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Thu 4 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Migrating to an IT-based broadcast infrastructure

Mark Errington sheds light on some of the challenges of migrating to an IT-based infrastructure and how they can be addressed

Mark Errington sheds light on some of the challenges of migrating to an IT-based infrastructure and how they can be addressed

Most, if not all, broadcasters use IT equipment. Do they use it as part of the broadcast infrastructure though? The answer is most likely yes, even if it's only in the simplest form.

Maybe it's e-mail exchanging thoughts and information, maybe it's spreadsheets with scheduling and billing information or maybe it's state-of-the-art workflow management and playout systems.

Whatever the situation, it's also still possible that not all of the end-to-end processes are IT based, and it may be that equipment hasn't been thought of as IT, because it replaced a process that was traditionally performed by specialised broadcast equipment.

Nowadays, there's truly a convergence of IT, telecoms and broadcast, both in the way of addressing audiences, and in the way of creating the infrastructure to address them. There's talk of tapeless workflows, low-cost disc-based storage, sharing, re-purposing, integration and format standardisation.

What does this mean to a broadcaster that's looking at how to change their existing workflow? Where should you start? What will create the biggest revenue increase or cost saving, and will anything done now have to be re-worked again in the future?

There's no ideal starting place, but there are a couple of basic business rules that apply as much here as with any other project. Taking the first step is often the hardest part, and taking the project in manageable pieces is essential.

The other key determinants in making sure that minimal re-working is required in the future and a truly integrated solution is arrived at are open standards in file formats, data exchange and software. It also helps to work with companies that specialise in key areas, and those that are open to integration with other specialists (rather than trying to be a jack of all trades).

The starting point for migration may be determined by the key project success factors, and measured in increased revenues or in cost savings. To increase revenues you need to increase advertising, whether targeted or linear, increase sales of content, whether wholesale or retail, and increase pull through such as SMS or web sales. To save costs you must be able to do as much or more, with fewer people, lower running costs, and less specialised equipment.

So, to work out where to start you really need to break down the workflow, and decide where you will get the best project return:

1. Content acquisition, creation and re-purposing

2. Storage

3. Schedule creation, reporting and rights management

4. Playout

5. Compliance recording

Content acquisition, creation and re-purposing requires a review of studio and camera equipment, quantity of third party supplied material, and the number of outputs for each piece of material.

In more depth, this also requires a review of quality assurance procedures, file formats (that are needed and can be used now and in the future), the recording of metadata information and the speed of transferring files (compared to the speed of working with tapes, and for network sizing and management). Key decisions at this stage are whether an asset management system is required, or whether this can be added later, and the openness of file format so as not to restrict the editing and playout options.

Storage requires a review of operating systems, edit system sharing, speed of storage and file transfer, and a fit into asset management and playout workflows.

Schedule creation, reporting and rights management, is probably the area where IT is being used. Having this integrated into the asset management and playout system is key, so a review of integration and file exchange and information is critical.

Playout is also an area where IT may well be used, but not appreciated. This is also one of the areas where it's believed that specialised broadcast equipment is required, although with current playout technology, all of the functions can be performed on IT rather than broadcast specific equipment.

A video server is in fact a PC, and even though it replaced the functions of a VTR, it's only a specialised PC, not broadcasting equipment. The playout systems must be capable of handling branding, secondary events, integration to all of the other aspects of workflow, and creating logs of everything that has been broadcast.In addition, in a multi-format workflow there will be linear, on-demand, streamed and mobile versions of the content, all of which requires that at least parts of the preceding processes are handled with IT rather than broadcasting equipment.

Finally, with compliance recording you come to a unique element that's not dependent on any of the other workflow aspects when it comes to decisions regarding IT enabling. Replacing a VTR recording of content output with a networked recorder allowing full browsing and metadata linking is a simple decision of cost versus benefit based on the equipment cost, running cost, and personnel cost in running the two alternatives.

It is extremely unlikely that a broadcast facility will be running today with no IT equipment. It's possible to start at any stage of the workflow and work forward, backward, or outward to create a fully IT-enabled facility.

You migrate from tapes to tapeless so you can move data rather than physical media, and this allows sharing and re-purposing. Storage costs now appear to be lower for hard disc storage than for tape storage, so the business case is already set for the transition.

If your suppliers continue to provide you with tapes, however, this needs to be factored, but having the right storage with connections to your suppliers may encourage them to change their supply from tape to file.

You create schedules based on your ability to create new and exciting materials faster and to a higher quality, and you transfer them to your playout systems that can scale according to your output requirements, and are flexible enough to provide data driven graphics, and secondary event management, minimising your need to do all output changes in post production.

You output many versions and many formats of your material, and maximise your advertising and pull through revenue, all connected and reported via your as-aired logging, and matching your advertising insertion process.

The place to start though, is always understanding your entire end-to-end workflow, selecting those suppliers who are willing to look at the project in stages with you, rather than trying to take a big-bang approach and create a single vendor solution. As with everything in the old broadcast chain, you didn't expect camera manufacturers to provide all parts of your broadcast workflow, so why expect one supplier to provide all parts of your IT broadcast workflow?

Mark Errington is CEO of ON-AIR Systems.

EMC targets broadcastersOne IT player which is fast gaining a strong foothold in the Middle East broadcast industry is EMC. Although traditionally in the business of catering to IT users, EMC has now begun to share its data management expertise with the broadcast sector as well. Habib Mahakian, regional director - Telecommunication & Media sector, EMC Middle East & North Africa, answers some of Digital Studio's queries.

What opportunity does EMC see for itself in the broadcast industry?

We have always been in the business of protecting, managing and distributing data. Traditionally, we have done this for IT users. But increasingly, we see media and telco companies merging their businesses.

You also see more broadcasters moving beyond the traditional platform to manage and distribute their content to newer platforms like mobile TV and IPTV. This means that their data files are getting bigger and they need solutions to manage them effectively. This is where we come in.

Have you worked with any international players on this front?

HM: Yes, we started engaging with international media companies a while back. We have worked with Fox International and Turner Broadcasting. We are now providing a complete turnkey data management solution to a client in Saudi Arabia and we have some projects in the pipeline.

What would a turnkey solution include?

Everything from digitising analogue material to storing it online, enabling disaster recovery and enabling the exchange of this data between different physical locations.

Why would regional broadcasters require a solution like this?

Historically, broadcasters have used analogue solutions to store their data and 80% of the region's history and culture have been stored on tape here. These analogue solutions have always been difficult to manage, they have a shorter shelf life and occupy more physical space. Digital storage is not just cost effective, it also helps companies streamline their workflow.

Do you have a dedicated media department at EMC?

By the end of this year, we hope to have a dedicated media and telco division that addresses the needs of this specific market. We are working closely with systems integrators in the region to advocate our solutions more effectively.