Q. ‘Convergence’, specifically the convergence of IT and broadcast technology, appears to be one of those themes that endures. Why does the subject still garner so much attention in 2012? It must be 15-years since the term was first used in this context, are we not a fully converged industry?
No, I don’t think we are fully ‘converged’, far from it; and yes, it does seem strange. It is probably 20 years since the first video files were introduced in a production workflow, but the broadcast and media technology business has apparently lagged behind other industries in the exploitation of IT-based systems. That is not to say that the broadcast facilities of today are not highly reliant on 'IT' infrastructure - most control rooms have a high degree of computer driven automation, and desktop editing in news rooms is almost universal. A review of the underlying system components however, often reveals an environment comprising a number of single function 'black boxes' or software-based processes running on proprietary hardware to provide the video signal or file-based processing. From that perspective, there is a long way to go.
Q. What has caused this apparent lethargy?
There is probably no single reason. Undoubtedly, some early adopters were burned by poorly developed, unreliable offerings and partial (more cautious) implementations suffered integration headaches that yielded apparently little operational benefit. There are a few high profile digital swans at some broadcast facilities, the shortcomings of which are often highlighted by the wary as a reason to resist a more complete migration to fully IT based infrastructure.
Q. Digital Swan?
A digital swan is not (quite) a white elephant. Some early attempts at deploying IT workflows in which ‘must have’ legacy systems were retained resulted in solutions in which a number of proprietary single function devices from multiple vendors were forced to communicate through an array of gateways and format converters for the overall workflow to be realised. Thanks to a uniform user interface, an impression is created of a smooth, integrated operation whereas in reality, like a swan sailing across a pond, it is the furious paddling beneath the surface that keeps the platform operating. Therefore, failures and errors inevitably occur. Engineers and operators who have a ‘swan’ in their facility will appreciate the analogy. Their swan probably has a name. I remember a few!
Q. The issues you highlight here appear to relate to the approach as opposed to any intrinsic problem with the technologies.
That’s right. There are few technical barriers to a broadcast production implementation in which the IT components dominate. Issues of resilience or time criticality are long gone. Indeed the IT industry offers more in terms of formal service assurance at multiple levels within the technology stack than broadcast technology ever did. There are components in a broadcast/production chain that will always be highly specialised, most obviously cameras but many, perhaps most, of the downstream components need not be. As high end media production and broadcast move to digital and file-based working, new tools and systems will be required to take better advantage of the IT technology that has benefited other industries. Merely dressing legacy systems with a layer of new technology is not enough to deliver the required levels of interconnectivity and efficiency. Instead, a whole new approach to workflow and the consequent integration requirements are needed in order to satisfy the growing diversity and complexity of media business deliverables. Broadcasters and content owners need to move to products that use techniques common to other high technology sectors and try to avoid partial or compromised solutions that will deliver proportionately less benefit than a wholehearted approach.
Q. A broadcaster taking a wholehearted approach to system design doesn’t address the integration issues though.
No it doesn’t and, sadly, the integration issue remains. Vendor lock-in is a real problem in the broadcast industry, possibly more than any other technology space. Too many manufacturers take an open standard and make a subtle change to it so that it appears compliant. But on integration with a component from another manufacturer, problems arise (I’m sure most will have encountered problems with the ever-expanding flavours of the .mxf container). Manufacturers do not yet appreciate that the use of open standards is for the benefit of their customers and is now essential. Systems architects within broadcast organisations are challenged by reduced budgets and an ever-increasing number of content delivery channels; and interoperability issues characterised by manufacturer specific ‘application frame-works’ and ‘platforms’ are greatly frustrating. These situations would be anathema to a web content management system (CMS) architect. Unfortunately, such frustrations are becoming increasingly common right up the production chain.
Q. Are integration issues likely to be removed in the near future, and what will be the drivers for change?
Ultimately the resolution of integration issues - and a key driver to the migration to production platforms built on standard IT infrastructure - will be financial. These are difficult times generally, and specifically for broadcasters, who not only have to compete with a fall in overall revenue caused by changing consumption habits but the need to satisfy these changing habits with new demands on content delivery. Broadcasters need to do more with less, but expectations for production and technical quality remain high.
I expect there will be relatively few single-vendor, monolithic, production facilities deployed in the coming years. In order to achieve the required level of flexibility required of a modern production facility, a greater use of IT-based systems for signal processing as well as control/management is essential. Equally as important is the use of open communications standards/protocols and material exchange standards to achieve predictable integration. There is much frustration with broadcasters who find that they have to arbitrate between two manufacturers to ensure a complete, seamless integration, and paying for this privilege will not be tolerated much longer. Financial constraints are driving a quiet evolution, but it’s a revolution in the right direction.
Q. We expect the cloud to feature heavily at the forthcoming IBC, will cloud based computing assist the migration to the type of IT based facilities you describe here?
I expect that ‘cloud’ will continue to be a popular buzzword at IBC 2012, but this is more a supply side focus than one derived from the actual needs of production companies and broadcasters. To most in broadcast the cloud is still a nebulous term, a technology innovation searching for an application. Make no mistake, the cloud offers great opportunities for broadcasters and content owners and should be considered seriously in any technology strategy. The inherent collaborative capability it affords makes it a logical place for production to sit, and new revenue streams are also achievable. For example an archive content owner may choose to post a content catalogue on-line via a portal equipped with a simple mechanism to search, select, retrieve and deliver material. This opens up simple and low cost business-to-business and business-to-consumer revenue channels.
However, wholesale use of the cloud for production does have barriers, most notably the bandwidth requirement and related costs. Moving video content from a production office or location to the cloud for processing (e.g. editing or transcoding) and back again is cost prohibitive. The bandwidth requirement, particularly for HD content, is so expensive that the cloud model just doesn’t make sense. I expect there to be a number of hybrid solutions in which some functions such as asset management and browse editing are provisioned in the cloud, with other more heavyweight tasks such as rendering performed on the ground at the production facility. During design, systems architects should analyse which system components are best placed in the cloud and which are deployed at the production facility. The inherent use of service-orientated architecture in cloud provision is likely to drive a similar design mentality in deployed systems. This in itself will drive change.
Q. We have talked about Convergence and Clouds, what about the other C-word, Consolidation. Will market consolidation drive the take up of all IT based production platforms?
The vendor/supply side market will unquestionably consolidate significantly in the next 5-7 years (a little more slowly than in other industries – obviously!). Frankly, I don’t know many people who would take a different view. It is inevitable that some big IT supply companies will move into the broadcast space, and that will drive an increasing number of mergers and acquisitions. As to how that consolidation will manifest is not quite clear. There have been some fairly big mergers and acquisitions in recent years but they have had a tendency to be within the industry. The big IT vendors operate in relatively low risk multi-billion dollar markets and are unlikely to spend hundreds of millions, or even many tens of millions, in an acquisition that provides access to a market of only a billion dollars. In relative terms, broadcast is not a huge industry and it is more likely to be the current big beasts that have most to lose from consolidation. This may in itself drive a more open approach from manufacturers.
Q. We have talked about the on-going IT and broadcast technology convergence, how does your company Blue Lucy Media support this?
The ethos of cost-effective, software-based tools and high technical quality production values runs right through Blue Lucy Media. Most of the management and delivery team have spent the majority of their careers on the broadcaster side of the fence, so that gives us more than insight into day-to-day and longer term strategic issues, as well as the problems broadcasters and content owners face.
We have found ourselves getting more involved in overall systems integration as much as the design and build of our ‘off the shelf’ service-based video processing components, which is exciting. We have some new technical and business innovations being announced in the run up to IBC, all of which are very much focused on serving the business needs of modern broadcasters.