“57 Channels — and nothin’ on.”
An expanded version of that 1992 lament from Bruce Springsteen is now the mantra of so-called cord cutters, who claim their major beef with PayTV service bundles is paying for hundreds of channels that carry content they’ll never watch.
But you won’t hear me complaining. I’m a professional channel surfer. I can waste hours in the nether regions of my cable package, now a bastion of self-improvement infomercials. I’m especially transfixed by the dramatic before and after comparisons that anchor these half-hour product pitches. Where else can you watch muffin tops melt into muscle and wrinkly jowls turn taunt in a matter of minutes?
These before-and-after juxtapositions got me thinking about an even more dramatic transformation taking place behind the camera. Broadcast production and playout facilities are entering an era of renewal. Everything old is being made new again. Video production plants, once struggling to keep pace with the demands of television viewers who have acquired an anytime, any-device taste for video content, are making dramatic advances in agility, flexibility and efficiency.
What’s the secret behind this miraculous makeover? SOFTWARE.
Media companies are discovering that the transition of their operations from hardware-specific to software-centric, or software-only, environments is producing profound transformation — and we’ve got the stunning before and after photos to prove it.
Take a look at three areas in which the move to software-based or virtualized environments is delivering a major makeover to existing video production and playout facilities:
1. Channel Creation
In a hardware-dominated environment, launching a new channel requires major investments in both time and resources. The channel-creation process must be initiated from scratch, including the planning, ordering and testing of new hardware dedicated to that specific channel. The major shortcoming of this decades-old, resource-heavy approach is that it discourages ad hoc and opportunistic service launches. In a hardware-based environment, media companies must think long and hard before committing to a new monetization opportunity. The risks, both in capital and resources, are just too high for media companies to dismiss without deep deliberation.
In a software-only environment, where media processing and playout operations execute on Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment, a channel launch may not be as easy as pushing a button, but it’s pretty darn close. So easy, in fact that the adjective Pop-Up is, well, popping up all over the place to describe the ease with which media companies can launch new channels to enhance coverage of special events, such as the Olympics or World Cup matches, or to tap into new geographies or special interest groups. Content owners and broadcasters can now afford to focus content on narrow but potentially lucrative niches, such as an expatriate community in large cities or Spanish-speaking teens. The dramatic reductions in time and expense of launching a new channel in a software-only environment, compared to relying on purpose-built hardware, has turned what used to be a brick wall in the way of exploring new commercial opportunities into a speed bump.
2. Business Continuity
Financial losses due to an event that takes you off the air, even if it’s just for a few hours, can be staggering. Ensuring that you maintain at least some on-air capabilities in the event of a disaster—natural or manmade — often requires building out and maintaining a mirrored playout system at the same location, or at a remote site. But maintaining a separate physical playout facility, which mostly sits idle, can be complex and costly.
Operations that run on a software-only infrastructure are essentially portable, and can be spun up in a new virtualized environment almost instantaneously. Moving operations to a private or public cloud environment makes business continuity measures much easier and less costly to implement than ever before. A cloud-based disaster recovery approach enables an essentially seamless, rapid transition from primary playout to a virtualized backup system, which could be located in a data center anywhere in the world. And best of all, you only need to pay for backup operations when you need them. A virtualized business continuity application is also a great way to ease into an all-software based production environment, similar to the one described above. Broadcasters and other media companies can literally transfer primary facilities to a software-based environment one channel at a time.
3. Technology Refreshes
The history of the broadcast industry is dotted with technology transitions. Whether it’s analog to digital, SD to HD or even SDI to IP, media companies are in a perpetual state of upgrading their operations to assimilate the next wave of innovation. In the past, a technology refresh meant purchasing new hardware — either augmenting existing gear with kit containing new capabilities or replacing the entire plant with a new infrastructure capable of supporting several generations of technology. In either case, the new hardware had a limited shelf life, which expired at the start of the next technology cycle.
In a software-centric environment, technology refreshes can often be accomplished as easily as, you guessed it, a software upgrade. By freeing functionality, such as transcoding and master control, from dependency on underlying, specialized hardware, media companies are able to transition to new technologies and support new standards much faster and more cost efficiently than ever before. By virtualizing master control and other traditionally hardwired functions, media companies sever decades-old geographical constraints. Operations can now be executed from anywhere, introducing tremendous flexibility in where resources, both human and technical, can be located. A software-centric infrastructure is also able to exploit the price/performance benefits of COTS equipment, which, according to the dictates of Moore’s Law, double every couple of years.
Results may Vary
Nobody is suggesting that the transition of operations to COTS-based facilities will happen overnight — and there’s no money-back guarantee that the transition will be easy or quick. The amount of effort and time it will take to fully revitalize your operations depends on your starting point and your level of commitment. The important thing is to deepen your relationship with a technology partner that can guide you through the process and provide a plan of action that’s tailored to your specific requirements. That means working with a partner that understands the importance of supporting every conceivable operational and deployment model, not squandering previous investments, avoiding proprietary dead ends and, most importantly, moving at a pace that will produce the optimal results.
Unlike those self-improvement infomercials you see on TV, there are no gimmicks here, no magical elixirs or miracle cures. Revitalizing your business through a software transformation will take hard work and a lot of motivation. But the before/after photos will be spectacular.
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