HD resolution. In particular, some production manufacturers are working to include HDR technology into their switchers and other components in the video chain.

Several switcher manufacturers also have cameras in their portfolios, which brings up the possibility that the switchers and cameras could talk to each other and provide extra features to streamline production tasks. Making its way from science fiction to reality is the use of AI in production switchers. At least a couple of companies are addressing AI in their switchers.

Virtualized playout promises greater security, flexibility

Fixed-purpose hardware-defined processing and delivery solutions have been standard in the world of video production for decades. However, these legacy systems, which require a large number of components and can be costly to deploy and maintain, have given way to more cost-effective software-based solutions that provide numerous benefits in video production that were not available with those dedicated hardware solutions.

Virtual playout is becoming one of the enablers for broadcasters and content producers to do something that they were not really able to do before, which is to start launching hyper-specialized channels, so that they can have dedicated or targeted audiences they can address more easily, and can then start to monetize these new, more granular types or segments of the audience.

This move toward virtualization in the industry has spawned a new buzzword, orchestration, and it could be said that there is a symphony of opportunities that it now presents. However, to take advantage of what virtualization offers, there are actually two types of this orchestration that need to be put in place. The first is a technical one, which is to orchestrate the appearance and provisioning of these virtual playout solutions. And the other, which is the one that broadcasters are playing more of a role in, is to orchestrate the production process and the content preparation process to feed in these new types of channels that are suddenly appearing.

Today, even the term virtualization itself remains very much, another industry buzzword – one that to some is now part of the industry’s migration to the cloud. It is allowing for greater customization in terms of how content can be delivered. With the advent of virtualization, broadcasters have the ability to deploy systems quickly and start up new channels as customers need these, such as for live events. The issue in the short term is how virtualization will fit with legacy systems, even with the benefits it offers broadcasters and production houses. Not every customer has the ability to rebuild their production environment. Some will rely on a hybrid solution that includes an SDI-based infrastructure in the studio, while some customers have moved to virtualization in control and playout. To facilitate such a solution, some are creating so-called islands of SDI functionality, where content is then transferred to an IP environment in the same facility. This is seen as an integration layer where the old world and new world can talk together.

The biggest challenge in virtualization appears to be the ongoing transition the industry faces with the move from legacy systems. This requires more collaboration between the vendor and the customer. Broadcasters can see where they want to go, but frequently have no idea how to get there when discussing virtualized and IP evolution. Going from SDI to IP will also require flexibility and openness to change. The hard point of the transition will depend on how integrated a user is with the old-style broadcast infrastructure. Moving forward, broadcasters also need to think in terms of multiple outputs that include linear streams. However, this is not the first time the industry has faced a transition and while this one will end up being less about hardware, broadcasters and production facilities should be prepared for this brave new world.

The final consideration to virtualization is the advantages that it could offer to content creators at all levels. This could be the final significant transition, in part because it is more futureproof than legacy hardware. This is notable as the industry underwent only minor updates in the early days of video production from the early days of television until the late 1990s with the beginning of the transition from standard definition to HD. Since then, the industry has experienced one transition after another, but virtualization could result in the end of such major transitions.

Making the most of next-gen compliance monitoring

Regulatory compliance was the original driver for content logging, and it continues to be an important use case today. However, over the years, content-logging technology has become a valuable tool for a much wider array of applications to gather insights about broadcast content, provide valuable analytics, and collaborate across the media enterprise. Allowing broadcasters to build an archive of aired content, logging solutions deliver a rich store of media and data for insights and intelligence about the aired product. Updates to current products allow broadcasters to address not only the latest compliance requirements, but also the demands of internal groups including sales, social media, and the executive team. As broadcasters move to upgrade or replace end-of-life compliance products, they have the opportunity to take advantage of fundamental compliance logging functions, as well as next-generation capabilities that improve their efficiency in working with captured media.

To meet regulatory and compliance requirements (i.e., closed captioning, loudness, and indecency/profanity/obscenity), broadcasters need an intuitive and complete solution for collecting information about aired content. Recorded video is and always has been the ultimate affidavit of what was actually broadcast over the air, and it serves as proof that all applicable regulations and requirements are being met. What kind of basic functionality ensures that a broadcaster can leverage recorded content successfully? The essentials have remained the same, though formats and delivery mechanisms have changed. Native capture of content from any video source in the content chain has always been a must for quality assurance. It enables critical visibility into every link in the delivery chain and into every handoff. These days, however, the deployed solution must support many more formats – SDI, IP, ASI, 8VSB, HDMI, QAM, HLS, DASH, RTMP, and DVB-T/T2/S/S2.

Together, all of the aforementioned essentials serve as a baseline for a new or upgraded logging and monitoring solution. Next-generation products introduce features and capabilities that open the door to even greater efficiency and utility. Today’s logging and monitoring solutions give users consolidated access to content and metadata in a convenient and visually appealing interface with familiar media player controls. In addition to tools for finding, clipping, exporting, and analyzing audio and video with a minimum of clicks, newer interfaces provide immediate access to related metadata.

While legacy compliance logging and monitoring systems simply do not offer the rich capabilities of modern systems, they still do many things right. The best next-generation solutions build on those successes and introduce new capabilities that soon will become essentials in their own right. Backed by a responsive and knowledgeable vendor, a new solution can empower the broadcaster to address compliance and regulatory requirements while leveraging captured content to support new projects and services.

Pro audio in a second golden age

The year 2019 has been very good for the professional audio industry. Technology is improving at a rapid rate, while costs continue to fall. With free-distribution technology available throughout the world, more producers than ever are experimenting with new kinds of programming. Audio in 2019 has evolved around five key trends:

Immersive audio. Though it is not new, immersive audio was simplified and came into its own in 2019. The technology received a kickstart from three factors – increased low-cost computing power; the soaring popularity of mobile devices with wireless headphones; and more streaming media services bringing feature films and other content with immersive audio to devices everywhere. This year, Netflix announced that Dolby Atmos is coming to their program lineup, along with the increase in bitrate of audio to comply with the format’s requirements. Dolby’s immersive-sound technology is now on laptops and gets rid of the old requirement for multiple speakers placed throughout the home. This is a huge advance, where previous technology ran into esthetic and space constraints in homes. Music is already experimenting with immersive audio. Though most immersive sound technology was initially introduced for VR and AR, it is no surprise that the technology is being adapted by creative producers for more traditional and unexpected applications.

AI and improved audio processing. AI is affecting pro audio in a variety of ways. So far, it is being used in smarter software tools for fixing specific audio problems and improving the general quality of sound. It is also having an influence in the creation of immersive sound. AI offers the promise to speed the audio production process and make it more efficient. Already the technology is aiding selective noise canceling, reconstructing high-fidelity audio from low-quality sources, and handling speech processing that can change both dialect and language. Also, AI is aiding with spatial simulations for binaural recording. As AI software improves, analog and digital audio will blur. Some companies now bring hardware to DAWs via plug-ins that stream the audio from the computer to an outboard processor and back with real-time control. This effectively merges analog and digital technology.

Audio-monitor calibration. As immersive audio recording expands outside the domain of traditional studios to make-shift environments, audio-monitor set-up is more critical than ever. These computer-assisted adjustment systems became more capable in 2019. Digital signal processing has led to automatic speaker calibration systems.

Consumers demand higher audio quality. Driving all these trends is increased consumer demand for better audio quality. Streaming services are improving the fidelity of their music, while wireless headphones have dramatically improved sound and functionality. Immersive sound, longer audio playback times, wireless earbud adoption, and voice-user interfaces are all having an impact on consumer audio. As technology continues to improve, audio producers are finding new and unexpected ways to use it. Though immersive audio products got an initial boost from VR, users have other applications in mind.

Cable pushes back against ATSC 3.0

Is cable sandbagging ATSC 3.0? Or are operators just jockeying to limit competition to their evolving data-transmission business? A sequence of recent actions suggests that cable operators are pushing back against collaboration with the Advanced Television Standards Committee’s (ATSC) efforts to enable carriage of the format on MVPD systems. It is unclear whether they legitimately believe, as claimed, that it is too early to establish ATSC 3.0 retransmission procedures or if the MVPDs are defensively rejecting the standard’s data-transmission opportunities as competition to cable’s own digital agenda.

In recent weeks SCTE bluntly told ATSC that it will defer initiation of the work concerning carriage of ATSC 3.0 over cable until the broadcast industry completes its standardization efforts. Charter Communications, the second largest cable multisystem operator in the US, held a meeting with top Federal Communications Commission staff members to explain that the proposed 3.0 wireless data-delivery plans do not mesh with existing retransmission agreements. During the FCC meeting, Charter also warned of eventual retransmission problems in the Phoenix model market field trial of 3.0 broadcasts.

The spate of cable resistance collectively suggests that the festering 18-month old next-gen TV rulemaking faces a challenging road ahead. It raises questions about an all-voluntary transition to ATSC 3.0. And since, as some skeptics have observed, the necessary hardware will be relatively inexpensive, cable companies’ recalcitrance to carry ATSC 3.0 services stems from their reluctance to support possible competition.

Madeleine Noland, president of ATSC, dismissed the recent cable maneuvers, pointing out that MVPD operators have had extensive guest access to the planning process at ATSC meetings. “We want full access from the full value chain,” Noland said. “Everybody has to see value. We welcome and hope for input from the MVPDs.” She characterized ATSC as a very flexible system that will enable a variety of business goals, and rejected claims by cable operators that the standard is not complete yet. “The standard is done as of January 2018,” Noland emphasized, acknowledging that it is “a living, breathing document” with expectations that it will be modified through a “measured revision process that accounts for the need for stability.”

“I feel good that ATSC’s membership wants the correct balance between stability and evolvability,” Noland added. She pointed out that an ATSC specialist group is focusing on redistribution, including the conversion of 3.0 to 1.0. The Internet and Television Association (ITA) was a founding member of ATSC and is a participant in the specialist group. “Cable operators will have to deal with the fact that channels are moving, as they’ve done with the repack,” Noland said. “The FCC stopped short of saying that 1.0 and 3.0 must be exactly the same. The bottom line is that 1.0 is there and available for at least 5 years.” Given that reality, Noland agreed that cable operators can say, we do not need to be ready yet.”

Five-year waiting period

The rules for ATSC 3.0 implementation include a mandate that broadcasters must continue to transmit in the 1.0 format for at least five more years. Cable operators will eventually figure out how to handle the next-gen TV transition as they are doing with the repack. Moreover, since the FCC stopped short of saying that 1.0 and 3.0 must be exactly the same, cable operators’ contention that they do not need to be ready yet is a legitimate positioning statement as they develop their 3.0 strategies.

The cable industry’s stance regarding this transition process took on added significance in a memo from the Engineering Committee of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) to ATSC’s Noland. “It would be better for us to defer initiation of the work until such time as the broadcast industry efforts are completed,” said the message from the SCTE committee, which did not identify any individual sender. SCTE said that it appreciates ATSC’s request to develop a coordination process – calling it a reflection of the history of productive collaboration between ATSC and SCTE. “However, we do not feel that the ATSC 3.0 specification in its current form is ready for work in SCTE,” according to the memo. “Specifically, ATSC 3.0 allows a very wide variety of operating points, and we request that the broadcast industry develop and provide the necessary constraints, in the form of launch profiles along with associated priorities, timeframes for availability, and cadence of expected deployment.”

The promise of DVB-I – A broadcaster’s perspective

DVB-I comes at a fascinating time in the broadcasting industry – the unprecedented consumer demand for content brings as many challenges as it does opportunities. By now we are all acutely aware of factors, such as content aggregation and service bundling, which increase the surface area of content discovery far beyond the realm of traditional broadcast media. Equally challenging are the regulatory and commercial forces that are making IP distribution a necessary consideration for broadcasters.

Broadcast and IP

ITV and fellow shareholders in the UK platforms like Freeview Play, YouView, and Freesat are well familiar with using DVB standards to meet this challenge, weaving IP experiences into the broadcast world. Platforms like Freeview Play are established to build upon the strength of linear broadcast viewing and extend it into the IP world, sustaining the prominence of the broadcasters who offer such unique contributions to the fabric of their national culture.

DVB-I specifications are designed to tackle the challenges of delivering first-class broadcast content, using IP technologies, and offer a common approach to derive this value across the broadcast industry. Whether it is delivering seamless high-resolution playback, using low latency DVB-DASH or Multicast ABR, sustaining broadcaster prominence on IP-delivered services, or rich program metadata and imagery powering content discovery, DVB-I is shaping up to deliver a strong foundation for broadcasters wishing to focus on engaging with the challenges and developing the potential in these opportunities.

In distribution too, DVB-I provides the tools for making IP delivery a scalable reality, while sustaining discovery of cable, satellite and terrestrial distribution. With enough will, the promise and value of the horizontal market can continue despite the changing landscape.

Standards for success

Despite this, one could argue that it is facile to view DVB-I simply as a means to sustain the broadcast status quo in a differing distribution technology. The world is changing and while this does present real challenges, change always comes with the opportunity to ask how might we do things differently, better? It is clear that by coming together on making and adopting open industry standards to solve the common challenges, freeing the industry to do what broadcasters have always excelled at, and that is creating amazing content experiences.

Crucially, it is the facility, within the realm of IP technology, to use data to build and sustain direct relationships with viewers, and to offer personalized content experiences, more relevant advertising and ongoing improvement of service, which are in the DNA of all successful digital experiences. With so much competition and demand for great content, the time is now to set the foundation of the future with DVB-I; but of course, it is what we can do with it that really counts.

Free-to-air broadcasting – Navigating digital disruption

Increasing online usage and the reduced cost of connectivity is accelerating the pace of change in free-to-air (FTA) TV and radio broadcasting. The industry is at an inflection point, where a strong offensive is needed by traditional players in order to survive and thrive. While the impact of digital technologies is transforming nearly every industry, media and entertainment organizations have proved particularly vulnerable to disruption. Increasing online usage and the reduced cost of connectivity is accelerating the pace of change in FTA TV broadcasting in particular. A recent AT Kearney study shows how traditional business models in the sector face declining revenues and higher costs, resulting in falling share prices. This reflects not only financial pressure but a loss of confidence in the current narrative around FTA. Today, FTA organizations face further significant disruption. They need to navigate both supply and demand-side challenges, impacting the economics underpinning their ability to monetize content.

Unifying AI applications for broadcasters

AI has been heralded as the enabling technology of the current age, with applications transforming production and delivery set to boost the entire broadcasting industry. Global broadcaster applications of AI offer a wide range of use cases from achieving efficiency in editorial, automating workflows, and tagging metadata. Debunking the assumption that AI will take away human job functions, Al Jazeera Media Network head of media and emerging platforms Grant Totten explains that AI is massively important for organizational adoption to save costs with an advantage to job-shuffle responsibilities and enhance the editorial and creative storytelling. AI changes regulation-control check and enables broadcasters to spend more time telling the story better and giving greater impact to audience on the news.

Creating bespoke neural network-based encoders and formats as well as developing neural networks to enhance current video encoding standards is a focus for some broadcasters. The challenge is finding how to enable deep learning for advanced video encoding without breaking standards for encoding and delivery formats. To achieve the results, they exploit the fact that content can be pre-processed and compacted before being compressed with a standard encoder and focus their AI-based pre-processing and compaction on optimizing perceptual quality for the smallest number of encoded bits. This deviates from the current practice of focusing purely on signal-to-noise ratio, which has poor correlation to human visual perception. The term AI is a loaded word; it is happening today with the likes of Microsoft, Amazon, and Google creating toolsets and enabling shifting skillsets across staff.

Display technology for broadcast application

As the use of touch functionality and extremely high-resolution displays increasingly pervade consumer technology, user demand is leading growing numbers of broadcast-equipment manufacturers to take steps to give their products a more consumer feel. If selected correctly, the displays featured in these products have the potential to contribute considerably to delivering the desired user experience and differentiate their quality from other lookalike products. For example, it is becoming increasingly popular to incorporate touchscreen controls into equipment, something that is easily demonstrated by recent product launches across the industry.

Replacing analog switches and dials with capacitive touch functionality offers the possibility of creating a more seamless finish to the product, as well as incorporating the sort of interface that end-users are accustomed to using in their daily lives. In addition to this, the extent to which replacing push buttons or rotary dials with touchscreen controls save on space and simplify manufacturing is also increasing popularity with design engineers.

Another area in which displays used in broadcast equipment increasingly reflect consumer technology trends is the image-quality expected. Equipment manufacturers are increasingly moving to distinguish themselves within their markets by offering products featuring stunning optics with wide viewing angles. Not only this, but there is also a growing demand for higher resolution displays and, in some cases, such as in component displays used in color grading equipment and displays that are 4K-ready. Moreover, the market is also witnessing a shift from monochrome to full-color displays in equipment as small as a 1U rack. All of this presents a number of challenges, particularly when it comes to ensuring that the display is bright enough and contrast high enough across a wide range of viewing angles.

Way forward

In the current day and age, video consumption patterns have witnessed a drastic change, worldwide. To stay relevant in the market, broadcast companies are gradually leaning away from conventional platforms and embracing cutting-edge solutions, such as cloud technologies. At present, video-on-demand (VoD) is predominant in the broadcasting sphere – a trend that is expected to continue in the foreseeable future, as traditional TV viewing continues to take a hit. Steep pricing models, inconsistent broadcast schedules, and lack of flexibility in terms of access are some of the leading factors that have propelled the demand for online broadcasting. Further, conventional processes that are deployed to encode, capture, archive, and distribute video require very high investments
in hardware equipment. Production teams are thus moving away from legacy broadcast-hardware solutions toward
agile and scalable software solutions in the cloud.

Owing to the benefits offered by cloud-based technologies, players operating in the broadcast-infrastructure market are gradually moving away from conventional broadcasting-infrastructure techniques. Companies involved in the broadcast-infrastructure market are leveraging the benefits of cutting-edge technologies, including IP, AI, VR, and more, to enhance user experience.

The shift toward the adoption of flexible and agile broadcast infrastructure solutions is on the rise, and companies seek cost-effective and sustainable content-delivery network solutions. Complex and evolving viewing patterns across the globe are expected to create significant opportunities for broadcasters in the near future and provide an impetus to the growth of the broadcast-infrastructure market.

Higher resolution, more features, greater IP compatibility, integration benefits, all these are possible with the latest generation of production switchers. And although one may have thought that consolidation of networks and program outlets might reduce the need for production switchers, it appears the opposite is true – there is more content being created than ever, and more switchers are needed to create that content. The global appetite for fresh programming is raising all production boats, including the sort of facilities that use production switchers.

The changes wrought by digital disruption will continue to sweep through the broadcasting sector. The window that broadcasters have to define and execute their vision for competing in an increasingly digital market is rapidly closing. This is how innovation takes unexpected turns that can vary from the early expectations of manufacturers. 

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