Tremendous industry change over the past few years has led to a channel explosion, as well as terrestrial, satellite and mobile delivery of any content, anywhere, anytime. However, while the number of content delivery services and platforms increases, audiences and available revenues remain fairly flat. This equation amounts to on average fewer Euros earned per service and, thus, less money with which to run those services. (See Figure 1.)
Working within this cost-driven environment, broadcasters are looking for affordable playout solutions that will integrate easily into their existing workflows. They need solutions that will allow them to reduce the cost and complexity of their playout systems while maintaining performance and reliability in critical operations. This doesn’t refer to only disaster recovery or secondary revenue-generation services, but also prime-time channels on which brand identities and primary revenues depend.
Given the coincident evolution of IT-based broadcast technology and high demand for more economical channel playout solutions, the industry has begun migrating playout to the channel-in-a-box model. While channel-in-a-box systems aren’t literally single-box solutions, what they do provide are the core functions of a channel integrated in a software/IT platform. This allows them to reduce their cost of ownership and save money while producing more channels and services — ultimately, realizing a greater ROI.
Implementing a channel-in-a-box system is fundamentally about lowering costs and not just the cost of purchase or capital expenditures (though, clearly, the savings in those areas are significant). With this technology, the actual cost of deployment is much lower than that of traditional approaches because there are fewer systems to integrate and fewer components used. As a result, less wiring and rack space is required, less power and cooling needed, and less overall support and maintenance required. Improved reliability is realized as a result of fewer interconnecting systems and fewer points of failure, which means that channel-in-a-box systems ultimately yield better results in terms of on-air performance. As business and operational needs change, the channel-in-a-box model simplifies the upgrade process.
It is true that across the broadcast industry, there has been some reticence to trust a relatively new technology with high-revenue services. And, for some time, large sectors of the broadcast community sat on the fence and watched other companies’ experiences with the technology before they themselves made the commitment.
Those companies that first cautiously adopted channel-in-a-box solutions, proving the technology in secondary revenue-generation services or for disaster recovery applications, now have gained confidence to employ them across their operations. And now, even the largest players in our industry are delivering complex, high-value channels with channel-in-a-box systems. Proving the concept internally, such companies have recorded on-air reliability figures exceeding those they achieved using traditional systems built on discrete components.
From concept to reality
As with many advances in the broadcast industry, the emergence of the channel-in-a-box engendered much hype without the same degree of understanding when it came to the technology’s true application and commercial realities of implementing it. Furthermore, while IT-based playout had become possible, many of the critical functions — for example, multi-channel audio processing, ancillary data management and captioning — were absent in early products.
It has taken some time for serious channel-in-a-box products to evolve to the point that they truly can support a complex broadcast channel, but solutions available today offer a cost-effective, reliable and scalable means of distributing anything from a single SD channel to multiple HD channels. The well-established reliability and refined feature sets of today’s channel-in-a-box systems are resulting in deployment for all types of playout services.
Deployment for prime-time and premium services really has been about reaching a critical mass with respect to channel-in-a-box functionality. At recent trade shows, attendees have been exposed to a plethora of channel-in-a-box and IT-based playout systems by other names. However, to support playout of a prime-time channel, the channel-in-a-box system must demonstrate a level of functionality well beyond that of early models, which were little more than video servers equipped with some branding and graphics capabilities. The complex requirements of broadcast channels mean that a true channel-in-a-box solution must have a much richer feature set in order to accommodate these requirements.
Channel-in-a-box systems really had to mature to reach that baseline of capability for a prime-time channel to go on-air. There was no single function that put single-box systems over that line. Rather, it was an incorporation of a host of functions, all essential to delivery of today’s sophisticated broadcast channels.