Silver lining: Warner Bros. Discovery’s Pete Mercer explains why every use of the cloud for audio is unique

Warner Bros. Discovery’s Pete Mercer on stage at the SVG Europe Sports Audio Summit 2022

The cloud is this season’s must-have, and broadcasters are migrating many of their processes over to the cloud in a bid to reduce costs and streamline workflows. But for broadcasters, audio in the cloud is more about what it isn’t than what it is. And whatever it is, it varies enormously from broadcaster to broadcaster.

Warner Bros. Discovery has been using the cloud for longer than most. The media giant saw which way the wind was blowing back in 2016, but Pete Mercer, Warner Bros. Discovery’s senior technical manager, sports events, says that for audio at least, we are not there yet.

In theory, the cloud is a great place to be; it promises so much. It promises to give broadcasters the ability to streamline processes, the flexibility to scale up services whenever it needs to, and the opportunity to do it all while reducing capital expenditure spend.

“There are some amazing products and services in the cloud and these are growing at a really fast rate. However, there really isn’t a full portfolio of solutions that can meet the vast range of broadcast operations”

All are compelling arguments and the reason why so many broadcasters are already looking at how they can migrate services into the cloud.

For live production, it is less of an easy sell, and for audio it is even harder. While still on the callsheet, cloud has got its own set of challenges and the way it is utilised for audio looks very different to everyone who it currently doing it. Progress is very slow and Mercer knows why.

“The perceptions of cloud are cautious and broadcast professionals generally play it safe, which is a philosophy that has kept broadcasts on air for many years,” says Mercer.

Complex tech

“Audio in broadcast is, and has always been, complex. Flexibility and being agile has served audio people well over the last 30 years and currently cloud doesn’t give you that. You have to be very planned and structured on cloud productions. Communications and audio processing in the cloud is getting better all the time, but the interfacing of the two is still far from being established in current cloud solutions.

“There are some amazing products and services in the cloud and these are growing at a really fast rate. However, there really isn’t a full portfolio of solutions that can meet the vast range of broadcast operations. For example, cloud would not be an option on an outside broadcast with limited connectivity.”

“We are testing a variety of additional cloud productions that will be rolled out in the near future and we are focusing on particular productions that suit that kind of operation”

That’s not all. In addition to that there are other, more traditional, challenges to overcome.

“Latency has been an issue in broadcast for the last 20 years. Remote production made it more complicated, and cloud is similar. There are whole range of factors including propagation latencies, processing latencies, video monitoring and in-ear monitoring which are all considerations. If you have a good understanding of these factors and if you are well planned, you can find solutions. But again, I haven’t seen an elegant cloud solution that tackles all of these issues yet.”

Discovery is no stranger to the cloud; it has been in it for years. In fact, the broadcaster started moving away from on-prem software playout architecture and began migrating its workload to AWS way back in 2016.

Its move to Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) enabled Discovery to flex up its compute capacity in the cloud whenever it needed to. In 2021 it used it to scale up coverage of the Tokyo Olympic Games, using AWS Media Services to transmit 1.3 billion minutes of coverage across its entire range of digital platforms. That meant coverage across 19 languages and 50 European markets.

Pushing the envelope

With a host of cloud-based services across ingest, processing, creation and distribution, Discovery is still pushing that envelope, although it is careful to focus only on the areas where it can make a difference.

Says Mercer: “Connectivity to cloud providers is a solution we have had for a while and forms part of our strategy especially for big events. We are testing a variety of additional cloud productions that will be rolled out in the near future and we are focusing on particular productions that suit that kind of operation. Again, this is to allow us to have even greater scalability when we need it.”

With no one-size fits all solution, most cloud adoptions for broadcast audio have been similar in that they are very specific to the application. It makes talking about migration to the cloud in a wider context unhelpful because it means different things to different people.

People have described broadcasting in the cloud as remote control of physical processing hardware located elsewhere, be it on-prem, off-prem or on-edge. Others define it purely as cloud-native software where the processing resources are also in the cloud, allowing bandwidth to be dynamically flexed to cope with changes in demand.

Wild west

It is like the wild west up there, according to Mercer, and real life broadcast use cases have proved just as wide-ranging. The interpretations are so broad that when we talk about the cloud, we can never be sure what it is we are talking about, Mercer states: “For me, ‘cloud’ is a general term for off-prem resources, and normally server-based or centralised.

“Remote control of physical on-prem or edge processors share a similar sensibility, and on occasions there might be a reason for it. Discovery takes advantage of many services like that because the cloud solutions are not yet fully established and this provides us with more control, so I guess it’s a step in that direction but it’s not full cloud just yet.

“I also think whilst connecting on the public internet with cloud has its benefits, I personally don’t think remote working is the driver. WAN connectivity and scalable resources are the primary focus; buying licences and resources as and when you need them is economical.”

At last December’s SVG Europe Audio Summit at Kings Place in London, Mercer was on a panel discussing this with Sky Sports’ Harry Brown, and representatives from two broadcast audio manufacturers: Waves’ Product Manager Greg Kopchinski and SSL’s Product Manager Tom Knowles.

While cloud-hosted microservices are already in place for broadcasters like Discovery, manufacturers on the panel were candid about needing clearer direction from broadcasters; they said broadcasters need to determine what they want to use cloud for before manufacturers commit to their own technology roadmaps.

The future of the cloud looked as clear as any discussion about it has a right to be, and it is still up in the air. Mercer has his own view: “Connectivity and bandwidth is just getting bigger all the time, so solutions will start to appear where the galleries can take advantage of services which look similar to on-prem but have all the backend in the cloud. There will be a growth in virtual solutions for processing, routing, converting and interfacing that will enable bridging across platforms.

“I think Discovery’s adoption of cloud services will complement our centralised tech-hub model as having cloud as another option in the long-term will further enhance our flexibility at sports events.

“The strategy is still new for all broadcasters. Support model, education, workflows, operation, and implementation need refining in order to establish cloud as complete solution,” he concludes.


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