SRG SSR. Public service content in four languages
SRG SSR is Switzerland’s public television company. But this simple definition does not do justice to the activities it has developed throughout its history, nor to the plans that this corporation; which employs around 7,000 people, offers public service and strives for the best way to reach every Swiss person, intends to achieve in the future.
Its structure is divided into five companies: one for each of the four languages that have national language status in Switzerland, and a fifth that functions as an online information media. In the words of our interviewees, Bakel Walden, SRG SSR’s Director of Development and Offering, and Marco Derighetti, SRG SSR’s Chief Operating Officer, each of these four companies has tended to develop its own way of operating. However, it’s now, at the dawn of digitization, virtualization and the transition to IP installations, when they are working hand in hand to offer distinctly national content in German, French, Italian and Romansh, that reaches the highest mountain and the furthest valley in the country.
The paradigm shift is undeniable: from satellite, cable, linear TV or FM to digital platforms, on-demand content or social networks. SRG SSR has embraced the change and the public service it offers is in the middle of the transition. Let’s see how they are developing it.
Interview with Bakel Walden, Director of Development and Offering SRG SSR
In recent years, what have been the main technological challenges faced by SRG SSR?
As a media company and as a public broadcaster, we have faced challenges concerning our connection with the audience. It has changed profoundly over the last couple of years. Technology plays a much bigger role now. We have been strong in broadcast, but if you look into distribution on third-party platforms, like social media or streaming platforms, we need a different set of technology and, sometimes, new partnerships. For us, this has been a challenge.
At the same time, we are experiencing some challenging situations trying to have tools available so that our entire workforce can be ready for the COVID situation, basically favouring working from home. We have relied on cloud services and changed our internal infrastructure. The technical teams have been very busy over the last couple of years.
You mentioned adapting your content broadcasting to new ways of delivering content, how does your OTT platform work and which company have you partnered with?
We are working very closely with SWISS TXT for some of these services. We had a catch-up player for each region. Since 2018, we are developing a dedicated streaming service. Play Suisse is a platform that has a login and is based on personalization. As a content consumer, you get a different offer than someone else.
Regarding partnerships, we work with SWISS TXT and You.i TV. One of the main things we do with them is the whole subtitling process. They have very good knowledge, and access services for people who cannot hear or see well. We’re doing all the subtitling processes automatically with a very interesting approach. You.i TV is a third-party provider for the infrastructure. Its contribution has been related to the back-end for the technological infrastructure.
And thirdly, for things that front-end experience, we have developed solutions ourselves. The growth of our platform has been guided by the know-how of third-party companies and the expertise we gained during the process.
How did you perform your part?
We set up an expert team who join our company and we worked very user-focused. We had a lot of user feedback when we were developing the navigation, the look and feel of the platform, etc. At the same time, we were creating everything else. We had quality testing regarding the programming of the platform. We started out with a streaming platform team formed by around 17 people and we are almost 30 now. However, compared to large companies, it’s still a very small workforce.
Also, from user experience up to marketing, our know-how is very important. We put the resources together. We’re doing it now and we’ll do it in the future as well. We combine the expertise we have developing a streaming service, but also we include our knowledge about the catch-up platform we have in each of our regions. So we have a real pooling of resources for developers to work on different projects at the same time, therefore we can share resources. Actually, the whole change over the last two years has been about working closely within the different divisions of the company, which I think is important because it gets companies to use as many internal resources as possible.
Play Suisse is one of the most successful streaming services in your country, how have you achieved this popularity?
I think one of the main ingredients of this success is a very clear Unique Selling Proposition (USP). We focus on Swiss-made films, documentaries and series. We will never be able to compete with the big ones, however we offer that kind of content which our people want to see. We can do this because Swiss content is a small market and that makes it not so interesting for the big players. And Swiss people who want Swiss content find it at Play Suisse.
At the same time, we’re trying to invest as much as possible in technology because – this is something we learned – you have to be as good as the big ones. In terms of navigation, technology, and the quality of the streaming service, you need to give the same impression.
The third point, which comes from our position and is probably a big advantage, is that we use the reach of our broadcast services to the fullest to promote the streaming platform. We have worked hard with our editorial teams to use the power of the broadcast world to drive and promote the streaming world.
Regarding Swiss content, how would you describe the essence of this particular content?
First of all, I’ll mention the main parts: setting, context, or culture; obviously. These ingredients make stories that matter to Swiss people. I think we can tell Swiss stories like no one else.
However, it’s also true that big companies from abroad are starting to invest in local content. Today there is a discussion in Switzerland regarding a law that compels them to allocate a percentage of their income to invest in local markets. Although this investment from the big players, I think we still have some advantage there. We have been developing Swiss content for our whole life. We now have that large volume of offerings, and we’re not going to stop.
How did you manage the COVID-19 situation?
At the outset, let me say a big “thank you” to our technical team because they made us get through the early days of the pandemic without knowing that such a major disaster was coming. Our company was ready to carry out work from virtually anywhere from the end of 2019. We deployed for all workers a new batch of laptops, introduced remote office and collaboration tools and also managed to create simple and easy access to the network. By a miracle, we were ready from day one.
On the other hand, the production side was quite a challenge. We have exchanged a lot of knowledge with other broadcasters across Europe to see how they have handled the situation. Very strict measures must be put in place and we could work quite well. Now I think that, after almost two years of the pandemic, there is a certain routine. It’s still a very serious situation, but I think the teams are now capable of doing it. Now we hope to be able to return to the ground as soon as possible, although we’ll always have a mix of work at home and in the office. It’s also important for people to come back together.
As COVID-19 remote workflows have become established in TV, what is going to stay in your line of work?
Before the pandemic, we were looking to reduce the space we were using in our company by 25% because we knew that not all the time people are working in the office. We just achieved that goal and now we’re looking to see if we can go more towards 30% less. Obviously, that goes more for editorial teams or administrative staff. If they are in production, they have to be in local facilities.
However, we have looked at the possibility of remote production. You don’t have to go in person to every alpine ski event. Occasionally, depending on the project, we may only have the commentator and most of the team sitting here in Switzerland while covering, for example, the Winter Olympics.
Are you testing cloud solutions to incorporate remote work?
We have been deploying many of our services from our own infrastructure to the cloud; from our administrative part with Office 365 to our streaming services. And we have been investing a lot in making them secure and legally compliant, which has been a big challenge, honestly.
If you have editorial data in the cloud, which most of the time is confidential, you need to be sure what happens to the data and from where it can be accessed. I think many of the companies we work with have realized in recent months the importance of data security and very positive steps are now being taken to truly achieve it. But it has been a challenge to bring all the agreements together.
Switzerland is a multilingual region, how has SRG SSR created its infrastructure with this in mind?
Switzerland is probably the most decentralized country in terms of media and broadcasting space because the four linguistic regions have their own production center. Each center has tended to be independent historically; however, there were some joint operations, such as the big investment in OB trucks that we have recently taken and in which all the centers have participated.
Although, the centers have been independent and they have used different technologies. For example, there are different editing systems depending on the production centre. And we want to standardize it because we learned that is better to unify them. If you look at metadata, for example, you really have to have the same systems, otherwise it doesn’t work.
There have been big projects, for example, in the editing system, but also in newsroom technology, etc. Now, with resources under pressure, we have to have cost savings of about 10% from 2018, which is 150 million francs, which is quite a lot for a public broadcaster. So we have to save these costs.
It remains a challenge. Even if you think that it’s enough to deploy a system and repeat it, there are different approaches, different needs in each of the regions. And there must always be a balance in the project so that all the production centers can undertake it together. I think we have come a long way in this regard: before we buy something, we look at whether we can’t do it together, whether it wouldn’t be better to do it together. I think this is a big change from 10 or 15 years ago, when there was more money and more freedom to do what you wanted to do. With the pressure of resources we have learned to work better together and for a common good.
You have told us that a specific region may have particular needs, why?
For example, in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, where you can find our biggest operation center, there are more ground to cover and a lot of different TV stations, radio stations, etc. This means more resources are needed. And, of course, the more needs the better technologies and the more investments you will have to make.
Otherwise, if you look at the Romansh-language region, about 40,000 speakers and 120,000 people who can understand, they cannot afford to have a big playout center. Their technical infrastructure needs to be very efficient, rather small.
And it is not only language that differentiates some production centers from others. You also have to take into account the cultural orientation. Let’s say that German-speaking Switzerland probably always looks a bit more towards Germany or Austria and considers what they do there. Also, the French-speaking part might have a different approach to technology, because they are a mirror of France and adopt a lot of technological changes from there. As we said, other production centers may be more conservative depending on the needs and cultural approach.
And it happens around the whole world. Some cultures have a much more structured approach than others. Other regions and cultures can take detours and the approaches are much more flexible. If you take a look at a broadcaster in Sweden and one in Spain the difference will be big. And it’s not a question of getting it wrong or right, it’s a question of how much flexibility each one assumes.
Switzerland also has a very characteristic orography, in fact, it’s the country with the highest concentration of mountainous territory on its surface. How does this affect your signal distribution?
It has been a challenge. If you look at the FM network, for example, we needed to deploy a lot of antennas to reach all the valleys and that was quite a high distribution cost. That is why we have been in favor of the FM switch-off, which will take place at the end of 2024.
I think only Norway has totally or, let’s say, mostly switched off its FM coverage. Other countries are still hesitant to introduce DAB at full capacity. Our disconnection will allow us to reduce distribution costs. And this will also allow us to have coverage in many tunnels, not only over valleys and mountains.
From an audience point of view, DAB offers more choices and better quality. It also gives you more information, such as titles. From the company’s point of view, this technology has a lower environmental impact, as it uses less energy and has fewer transmitters, so you can save a lot on FM contribution costs.
What is the technological strategy for SRG SSR?
For us, the good approach is not to be the first to implement technological changes, but still closely watching where the market is going. It seems that, for example, the big players are moving towards giving full IP infrastructure for broadcasting and this has been an objective we have been developing over the last couple of years. We have had a major newsroom project launched in 2018, in Zurich, in the new News and Sports Center, fully built on IP.
As for the mix between, let’s say, classical broadcasting and new technologies, we have set a goal for the next three or four years. We want to strike a balance between broadcasting and non-linear usage. We are focused on how people will perceive our content offerings. We want them to ask themselves: “Are they broadcast or are they a digital distributor?” And also on how the audience consumes our offer.
Our goal is to achieve a 50-50. Broadcasting is still important today and should not be underestimated. But at the same time, the use of on-demand content is becoming more and more important. By the mid-2020s we should reach the goal of making non-linear increasingly important. No one knows when the last broadcast signal will be switched off, but it will remain relevant for a while. Although, linear content will stay for ever, because people will definitely be happy to have also linear choice apart from the on-demand content. Just look at the option Netflix has incorporated into its service that saves consumers from spending 20 minutes trying to decide what they want to watch. It is the “I don’t know what I want to watch” button and what it offers when pressed is, basically, content streamed in a linear way.
Interview with Marco Derighetti, COO at SRG SSR
Over the past few decades, what have been the main technological challenges facing the company?
Since I began working for the SRG (in 2002 as CTO of the Italian-speaking production unit of SRG) I was confronted with a continuous digital transformation. We began with the introduction of a digital-based news and sports center including a digital archive system for audio and video in 2004. At that time each digital production center or system was an independent entity. The main challenge was therefore the introduction of new workflows inside these systems.
Once a sufficient degree of digitalization of SD-technology was achieved, we wanted to connect these systems and accelerate the interconnectivity between systems. At the same time, HD Format was gradually introduced (roughly between 2008 and 2012).
HD was a big achievement for the consumer but for the broadcast industry, due to the bigger bandwidth, it slowed up the digital development of functionalities and interconnectivity. The technology was not ready (or too expensive) to allow full HD 1080p50 systems and therefore HD was introduced with (good enough) format compromises like 720p50 and 1080i25.
The introduction of HD (with very high video bandwidth) in the broadcast world caused a tremendous gap between the consumer online tool and device development and the broadcast ones. The developments of broadcast systems were many years behind the mainstream consumer systems: no common standards to integrate different suppliers’ devices together, no continuous software upgrade strategies and product developments, and no standard hardware devices to avoid a tricky end of life situations.
The classical broadcast production systems had first to build up a sufficiently powerful basic infrastructure (network with high bandwidth) that even today is often dedicated and runs on specific standards, slowing down the speed of the development of new tools.
Nevertheless, today’s media production systems are fully digitalized but are not using IP-based standard technologies everywhere. This step is in development and will need some time. Other today’s challenges are: data and system migration process, to deal with the new degree of freedom thanks to IP-Technology (systems have to be previously defined and architectures must now be accurately rethought); and new security and business continuity issues due to increased interdependence and networking.
How many production centres do you have across the country and how it is work organized between them? Is each of them specialized in any kind of content?
Switzerland has four national languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh) and the SRG has the duty to produce in all of them. Therefore, we have many production centres. The bigger ones are in Zürich, Bern, Basel, Geneva, Lausanne (radio), Comano, Lugano and Chur. Beside these, there are many local news productions centers or offices.
In the past, these venues were organised by media (radio and tv), today we are concentrating processes which will reduce the number of buildings occupied (between 2015 and 2025 we will reduce approx. 25% of the occupied surface). We produce all genres except for fiction which is produced externally.
Could you give us an overview about the technical equipment in your studios? Is there technological coherence between them?
About half of the technical infrastructure is commonly operated by national competence centers (in the domains of IT, Production and Enterprise services), the other part is built and operated independently but with strong coordination in terms of standards and products. For instance, we are in the final steps to build the same video production system for news and sport for all SRG venues, we purchased 3 identical middle-sized OB vans (one in each region) or we usually purchase studio and ENG cameras jointly and we define common standards (manufacturer) for all kind of equipment.
What technology could we find in one of your main studios?
On the imaging side, you can find remotely monitored and controlled HDTV cameras and increasingly remote PTZ cameras, all connected by fiber optics. For video managing system we have trust on Sony Hive for file-based workflows management of news and sport. On the other hand, a broadcast controller manages the live video feeds and we have another editing and post-production system for audio and video. We have been deploying new graphic systems relying on AR and VR experiences. Our main studios are configured with ledwall technology and AR solutions are mainly used in sports productions.
Audio management is more complex in the SRG SSR due to the four national languages to manage. For this reason, it’s not possible to operate a common archive system. Synergies are used for media storage.
To control video and audio resources, for example, a new master control room built over IP will be on air this year in Zurich. This one will be interconnected with those of Lugano (RSI 2023) and Geneva (RTS 2024).
The playout facility is based on automated workflows. Otherwise, manual processing is mainly performed during preparation or during large live events (mainly sporting events).
And finally, in terms of our distribution outputs, some content is produced and dedicated to the main social networks and, content that is broadcast traditionally is also distributed digitally in the form of live streaming (linear) and in the form of video/audio on demand (non-linear). SRG operates several regional applications for news and sports, and Play Suisse as the national one.
Do you rely on some extra telecommunication technology to reach that spreading? Are you considering 5G Broadcast somehow?
In terms of TV consumption, more than 90% of the Swiss population is connected via IP or cable, a minority is therefore consuming through a broadcast satellite signal. This is the reason why we switched off our DVB-T Network four years ago. Otherwise, we are not considering 5G broadcasting for TV.
70% of radio consumption in Switzerland is digital (35% DAB+ and 35% Digital), the remaining 30% is still consumed through FM. The FM switch off in Switzerland is planned for the end of 2024. It is still not clear if 5G broadcasting for radio will provide any advantages compared to the combination of DAB+ (free to air) and digital. We are actively observing the evolution and opportunities, but the perspectives for 5G broadcast in Switzerland are long-term perspectives.
5G for the media industry is much more interesting for the development of powerful PMSE applications. For remote production, 5G could provide valuable solutions. Some trials are planned for 2022.
What resolution does SRG SSR TV provide? Is every broadcaster working on HD? Are you considering UHD? Which technological change will imply this idea?
Currently, we continue to distribute in 720p50 and produce mainly in 1080i25. We are considering developing our production and distribution to 1080p50 around 2025, which is easily scalable to UHD. Nevertheless, for live events we already offer a digital UHD channel.
It will certainly be developed in the future. A general introduction of UHD for all production locations is not yet under discussion. The bandwidth costs are not affordable and also not necessarily a “must have” for the main formats we produce (there is no obvious need for UHD for news or studio productions) and the added value for the consumer is not really a given. Most of them clearly cannot benefit from a UHD production at 1080p50.
What’s next for SRG SSR? What is your technological future?
We have already made great progress in technological virtualization, the digitization of our infrastructures and the automation of our production processes. But we need to take further steps in order to exploit the enormous potential of these new technologies. The experience we gained with the introduction of an all-IP facility in Zurich showed us that a lot of work needs to be done to achieve the necessary maturity for both the suppliers and the user of the system.
We are currently reviewing our production processes. This is a major cultural change that needs time. Another promising “new” technological territory is the generation and management of all kinds of data; from procurement, through production and distribution to end users, and processes. We are convinced that AI will play an essential role in these fields.
Interview with Robin Ribback, Head of International Projects, Research & Business Development at SWISSTXT
To begin with, how did SWISS TXT come about and what has been your relationship with the Swiss public broadcasting association?
SWISS TXT was founded in 1983 with the aim of creating and operating teletext for Swiss television. After three decades of experience in digital transformation, SWISS TXT has been appointed by its parent company SRG as a center of excellence for ICT, video and accessibility services in 2019.
What role does SWISS TXT play today, what is its current business model?
SWISS TXT is a subsidiary of SRG SSR and with 270 employees at six locations (Biel, Berne, Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich, Comano), SWISS TXT has a multilingual presence in Switzerland and has been offering services to both internal and external customers. SWISS TXT is involved in several EU-funded research projects and works with renowned partners from all over Europe on the future of digital media.
SWISS TXT became the ITC department of SRG SSR, how did this transition develop and what was the purpose of this union?
SRG had decided to strategically implement the digital transformation and the Journey to the Cloud. For this reason, it needs a reliable internal partner for its implementation. More than 30 years of experience in digital transformation have helped SWISS TXT to become this competence center.
What services are provided by SWISS TXT and for SRG SSR?
SWISS TXT offers solutions in SaaS, PaaS and IaaS for digital media operation. In addition, SWISS TXT offers a full range of accessibility services such as subtitling, audio description and sign language.
To produce subtitles, SWISS TXT uses its own in-house machine translation platform, which has been specially designed to recognise and translate film content automatically on the basis of the soundtrack or existing subtitles. The platform produces a translated text, which is then manually corrected and edited by specially trained staff. Thanks to the platform, they can subtitle videos around the clock wherever they are.
Our automatic subtitling platforms and solutions enable customers to deliver any audio-visual content in any language or publication form, at the desired quality, price and time.
You also provide HbbTV for SRG. What technology is behind this service?
What is the purpose of strategies and projects such as Citizen Journalism, can you explain its conception and how it will change the way we understand the transmission of news?
SWISS TXT operates an initial prototype of the mobile citizen journalist app, which was developed as part of the EU’s HELIOS research project. The app allows users to decentrally store recorded videos and captured images on the Internet and uses blockchain technology to ensure anonymity. A marketplace for sharing content enables publishing houses and media organisations to make further use of it. Citizen journalists can then be rewarded in cryptocurrency.