Cloud playout evolution continues apace

  • With Kevin Hilton

Cloud playout evolution continues apace

The shift of playout services into virtualised facilities in the last few years is now accelerating due to more sophisticated software, which is increasingly being offered as a service.
Contributing Editor Kevin Hilton rounds up the latest products and upgrades, while also looking at some of the key areas manufacturers are focusing on today...

The cloud has been steadily increasing its influence on broadcast technology - particularly for workflows and distribution chains - over the last five years. Many broadcasters have long used outside facilities to deliver their programming but that trend is now reaching its ultimate conclusion in the move to virtualised playout. This year's IBC reflected this, with new products, upgrades to existing systems and an emphasis on providing more sophisticated services for a broadcast and streaming landscape with a multitude of channels, each with specific needs in reaching their target audiences.

In its post-show report, media market research company Futuresource Consulting observed that "cloud infrastructure is proliferating in the broadcast, media and entertainment industry beyond more than just cutting edge early adopters". It added that "cloud workflows within the video content supply chain have matured to a point where new innovations are being developed to solve specific pain points within the broadcast workflow."

As far as playout was concerned, the focus for some manufacturers was more on further improving the nuts and bolts of a system, with the aim of improving overall operational efficiency and protecting the assets being handled, rather than launching headline-grabbing new technologies or products. For Pebble, this was a major update of its core automation product. Chief Commercial Officer Neil Maycock explains that what he wryly describes as the "imaginatively named" Automation 2.0 does not have any real changes operationally for the users but does feature a lot of re-engineering to the underlying architecture.

"Things like the messaging system and some of the networking have been changed," he says.

"There are two focuses around that. The first is security; the API into the automation system now uses what you would call modern security protocols.

"The messaging system is an internet-based industry-standard arrangement with high security. It is an increasing concern for mission critical systems like that, particularly after the high profile incidents in the US about a year about with ransomware attacks that impacted playout systems and actually took people off the air. So we've put a lot into the underpinning of the infrastructure to make it more secure."

Through doing this, Maycock continues, the system is now "more friendly" for virtualising and cloud. This have been achieved by removing what he describes as "nasty" network elements such as multicasts, which can cause difficulties when trying to put something in the cloud. "Getting rid of that makes things easier to deploy on these platforms," Maycock explains. "There is also a security aspect in that you can have your networks a lot more locked down if you don't have some of these legacy approaches to messaging and networking."

Pebble's second IBC2023 announcement was its partnership with Op2mise, which produces an AI-based scheduling tool for FAST (free ad-supported streaming TV) channels. Op2mise works with other playout technology providers; its core product is a platform that can be set-up with business rules and information on what is in a media library. This then enables it to automatically create channel schedules based on the criteria provided.

"For example, you could say, "This is a children's channel aimed at the age group 7 to 11 year-olds' and it will create programming and commercial schedules working with what is in your media library," Maycock comments. "It's semi-automated so it will present a multi-day schedule. But operators can still fine tune it to make sure it complies with the creative standards of the channel."

Maycock observes that this kind of flexibility and functionality is particularly applicable and attractive to new FAST services starting up. "A lot of the channels that have rushed on air are very basic and it's almost as if they're trying to see if there is an audience and commercial traction for what they're doing," he says. "Once there is, the broadcasters then want to up their game and have some more sophisticated things that you would have on a full-blown channel."

This type of scalability, with the capability to spin out new channels or build on existing ones as and when, is now being offered by playout technology providers on a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) basis.

Among the companies working this way is PlayBox Neo, which introduced its Cloud2TV platform in 2019. Users subscribe to this and are able, explains company founder and Chief Executive Pavlin Rahnev, to "supplement their server-based playout systems or more entirely to cloud-connected playout." He adds that this, "Allows extra OTA or OTT channels to be activated at relatively short notice."

During IBC, PlayBox Neo announced that it now has official certification for Dolby Digital Plus Professional Encoding on its PlayBox Neo Suite Live Encoder. It also demonstrated additional features to its playout range, including the Media Gateway for software routing and encoding; the Capture Suite, designed to reduce workflow congestion when large amounts of material has to be processed at short notice; the ProductionAirBox Neo-20 for enabling content manipulation and delivery to be carried out with near-zero latency; TS Time Delay, which performs region-specific time delay of transport stream; and AdBox Neo for targeted advertising.

PlayBox Neo can now also be integrated with the Arion newsroom system from SNews Broadcast Solutions. In this configuration the main functions of accessing content and news run-down playout can be operated directly from the PlayBox Neo platform. Qvest's main focus at IBC was its Product Experience Zone, which presented different aspects of the company's product offering, plus live presentations. Key amongst this were demonstrations of the qibb integration platform for media workflows, which is described as a "strategic spin-off of Qvest". The focus here was on automated workflows using generative artificial intelligence (Gen AI), such as ChatGPT4, for common media applications.

Also on display was Qvest's playout system, makalu, which has recently been installed at several broadcasters around the world, including TVMonaco.

Managing Director Frank Mistol comments that Qvest has seen a rise demand from customers for ways to "monetise content", particularly from the new wave of FAST channels. "But there is also a strong demand for subscription models for use at events, which illustrates the change in the media sector," he says. "Infrastructures are becoming increasingly blurred and service-oriented concepts are becoming more attractive."

Because of this, he explains, hybrid or cloud-native concepts are gaining more attention from companies in areas that previously relied on such technologies only to a very limited extent or not at all. "For the super sports year 2024, with the European Handball and Football Championships in Germany and the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris, we are seeing high demand for event-based playout solutions that can be easily integrated into our customers' existing infrastructure and are particularly sustainable," Mistol says.

Grass Valley (GV) demonstrated Playout X, its 'cloud-first' channel distribution system. This is based on GV's AMPP (Agile Media Processing Platform) SaaS technology and is able to deal with both clip-based and live outputs. GV's Senior Director for Playout Steve Hassan explained that the services for playing out channels based on AMPP have been re-designed to deliver the necessary "application density", while at the same time reducing "end-to-end latency."

The big announcement from Aveco at IBC was the new Redwood WHITE NG video playout engine. Among its features are fast cue times, graphical output, live switching and NRCS plug-in integration.

The move of playout into both the cloud and more software-based systems has brought in some different names into this once niche and specialised area of broadcast technology. Just before IBC, Avid announced the launch a subscription-based software platform that can be used for both ingesting and playing out news, sport, live entertainment and other TV programming. Already in use at major broadcasters including CNBC-TV18 and BQ Prime, Avid | Stream IO can be set up to ingest or play out both IP streams and SDI streams.

Dalet has also introduced a new IP SaaS system for ingest in the form of InStream. This is designed to allow users to "dynamically scale" ingest set-ups in only a few seconds and is able to work with the on-premises Brio ingest and playout platform. InStream is cloud-native and, as is now expected, aimed at news, sport and live event broadcasting.

Live TV is now the major audience-grabbing battleground for streaming services as much as it is linear broadcasters, as Neil Maycock at Pebble acknowledges. "Live content holds the audience more," he says, "and if something is not live on a linear channel most people will watch content on-demand these days. Live programming is really helping traditional linear broadcasters hold their audiences, advertisers or subscribers but Amazon are in this space now because it's a strong attractor for its subscriber base. There's also reality TV, with all the magazine shows around the main event. All of which is driving demand for linear channels and, in turn, capable playout systems for those channels. So we're definitely seeing market demand because people want live content and that's good for us."