The future of live production

By Joe Khodeir, senior vice-president, APAC, Imagine Communications

With traditional TV viewing under full-scale attack by subscription video-on-demand (SVoD) and other video-on-demand (VoD) services, live programming is emerging as a critical weapon in broadcasters’ war to retain consumer eyeballs. With so much on the line, traditional media companies are becoming increasingly aware of the strategic importance of their live production operations and the need to evolve those facilities in lockstep with consumer demand.

One way broadcasters are enhancing their live programming, which includes sports and, increasingly, appointment-to-view shows — many of them live — is through social engagement, providing audiences with the ability to share their feelings and theories in real time. A social media element to live programming encourages viewers to tune into popular TV shows, say, The Voice or Dancing with the Stars, at the moment of transmission to be able to participate in the virtual discussion that runs concurrent with the show.

Whether it is sports or entertainment TV, production values are central to creating a must-see experience. Audiences now expect a football game to be covered by 20 or 30 cameras, with multiple replays and slow motion available to involve viewers by explaining the action in detail. They also expect these action-packed events to be delivered at the highest available resolution and picture quality.

Whether it is more pixels — 4K/Ultra HD (UHD) resolution and soon 8K, better pixels — high dynamic range (HDR), wider colour gamut (WCG), or both — content providers must remain on the cutting-edge when it comes to quality standards and technology breakthroughs.

With high production values and high technical quality, however, come soaring costs. The growing expense of producing live TV is putting a strain on traditional budgets.

Fortunately, relief is in sight. Imagine Communications is at the forefront of an evolutionary phase in live production infrastructure that is characterised by the ability to support SDI or hybrid SDI/IP environments during a transitionary, but self-paced, shift to an all-IP environment. This enables live production organisations, no matter their starting point, to build state-of-the-art studios or vehicles that are capable of seamlessly assimilating tomorrow’s technology breakthroughs, while providing a path to lower Capex and lower Opex costs.

It is already technically feasible to run virtually a complete live production environment using software-defined tools, running on standard commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, and connected over IP. The resulting benefits of moving to an all-IP environment are substantial.

First, it offers a seismic shift in costs. When the broadcast industry had to create bespoke hardware to process audio and video, it was inevitably expensive because the media industry, compared to the IT market, is relatively small. A small market means the design cost has to be amortised over fewer units, driving up costs.

That is not the case in the IT industry, which is several magnitudes larger than the broadcast industry. Economies-of-scale forces in the IT industry drive down the amortisation costs of R&D, so hardware costs are low.

Moving to software also opens up the prospect of a shift from the traditional, capital-based systems acquisition towards a software licencing model. In financial terms, that means a move from Capex to Opex. Closely tying the cost of production or service delivery to resulting revenue, makes for more secure decision-making.

Another great benefit of a software environment is flexibility and the ability to seamlessly incorporate new functionality. If you need functionality you do not currently have — say, 4K/UHD — there is no need to redesign your core infrastructure. Simply add the software licences and the added functionality is already there.

In the live production market, companies such as NEP in Australia, TVB in Hong Kong and Sony are taking this approach, supported by Imagine Communications. They, and others, are taking a measured approach to the transition. Existing hardware has been bought on a capital forecast, and it should not be thrown out just because something new has come along. But a managed transition to software tools on standard hardware — virtualised or in the cloud where practical — is definitely the route to the future.

Live production needs to be agile. You need to be able to tailor your facilities to match each production. There is no future in building the perfect truck for football, if it is going to spend half the year doing cricket, with odd days covering opera or ballroom dancing.

Today’s investments have got to deliver more content, and make it more engaging. The facilities have to be ready to jump to new formats such as 4K/UHD at a moment’s notice. And it has to be able to do this in a secure and cost-effective way. The smart production companies are already moving through the transition to the technologies of the future.


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