Looking to the cloud to scale up production
The demand for content is not going anywhere but up, and the challenge of rising production costs is front of mind for broadcasters and content producers around the globe. It is no longer enough to just up the level of output. In today’s environment, our customers need to engage with global audiences that can no longer be reached through one or two platforms. Productions must scale vertically and horizontally across formats, versions, language, device types, and platforms to meet an increasingly diverse audience footprint.
As the consumer has embraced on-demand content, so has TV technology – and many of the broadcast functions that were only really viable as highly specialized hardware can now be delivered as software-only implementations.
With benefits like scale, reach, flexibility and more, everybody in the TV industry needs a ‘cloud’ strategy. One of the most critical gains from a cloud approach is eliminating the need to maintain large infrastructure assets, such as datacenters, racks of servers and complex networking designs. In turn, customers are free to focus on their core line of business – creating and delivering stunning content. Flexible, cloud-based environments that utilize virtualization go one step further, offering a viable alternative geared towards on-demand and OPEX focused models.
Accelerating towards the cloud
The potential to lower CAPEX, boost efficiencies and scale operations has meant that cloud and SaaS adoption was firmly in the TV industry’s sights even before the pandemic hit. The move towards cloud-based infrastructures and workflows has clearly accelerated due to the impact of COVID-19, with uptake really gaining momentum.
Our industry has traditionally run on purpose-built systems specifically created to handle video, with the ‘as-a-service’ consumption model mostly used for tasks such as playout and other content distribution processes – but that was already changing before 2020. Data from the 2018 Devoncroft Media and Entertainment Cloud Adoption Index projected that cloud usage across the sector would rise by 88% between 2016 and 2021. The pandemic and its restrictions have only served to speed up a process that was already underway – what many in the industry thought was three to five years away is already becoming a reality.
In the summer of 2020, Los Angeles-based live entertainment and media company De Tune deployed our GV AMPP (Agile Media Processing Platform) cloud-native production platform to support completely virtual live event broadcasts. The De Tune team used GV AMPP Master Control to create a master control room (MCR) in the cloud with full redundancy, accessible anywhere globally to support a series of online events.
Discovery’s leading multi-sports brand, Eurosport, also chose our newly launched AMPP Playout application suite as part of a major technology transformation to provide ‘true cloud’ architecture supporting playout across the network’s sports broadcasts.
Doing more with less
The move to cloud addresses a perfect storm of circumstances – the need to produce more content to feed growing consumer demand and the need to distribute multiple versions of that content to a broader range of affiliates and platforms. This need to deliver greater volumes of content more efficiently is a major driving force behind the industry’s transition to more flexible and scalable IP-based infrastructures and workflows. This move also opens up new ways of working like remote and distributed production.
The FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, the largest winter sports event outside of the Winter Olympics, is a great example. Normally, Sweden’s national broadcaster, SVT, would build a complete production “factory” at the ski resort town of Åre to cover the 12-day event. However, for the 2019 Championships, SVT relied on extensive remote production capabilities instead, with up to 80 camera positions and a largely IP-based workflow across video, audio and data. Live signals were transmitted to SVT’s production facility in Stockholm, over 600 km away, for production and playout.
SVT is not alone. Across the industry, we see an ongoing shift towards technologies and workflows that are designed to enable more remote production and achieve more while limiting or even reducing costs. This shift includes the widespread adoption of IP as a replacement for SDI and more use of software rather than dedicated hardware to reduce cost and enable more automation.
Cloud in a broadcast world
The cloud has been entrenched in sectors like IT for several years, but for the broadcast industry, tapping the cloud for TV is trickier. In the IT world, when an application takes an extra couple of seconds to carry out a process, the end-user does not really notice. In broadcast, two seconds of black screen during a live sporting event or out of sync audio is just unacceptable.
The primary challenge of the cloud is that it fundamentally needs IP-based workloads and the transition to IP in the TV world is very much ongoing. Although many key standards have been defined, many industry segments are still only partway through the journey. Added to this scenario, some of the most difficult technical issues that ensure cloud’s capacity to deliver the same experience as on-site production have only recently been solved.
Delivering mission-critical solutions that overcome issues such as audio synchronization and acceptable end-to-end latency – all within a user-friendly operator environment – are just some of the specific challenges that Grass Valley has worked with its customers to develop successful solutions for. As a result, early pioneers are starting to make that transition.
Finding the best fit
As cloud-based models become a more common feature of the production landscape, some will argue that throwing everything into the cloud is the solution. However, this doesn’t always make sense – both financially and operationally. Remote production via the cloud is certainly one application with many advantages, including more flexibility and the ability to scale up (and down) quickly within an OPEX model. However, it may not always be financially sensible; existing investment made in broadcast TV technology run into the hundreds of billions and broadcasters can continue to sweat these assets for a significant amount of time. Certain processes are still more efficient, faster, cheaper, and more reliable via local, highly specialized hardware.
At Grass Valley, we believe that cloud adoption in broadcast will be focused around three key areas: playout, production and live. In the cloud, common technologies can be used to support applications that previously were seen as having very little in common. Playout has the lowest technical challenge today. It has been the industry starting point; however, with its high utilization of the underlying infrastructure. The economic value gained by moving playout into the cloud is optimized in applications where different renditions of a common program are required for simultaneous distribution, or when other encoding methods and quality can be exploited as “plug and play” services based on cost optimized delivery to consumers.
Production with its more demanding requirements and need for fast user experiences can broaden economic value creation, but this is at an early stage. Grass Valley has made great progress with managing the user experience when either assets or processing are in the cloud. Tradeoffs, in this case, include media asset security and acceptable human factor latency for a given workflow.
Live, the most demanding of all applications, requires the lowest latency, the highest simultaneous signal counts and the highest number of operators to capture and create the program. Large sporting events for example, require significant coordination of these resources. In addition, human talent should be empowered to carry out their workflow using traditional control surfaces, yet also being able to adopt new methods of controlling content creation. Transitioning live production to the cloud is a real game-changer for the industry. It offers the opportunity to optimize the number and location of any resource group, as well as exploiting the cloud for scale and elasticity to fit the requirement of a given production.
There’s little doubt that virtualization of traditional hardware, such as on premise chassis and cards, through cloud-first technology brings significant benefits to the media industry. It enables businesses to experiment creatively while providing efficient and scalable workflows for now and the future. We’re excited that GV AMPP is leading the way in unlocking all three of the principal workflows used in broadcast with flexible technology, allowing customers to be prepared for change as the world of TV continues to evolve.
By Chuck Meyer, Technology Fellow, Grass Valley