Broadcasters Unwrap Channel-in-a-Box

How integrated, low-cost playout solutions are transforming the industry

If this spring's NAB Show marked
the proverbial tipping point moment
for any single broadcast technology, it
would likely be channel-in-a-box solutions.
“At NAB we finally saw the majority of the
market accepting the channel-in-the-box, or
integrated solutions, as in the mainstream
and ready for primetime,” notes Scott Rose,
product manager for iTX channel-in-the-box
solution at Miranda.

That’s not too bad for a technology that, only
a few years ago, was widely dismissed by broadcast
engineers. Now, clients including both large
broadcasters and local stations are taking a close
look at these products. And there are myriad
vendors to match: Evertz, Florical, Grass Valley,
Harmonic, Harris, Miranda, Snell, Utah Scientific, Video Technics and a number of other suppliers
are offering channel-in-a-box solutions.

These products may vary widely in their features
and applications, but they are all built on
the concept of putting key parts of the broadcast
infrastructure needed to playout a channel—
automation, graphics, video servers, channel
branding—into a single, cost-effective product.

By combining a server from a major IT
manufacturer with software to provide an
integrated playout system, Shawn Maynard,
VP and general manager of Florical Systems,
notes that the company’s Acuitas channel-ina-
box might cost only a quarter of the price of
a traditional broadcast chain.

“The cost differential is impossible to ignore,”
Maynard says. “It has produced a sea change in
the way people think about their infrastructure.”

Others agree. “Capital equipment costs are
probably one-quarter of traditional solutions,
but when you consider the total cost of ownership,
where you have less wiring and reduced
integration costs, the savings over the life of
the system is even more,” says Neil Maycock,
chief architect at Snell, which offers a channelin-
a-box solution called Morpheus ICE.

Those costs make channel-in-a-box solutions
particularly attractive for new start-up
channels, over-the-top video streaming services
and digital sub-channels with limited
revenue. Because of their relatively affordable
price tags, they are also starting to be deployed
as backups to existing infrastructures.

“After 9/11, redundancy became a hot topic.
But a lot of projects never got off the ground
because the economics of producing a fully redundant
infrastructure was prohibitively
expensive,” notes Maycock.
“But when you can put a reasonably
fully featured channel on the
air for $50,000, then these things
can move forward.”

As larger programmers get
more familiar with the advantages
of the technology and these solutions
begin to offer more powerful and sophisticated
features, some vendors also argue that the
channel-in-a box could supplant traditional
automation at controlling long chains of separate
broadcast equipment.

“Integrated playout is already the de facto solution
for sub-channels and over-the-top services,”
says Harold Vermeulen, VP of media playout
solutions at Grass Valley, which has been making
a big push into the channel-in-a-box market
with its K2 Edge product. “But larger operations
are now looking for alternatives, and within the
next three years, [channel-in-a-box offerings]
could easily become the de facto solution.”

That said, these solutions are not, as yet,
for everyone. “One size does not fit all,” notes
Mark Cousins, senior product line manager
for media servers at Harmonic, which markets
the Spectrum ChannelPort solution. “There is
a growing need for channel-in-a-box solutions,
but because of the complexity of broadcast
operations, there are always going to be
many situations where people will want the
best of breed, component-based solutions.”

Mark Rivers, president/CEO of Video Technics,
which has partnered with Utah Scientific
for the MCR.BOX product, says that many
broadcasters have relatively new equipment
that they might not be ready to replace, or
have specialized needs. “They have a massive
investment in legacy equipment that they
aren’t about to throw away,” Rivers notes.

To address that issue, a number of vendors
are offering more flexible approaches that
allow broadcasters to keep their existing
graphics systems.

At the same time, the capabilities of these
systems continue to expand. The processing
power of the servers is increasing rapidly, and
the software that plays a central role in these
solutions allows them to be more easily upgraded
to add new features.

“In the old world of purpose-built hardware,
you can’t change quickly,” says Maynard. “But
in the new world of commodity IT hardware
and software, you can move very rapidly to
address new needs.”

E-mail comments to and follow him
on Twitter: @GeorgeWinslow