Broadcast Technology: Where Does It Go Next?

By | April 1, 2012 | Broadcasting, Feature

Broadcasting remains the lifeblood of the satellite industry, but as we enter a more fragmented broadcast landscape, the impact of the new environment on satellite and broadcasters themselves remains uncertain.

To stay relevant in a landscape dominated by multiple devices with access to video content, broadcasters will need to be very savvy with their strategies and technology investments. In this exclusive broadcast roundtable, key technology executives from four major broadcasters discuss changing landscape plans, where they will be investing in technology, as well as their future demands for satellite. Taking part are Dany Harrison, chair of Technology Strategy Board, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC); Cécile Leveaux, CTO, Euronews; Francois Schmitt, deputy managing director, Broadcast & New Media, Eurosport; and Mike Donovan, senior vice president of Engineering and Satellite Distribution, Scripps Networks Interactive.

VIA SATELLITE: What are the major technology/infrastructure challenges facing your organization this year?

Harrison: We just completed the deployment of a new architecture for our network, what we call our ‘NGCN’ (Next Generation Converged Network). We are connecting all of our production centers across Canada on a high-speed, fiber-based, bi-directional network. This new network allows us to search and browse and drag and drop from any site to any other site. The next big step for us will be our media asset management strategy to fully transfer to a file-based environment. It is like connecting the dots. All of our centers are pretty much file-based, but now we have to connect them together, and that is our next big challenge. In a world of different technologies, everyone is trying to push for their technology to become the standard. This is not a new debate. In a Media Asset Management (MAM) environment, when you have to connect systems and content, it is one thing to create content, but it is another matter to know it has been created at a remote site, that you can have access to, that all the rights are cleared and that you can drag and drop and repurpose it for your own usage. That is a big challenge for any broadcaster or content provider right now. We are designing an overall MAM strategy fit for us. We will then work with the technology providers on a timeframe of 12 to 18 months.

Leveaux: We have two big projects this year. The first one could be described as a moving project, as we are moving into a new building in two years. We use this new building as an opportunity to modify our organization. So, we will have more journalists in contact with the end-users. Today, our journalists’ jobs are to produce content and deliver it for broadcast. Now, these journalists need to have a direct connection with the customer so they can see the quality of their work. We will use this building project to carry out these changes.

The other major project is looking to implement a new product management system, similar to what goes on in traditional industries other than broadcasting. We are managing this new system, which is not just about media asset management, but also about managing the production side of things. For example, we can automatically assign different content to customers. With this kind of system, we can publish automatically to different platforms. We currently have 500 videos that we send to customers each day, so we need to rationalize that and have a new system. It will help us reduce costs.

Schmitt: The first major challenge is to move Eurosport to HD and even though we have been in HD since 2008, we have to change the infrastructure throughout Europe in order to do this. The current challenge is to have a complete HD platform. The next challenge is to continue to develop our four-screen strategy. We are working on our ability to broadcast our TV channel anywhere on any screen. We have developed our player on the iPad and the iPhone. The plan now is to bring that to the connected TV.

Donovan: We are focusing on disaster recovery this year, particularly in terms of the linear broadcast services. We are finding that we want to harden what we are already doing, and we also want to take advantage of some of the file-based workflow opportunities that are available. When a lot of these disaster recovery systems were put in place, it was not quite as easy to move content around. There was still a huge amount of tape-based content, and even though it was being archived as digital files, it was more and more difficult to move the files around. Now, with much larger broadband connections available and much more ubiquitous file formats between servers, it is possible to create a disaster recovery scenario that is purely file-based content. In theory, it could happen anywhere. If you were to have all of your content in some cloud-based storage, now your disaster recovery can be available at any number of different locations, rather than having just one dedicated facility that provides your disaster recovery. That is a major thing that we are looking at in 2012.


VIA SATELLITE: How do you see satellite technology fitting into the broadcast landscape? How will it work alongside fiber?

Leveaux: I think we need to have a global approach. We can’t have a country-by-country approach when dealing with this. In Western Europe and North America, we are moving more towards Internet networks. I think in two to three years, we will move towards that. But, I think satellite will still be relevant. We still need both systems. In France, for example, only around 10 million people can see television from Internet systems. It is a question of time. In the next five to 10 years, we will need both in Western Europe, North America and in Asia, but in Africa we will need much more satellite. When I see that we have a big audience in countries like Russia and Ukraine, the need for satellite is strong. In 10 years, we might be able to say that we don’t need Hot Bird anymore, but certainly not for a while.

Harrison: Canada is a very large country. So, despite the decision with Canada’s NGCN project to move more towards fiber, satellite is still very important to us, particularly when connecting to distant remote sites or for international distribution/contribution of our content. Being in a file-based environment, doing live production and using the drag and drop functionality among our production sites requires bi-directional connectivity and low latency within our operations. Our backbone now relies more on fiber because of that.

Schmitt: It is becoming a mix between satellite and fiber optic delivery. We are using the combination more since Eurosport is based in several different countries and we are using more than 20 different satellite transponders. If we want to broadcast everywhere across several territories, then clearly satellite is the best solution in order to reach the different cable head-ends and ingest Eurosport everywhere. It is true that we are using the fiber optic link for contribution, as the costs are lower. It may be more efficient in terms of quality of service also.

Donovan: I think satellite still has a really important place in broadcast distribution. It is hard to imagine a more efficient point-to-multipoint distribution system. For example, my signals for HGTV, Food Network and Travel Channel (HD) go to several thousand cable-receiving head-ends. The thought of having to deliver to all of those receiving points over terrestrial fiber would be very difficult. A lot of the cable operators are inter-connecting. Comcast and Cox have big inter-connections, so that brings down the numbers of individual sites that I need to broadcast to. But, there are still going to be a lot of smaller operators that have to take it from satellite. If they are not able to receive it over satellite, they are not going to be able to receive at all. So, certainly fiber is important to my distribution plan, but I see it as being more incremental than something that is going to replace satellite entirely.


VIA SATELLITE: Considering the migration to fiber in your environment, do you see your demands for satellite capacity increasing or decreasing?

Harrison: Our demands for satellite capacity were going down, but they have now stabilized. With the presence of fiber, we now have a lot of satellite usage that has been replaced with fiber. However, we will always need satellite distribution — it will co-exist with fiber. HD has not changed much the demands for satellite capacity, although when we design the new architecture, we will have to take that into consideration. But with compression technologies evolving, it has not had much impact in terms of the design of the new infrastructure.

Leveaux: We are on 33 different satellites. We also broadcast in the HD format and have about 3.5 Mbps of capacity and 11 languages for one video feed.

Schmitt: Our demands for satellite capacity have been pretty stable. Even though we have strong needs for capacity, the use of newer compression technologies means the actual demands for capacity have not increased. With this optimization of the contribution, things have not really changed.

Donovan: In terms of domestic satellite in the United States, we have two transponders that handle our SD and HD. I think that is going to be adequate for the foreseeable future. We made a change two years ago. We moved very quickly into MPEG4 and high order modulation on our HD feeds. That effectively expanded the number of channels we could fit on a transponder from three to five. I think we could go as high as having 10 HD channels on that transponder. Advances like that in compression and modulation have made a big difference. With as much HD as we see in the market today, I think that took the pressure from a capacity standpoint. With MPEG2 and standard modulation, I think we would have seen some capacity problems with the amount of HD that is in the market right now.


VIA SATELLITE: What are your current plans to provide content in different formats and have the ability to push this content out in a more flexible way?

Harrison: The approach is to store at the highest quality possible. We will then repurpose, reformat and adapt quality for a specific platform, in order to have the required quality for the desired platform. We now live in a world where we push our content on TV broadcast, radio broadcast, apps, webcasts, smartphones, connected TV and so on. We have to bring the right quality and the right format to the right platform.

Leveaux: Each customer defines their own format, so this can create real technical challenges. We are on 95 percent of connected TVs, for example, and each platform has its own format. It is important for a broadcaster to define the distribution model. We had DVB 10 years ago, but we need something similar to happen now with these new platforms. If we don’t act now, we won’t survive. We have less distribution revenues and higher distribution costs — it can’t work like that. Each customer has its own platform and formats, so the situation requires a great effort on the broadcasters’ side. This may be an investment for the future, but it is urgent to harmonize platforms and systems.

Schmitt: We are using two different technologies to broadcast our content — streaming (Silverlight) and iOS. So, we use two different formats to broadcast Eurosport in MPEG4 on different devices.

Donovan: From the disaster recovery market’s standpoint, moving broadcast-quality files through networks is really important and becoming easier and easier to do. I think adaptive bit-rate streaming is the game changer in sending content to an end-user. Adaptive bit-rate streaming means that content can be encoded and delivered in many different resolutions and bit-rates depending on the technology that is being consumed. For example, you may have a very high bit-rate version of that content for connected TVs delivered across wired broadband Internet to the home. At the same time, you may have a lower resolution version of that content at a lower bit-rate that is being delivered over a 3G network to iPhones or Android phones. To some degree, this situation presents the same content and viewer experience, but by using adaptive bit-rate streaming, the user’s video player can intelligently decide the connection speed, processing speed, battery life and the various things that are important to that player. That information is then passed to the server, which delivers the appropriate content stream.


VIA SATELLITE: Have you been satisfied with the development of compression technologies? What other technology changes are you looking for?

Harrison: We have migrated most of our network to MPEG4. Compression technology has been a game changer, along with display technology and storage capacity. The three combined have allowed broadcasters to move forward very rapidly. These technical developments play an important role in both the consumer market and the professional market. IT technology is now widely spread in the production environment.

Leveaux: There are two responses to this question. Today, it is very expensive for Euronews to go to HD. For us to have double the amount of capacity on satellites is not a good value equation. For Internet and connected TV, it is another world for us. Today, the technology is good and we are able to distribute effectively in HD format. We have the quality to stream in HD, but for broadcast I think we need to work on compression technologies to reduce costs. I don’t understand the economic model for broadcasters moving to HD. What is the revenue model in return? For us, it is a big problem.

Schmitt: We launched the HD version of Eurosport in 2008. It is true that there were extra costs in terms of contribution. With the opportunity of MPEG4 and the new efficiencies regarding compression, it is clearly a big advantage. We now have roughly the same costs in HD that we used to have in SD in terms of contribution. It has been very useful for us to optimize these costs.

Donovan: I have been very satisfied with the development of compression technologies. I am consistently amazed that you can take a 1.5 GB HD television signal and compress it down to 6 Mbps to 8 Mbps and have high-quality pictures that come out the other end. I think that is a real credit to the people that are writing these algorithms. Can it get better? Absolutely. But, I know the manufacturers that are working in that space, are continually tweaking the algorithms to try and get higher quality with fewer bits. Year-over-year, I see continued incremental improvement in that area.

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