IT Broadcast Workflows: remarks from the chair

Jeremy Bancroft of MAC recently chaired TVB Europe’s day-long Conference on IT Broadcast Workflows, held at BAFTA in London on November 30.

He summed up the conference with the following remarks:

“The television industry is in a state of change.

In truth, it always has been. We have seen a constant process of migration: from black & white to colour, from film to tape, from open reel to cassette, from terrestrial to satellite, cable and internet, and now from video on tape to files on disk.

We have seen IT vendors come and go from the media sector. Why? Because compared to many industries, broadcast is still very small. One storage vendor told me many years ago that whilst broadcasters had many terabytes of data to store, they all wanted something different and there just weren’t enough of them to interest him. He could earn more selling small tape robots to every travel agent on the high street than large tape robots to every broadcaster in the land.

The broadcast and IT mindsets just did not see eye to eye.

However, recently our experience is that we have seen many more IT professionals joining broadcasters in senior technical roles, bringing with them skills and experience gained in large IT integration projects.

So why is the integration of IT & Broadcast technologies still a challenge?

There may be vendors who will tell you it’s not. However, our experience is that most projects that run into difficulties (and this is most of the large projects, although this is usually kept quiet) are due to specific customer requirements (customisations) and software integration issues.

On top of this, the boundaries between the different systems used by broadcasters are definitely blurred. MAM – Channel Management – Automation – Workflow – Transcode – Delivery platforms: it is becoming increasingly difficult to see where one stops and the next starts.

And in this confusing sector, we see some new vendors, some mergers, and some old vendors, if not dropping out, becoming less visible. At least one MAM vendor is offering software platforms that integrators and developers can build upon, whilst another is offering MAM in the cloud.

So if you are interested in migrating your broadcast operation to a file-based environment, who do you contract? A systems integrator or a vendor?

Traditionally, broadcasters have contracted SIs as a single throat to choke. However, the realisation that the SI is powerless to deliver a software integration project, or system customizations, without the full involvement of the vendor has led to some customers entering into contracts directly with the vendors.

Total Cost of Ownership is becoming more visible. A large requirement for hardware means more power and aircon thereby increasing the broadcaster’s carbon footprint. And for those who think this is a minor consideration, it is reported by at least one vendor to be a major driver for US customers to purchase their systems, and BSkyB last year announced a goal to build a carbon neutral broadcast centre.

And with more hardware comes more support contracts, licenses, and greater demands on the already stretched engineering department to perform regular routine maintenance.

Some broadcasters, including ITV, have decided to outsource the hosting and management of media assets, potentially allowing service providers to benefit from economies of scale.

One thing is clear. Despite having been involved in MAM for some 15 years now, from where I sit it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. Some customers still have unrealistic expectations on functionality, timescale and cost. However, there are more people with experience, and more broadcasters relying heavily on IT infrastructure to store, distribute and deliver their content. This is now becoming very much the norm.

Think about it this way. If you were to build a new broadcast operation from the ground up, would you seriously consider using large amounts of traditional broadcast infrastructure, or would you look to IT solutions to power the bulk of your facility? Perhaps we are still on the cusp for some broadcasters.

But think back to 26th January 1986. This was the start of the Wapping Dispute, almost 15 years ago. Those who think that traditional TV technology is going to be around for many years to come should look at the newspaper industry. Anyone who considered launching a new publication using hot lead technology would today be considered mad. Rest assured, our industry is going the same way.

I think that today’s conference case studies certainly support this statement. We have had a fascinating mix of projects being described.

• We have had a 250 year old newspaper publisher deciding to launch local TV news without any background in TV. They are running on a shoestring, but with a very impressive quality of output; at least as good as any regional rolling news service in Europe.

• We heard from a large public broadcaster who managed to migrate 2000 journalists from their old, tried and tested tape and plastic crate-based workflows to a new file-based workflow by gradually taking away the infrastructure that they were previously using. They effectively created what change management guru Cotter calls the ‘burning platform.’

• We heard how Sky has taken a totally file-based approach from glass to glass – camera to consumer and how they tackled the upgrade to HD.

• Chellomedia of the Netherlands decided that they did not need a MAM system to manage their workflows as their Pilat IBMS scheduling system provided all the orchestration and workflow management they felt that they needed. They are also predicting up to 90% of their long form content will be delivered digitally within the near future.

Speaking with one of the broadcasters present at the conference, they told me that they expect studios and programme distributors to start charging extra for tape-based deliveries rather than file transfer. The BBC already charges for tapes.

And to cap it all, we heard a German project manager telling us not to worry about the metadata schema. Horror of horrors! Instead, he said focus on metadata workflow. A new term, if not a new concept to those of us who have been involved in deployment of file based broadcast solutions.

One theme that ran through many of the case studies was uncertainty within the project scope.

Discovery Networks said that when you start a project, you might not know what you need (a strong argument for consultancy if I ever heard one), whilst several broadcasters are on their second or third MAM implementation, having learned valuable (and very costly) lessons from early implementations.

Don’t forget the humans, was the message from Red Bee, Discovery and Sky News. From training the users, to providing clear GUIs in order to reduce operator errors (particularly critical in highly automated environments where incorrect metadata can cause untold problems in transmission).

And for those that see broadcast and IT convergence as likely to happen in the coming years, I will leave the last word to Alastair Roriston from Isilon, who said “it’s already converged – deal with it”.

Jeremy Bancroft
Director, Media Asset Capital

About Adrian Scott
Adrian Scott is a MAC associate having had a long career in broadcasting and broadcast technology; he specializes in Market Research and Marketing Communications.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!