In-Depth

Optional extras: channel playout choices and localisation

International broadcasters are increasingly having to tailor their channels to meet the needs of service providers and audiences in individual markets, with implications for playout. Stuart Thomson reports.

The international channel business is competitive and broadcasters are fighting for digital shelf space in an environment where multiple players are fighting for a share of the same target audience.

For channel providers the choice is whether to target a niche (and underserved) audience in a particular territory or whether to regionalise their channel to make it as relevant as possible for the local audience. Often, broadcasters will do a combination. However, the cost of managing and playing out an ever-greater number of variations of a channel can be considerable. Broadcasters have sought to mitigate the cost by outsourcing playout to third-party service providers in many cases.

Localising international channels can involve a wide range of activities, from overlaying subtitles or dubbing, use of graphics and interstitials, advertising and programming opt-outs through to channels that are individually scheduled for each market.

Regionalisation can be implemented to different degrees. Major players in the media management and playout business including the likes of GlobeCast, Red Bee Media, SatLink and Chello DMC are seeing growing demand for localised opt-outs of international channel feeds amongst their customer bases.

For the most part international channel providers tend to be large players with access to a good pipeline of content. “The segment of broadcasters that seek to expand tends to be the larger multinationals because they have rights to content internationally,” says Peter Elvidge, deputy sales director at GlobeCast. “That gives them a lot more ability to do things internationally. Smaller content owners buy rights for a specific region.”

GlobeCast provides playout and regionalisation services for a growing number of clients, including the likes of Bollywood broadcaster B4U and BBC Worldwide. For B4U it provides media management and playout for eight international feeds of two channels, with scheduling managed remotely from India via a fibre link and content stored and played out London.

Other providers also see demand for regionalisation services growing. “It’s a market we’ve been involved in for a time,” says Steve Plunkett, chief technology officer at Red Bee Media. “The challenge varies depending on how customised the service is to be. The standardised approach is to have a central playout facility providing regionalised content, with a common ad inventory.  Ads will be different in each region but it will all be managed centrally. The trend is moving towards more local content and ad inventory managed locally so you provide markers to enable all that to happen locally.”

There is more and more localisation and development of ethnic channels.  David Hochner, Satlink

Outsourcing of functions for channels that are largely based on archive content is fairly straightforward. “Now there is more and more localisation and development of ethnic channels but it’s more about archive and content management for broadcasters that don’t want to install their own hardware and operations. We are providing a hosting environment,” says David Hochner, CEO of satellite uplink and playout provider SatLink.

SatLink currently transmits about 25 channels from its facilities in Israel. Hochner says that it has invested a lot in automation. Broadcasters, he says, can manage their own content, which has been ingested into SatLink’s servers, remotely. Alternatively, for broadcasters that want to outsource further, SatLink can provide its own staff and manage the line-up of the channel on behalf of the broadcaster. SatLink provides localised playout for the Israeli market to a number of clients as well as global playout to others. It can also tap into local expertise for language versioning and other aspects of the channel creation process. Hochner sees a trend of international broadcasters looking to concentrate their activities in continent-wide hubs, delivering services to the entire globe from two or three facilities. On the other hand, some markets – notably the US – are large enough to warrant investment in a specific playout centre or even several centres.

Centralisation

The degree of centralisation that a broadcaster will adopt may depend on the types of channel it wishes to deliver. While the arguments for centralisation in terms of scale and the ability to tap into a wide range of expertise in established media hubs are compelling, there may also be advantages in being close to local advertisers and distribution partners.

“Each provides challenges. We have some clients with discrete playout for some regions, while others provide a shared centralised environment with central ad management,” says Red Bee’s Plunkett.

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Complex requirements can lead to significant backhaul costs. If broadcasters want to deliver multiple language versions with multiple audio tracks on a single piece of content in Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound the bandwidth costs will quickly start to mount.

According to Plunkett, there are a variety of structures that broadcasters can hold to for advertising insertion at a local level. They could centralise all operations while delivering local advertising opt-outs or they can deliver channels with cue tones inserted (something that could be done by a third party service provider) for ads to be inserted downstream.
For Plunkett, the key is flexibility. “Sometimes a single client can some channels to particular territories overlaying discrete graphics but using shared resources and technology. Evolution of the commercial model means they can choose what they do more flexibility,” he says.

Tailoring graphics and local programming opt-outs for particular territories can be done centrally or further downstream, or via a mix of centralised and local playout.

The benefits of a centralised model for playout are considerable. However, there have been innovations in the development of software-based playout that can enable certain things to be done in a more distributed way.

For GlobeCast’s Elvidge, some clear models of playout organisation and management are emerging. “Until recently things were done on a piecemeal basis, but we are now starting to see a few models form,” he says. “One route is central casting where a broadcaster has a single broadcast centre that serves many feeds. Another is when you have distributed hardware and edge-managed playout with devices in the field that can play out a channel from scratch or add things to existing feeds.”

Elvidge sees two key trends: one is to base playout from two or three continent-wide media hubs – in addition to London, GlobeCast operates media centres in Singapore and Miami – which can also in some cases be complemented with remotely controlled devices at the edge of the network, where it may be more convenient to create local variations in order to eliminate backhaul costs. Versioning in the local language often needs to be done at a local level, and it may make little sense to backhaul any local content to be inserted back to a central facility only for the dedicated feed to be transported all the way back to the territory.

Playout in a box

The so-called ‘channel-in-a-box’ model, offering software-based channel playout means that a more distributed model for playout could still be economically viable. It is possible that broadcasters could manage these systems remotely, with regionalisation delivered via a local data centre managed remotely by a centralised playout facility.

“Channel-in-a-box or integrated playout has really changed to become the primary solution for almost all types of channel. We are seeing channels of all genres adopting the technology that reduces complexity, saves on space and power and removes a long chain of equipment,” says Scott Rose, senior product manager, iTX at Belden-owned playout systems specialist Miranda. Rose believes that software systems provide more flexibility as well as cost benefits. “Dedicated hardware is often cited as being required to guarantee reliability but as with so many other industries the actual experience is the opposite, at best proprietary hardware can impair the ability to innovate and add new features and capabilities at worst it can mean problems are difficult to solve without a large cost or complex swap out of equipment,” he says.

Mark Cousins, senior product line manager, media servers at rival provider Harmonic, which recently launched its ChannelPort product targeting this space, says that channel-in-a-box systems are however primarily suited to so-called carousel channels or channels with a playlist known ahead of airtime, where graphics and branding requirements do require a live operator and where control by third-party automation systems is not required. Some channels will always require dedicated hardware-based playout, he says. “There are numerous high-end channels with fancy graphics requirements and/or the need for live control, but note that this is less a distinction between hardware and software than it is a distinction between full function integration and separate playout chain components,” he says.

For Cousins, the degree of centralisation required will depend on the functionality available. “Depending on the locale, a local presentation may be required to originate in the same country. This begs the need for a low-cost, remotely controlled and provisioned playout centre. Of course, for this to be viable, the solution must offer the ability to insert ‘local’ content – commercials, promos – into the primary programme stream. In addition, it may make sense to bind local language subtitles upon playout in the destination country,” he says.

Most service providers agree that channel-in-a-box solutions with graphics maintained in software on a single platform can be effectively used for regionalisation. However, more complex requirements are likely to require dedicated systems. Channel-in-a-box software means that more flexibile workflows are becoming increasingly practicable.

However, this software-based approach has been largely used for pre-recorded rather than live channels, and for channels with relatively straightforward regionalisation requirements. Rose points out, however, that Miranda will use the IBC show to launch iTX Master Control, a platform designed to provide playout for live channels with traditional mixer control panels as well as non-live channels.

Harmonic’s Cousins says that there will always be a trade-off between the flexibility of software-based systems and performance, power consumption and density.  “Such systems are fully capable of supporting some degree of mixed live and pre-recorded content.  But currently available technology, and that predicted to be available, will still require more resource to, for example, decode H.264 on a CPU than on a dedicated ASIC,” he says.

However the playout workflow is arranged, demand for regionalisation of multi-territory channels is clearly growing, a trend that is likely to continue. And as channel requirements become more complex, outsourcing some or all of the playout process to third-party provider can help broadcasters achieve economies of scale.

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