Nets Reach for the Clouds in Vegas

What began as a groundswell of interest in cloud and IP technologies last year is likely to expand into a much broader mass movement at this week’s 2016 NAB Show, as a number of broadcasters and cable network groups begin to radically revamp their own infrastructures and the ways they deliver video to consumers.

“The industry has to start innovating in areas where it hasn’t been innovating,” said Jeremy Legg, chief technology officer, Turner Broadcasting System. “IP is coming, and it affords the industry some really interesting opportunities to innovate around how we deliver content and how we make content more relevant to consumers,” in ways that will better compete with OTT providers and capitalize on changing viewing habits.

“I think this will be the year where IP will be truly mainstream,” adds Richard Friedel, executive VP/GM Fox Networks Group, network engineering and operations. “In prior years people would put a little logo on the wall of their booth to show they had some IP, but this year we are really going to see many real implementations.”

Major programming groups will also be paying close attention to new consumer technologies and start-ups. “We have to keep everyone in the company abreast of the developments and discover the possibilities [so] we are not just reacting to things” after they hit the mass market, stresses David Kline, chief technology officer at Viacom.

Here is how five top tech executives at major broadcast and cable network groups described the technologies they’ll be exploring during the April 16-21 NAB Show and throughout the rest of 2016:

DISCOVERY: Ready for the Cloud

Like many of the top technologists at large network groups interviewed for this survey, Brinton Miller, senior VP of technology strategy and architecture, Discovery Communications, starts the discussion of their NAB tech priorities by saying “our focus has been around IP-based infrastructure, around the pivot to cloud, around pure-play software systems and software-defined infrastructures.”

Miller notes that Discovery already embraced IP infrastructure in a major project last year. “It was our first gut-check into the world of IP, and it is safe to say at this point that all these big infrastructure projects we take on moving forward will be going into the IP world,” he explains.

Miller is also bullish on the prospects for cloud-based approaches. “We have been doing a lot of testing over the last year, and we have not come up with a single use case where we couldn’t get something done in a cloud infrastructure,” he noted.

Miller cautioned, however, that there are still some challenges “because of the GPU requirements for video processing,” and that some traditional TV tech vendors have not made enough progress in adopting IP and cloud technologies. “We need to figure out whether we will be using traditional media [technology vendors] or using new players in the space that have been willing to adopt cloud stacks at a faster pace than the traditional vendors,” he said.

The company will also be looking closely at new consumer technologies, including Ultra HD, high dynamic range (HDR) and virtual reality, and they are working to refresh their traditional broadcast infrastructure to make it more efficient and compatible with their infrastructure for delivering content to digital platforms.

“There is a big push right now to figure out how we can deliver better efficiency and more flexibility with IP and the cloud,” Miller said.

DISNEY: Talking to Start-ups

Cloud and IP technologies remain a top focus at the Disney/ABC Television Group, which announced last year that it would be working with Imagine Communications in a multi-year project to build cloud-based master controls for its ABC broadcast network and some of its cable networks.

“We have been leading the industry in cloud and IP technologies, and we will be looking into those vendors who are aggressively looking at those technologies as part of their future,” said Renu Thomas, executive VP of media operations, engineering and IT, Disney/ABC Television Group.

Thomas, who added that they’ve been happy with the progress being made in the master control project, noted that finding new workflows for these new technologies is a crucial component of their tech strategy. “It is like the transition from tape-to file-based workflows,” she said. “You have to truly change the workflow and not just stick with the old ones.”

But a big focus during the NAB Show will be on exploring other new technologies and start-ups. “We regularly talk with our traditional partner/vendors,” Thomas said. “So we are trying to minimize those kinds of meet-and-greets at NAB and spend more time walking the floor looking for those new entrants that may have some interesting new technologies.”

FOX: Standards for Better IP

“One of the things that is very high on our lists is cloud, virtualization and IP,” said Fox’s Friedel, who as usual has a long list of technologies he and his teams will be closely watching at NAB.

Those also include: technologies for streamlining and automating workflows; work on new standards like ATSC 3.0; 4K and HDR; systems for OTT distribution; technologies to prepare for the spectrum repack; and proposals for a North American standard for the interchange of content.

As chairman of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) and president of the Video Service Forum (VSF), Friedel notes that NAB attendees will be able to see important work coming out of those standards committees for both ATSC 3.0, which is IPbased, and VSF’s work on IP transport with TR-03.

Another important proposal to standardize video delivery comes from the Digital Production Partnership, which created a standard for the interchange of content in the U.K. During NAB, the DPP and the North American Broadcasters Association (NABA) “will propose a North American standard for the interchange of content,” explained Friedel. “If we could unify delivery. it would be a huge gain for us in terms of efficiency.”

Cloud-based systems are another priority. “We have several ongoing projects with either virtualized or cloud-based systems where we are doing ingest or QC [quality control],” said Friedel, adding that National Geographic is already doing ingest and QC in the cloud.

SCRIPPS: Prepping for Production Upgrades

A major focus in recent years for Scripps Interactive at NAB has been work on a massive major multiyear project to replace its on-air systems, said John Ajamie, senior VP of U.S. operations at Scripps Interactive. Now that they have selected all the equipment from vendors including Pebble Beach (automation) and Evertz (routing), they will start installing equipment in May and go live with the new system sometime in 2017.

“The new systems will really help us bring it up another notch in increasing our operational efficient and improving our on-air accuracy,” Ajamie said.

For the NAB Show, Ajamie said Scripps’ main focus will be on enhancements to the post-production and studio production at their New York and Nashville facilities. “We’ll be looking at routers, switchers, monitors, lenses, cameras, intercom systems, LED panels, lights, lighting controls” and other technologies including 4K, he said.

On the international side, Mike Donovan, senior VP of international operations and distribution technologies at Scripps Networks Interactive, noted that he will meet with equipment vendors but will mainly be focusing on meetings with providers for playout, uplinks, dubbing and other services.

“I’m very interested in virtualized playout and remote playout,” Donovan said. “Through virtualized or remote playout, I might be able to get into markets that wouldn’t have been possible in the past because of the cost of entry.”

TURNER: Streaming Towards New Tech

After taking a major stake last year in iStreamPlanet, a provider of streaming and cloud-based video technologies and services, Turner continues to focus on the transition to cloud and IP technologies that Legg believes will strengthen both their businesses and the industry.

“IP is coming to broadcast, and it is manifesting itself in a lot of different ways,” Legg said.

This trend has prompted cloud providers including Amazon to bulk up their services to TV players by buying broadcast tech providers like Elemental Technologies. “Companies like Cisco are getting into broadcast IP rounding,” Legg continued. “All the broadcast hardware vendors are in various stages of grappling with those issues, as are programmers.”

Legg described the transition to IP as only in the second or third inning but he added that progress is being made. “We are already redoing our broadcast stack, and we are continuing to expand the capabilities of iStreamPlanet,” he said. “We’re making a lot of investments in their cloud platform as we begin to move our infrastructure over to it.”

While the transition to IP and cloud technologies will create a much more flexible broadcast infrastructure, Legg stressed that these deployments will require a great deal of innovative thinking. “You don’t get a lot of shots at doing something like this, because these are huge systems and hard to move,” he said. “So when you to get a chance to re-architect and innovative it, you can’t just rebuild and move what you have to IP and declare victory. You have to think about what new capabilities you can create to help the business.”

VIACOM: Listening for What’s Next

Viacom’s David Kline also reports notable progress in revamping their broadcast and digital operation. “Two years ago, we embarked on the journey into the cloud starting with multiplatform delivery,” said Kline, another long-standing proponent of IP and cloud technologies.

“We want to get to a single NOC [network operations center] and hopefully distribution center for all technologies and then leverage the cloud so we can deliver the signal anytime, anywhere,” he continued, adding that Viacom hopes to complete that process by 2022.

The company is also paying very close attention to data management, advanced advertising, metadata, improved multiplatform delivery and training staff so they have the right skills. “It is not just a technology transformation,” Kline said. “When you move to cloud you need different abilities, but you also need to understand the legacy products.”

On the consumer side, Kline and his teams are watching a host of new technologies, including virtual reality, IoT, 5G cellular systems, DOSCIS 3.1 broadband technologies, 4K, 8K and self-driving cars. In some cases they are testing technologies like virtual reality that have more immediate applications and reporting back to the rest of the company so that producers and business executives can better understand how these technologies might be used to create content or build new businesses. “We not at the Jetsons state yet,” he quips. “But we are a lot more advanced than we were five years ago, and I have to assume we’ll be a lot more advanced in five years.”

Besides communicating those developments to the rest of the company, Kline said his group is also spending more time listening. “Just because I’m in the media space doesn’t mean I don’t have to listen to what is going on in other areas,” he said. “Self-driving cars may not have anything to do with the media space now, but if I’m not listening to where it is going, I might miss some important opportunities.”