Broadcasters UnwrapChannel-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 gpwin@oregoncoast.com and follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeWinslow