Sandbox LiveIP studio: VRT, EBU and BBC on IP roadmap, collaboration and challenges

On the morning of 1 March LiveIP held a webcast, live from the VRT Sandbox studio, to provide an update and share perspectives on the transition to live IP production in front of an audience comprising industry experts and commentators. Mick De Valck, director of technology and operations at Belgian public broadcaster VRT, set the scene by reporting on the series of demos (“demo or die”) that have been held as part of the Sandbox project to date and the nature of collaboration involved.

“We are working with 13 different parties. There’s the VRT team led by Michel De Wolf, the EBU, iMinds and 10 different vendors. They’ve all worked very closely together and it’s really been a very interesting open innovation experience.

“That, we believe, is extremely important,” said De Valck. “If we want to do innovation in this sector we have to go for open standards. Competitors have been discussing opening road maps with each other: of course there are limitations and challenges but it has been a very useful experience. VRT has been the ‘oil’ that brought it together; you could say that it’s part of our public service remit.”

Hans Hoffmann, EBU head of media fundamentals and production technologies, said during the 1 March webcast, “the fundamental paradigm shift is that we move away from the very traditional broadcasting industries to technologies that have been ‘not invented here’, which is ICT.

“We need to identify ways to slightly modify these technologies for the user requirements that we have as broadcast media companies. And there are very strong requirements in terms of the availability of the quality of service we expect.

“For that reason we use off the shelf technologies on the one hand, but on the other we need to slightly modify and add standards on top of these technologies to enable us to reliably use them in our environment.

“The most important thing is that we do not start from a theoretical approach,” said Hoffmann. “We are looking in the EBU with our members for practical use cases. It was wonderful that the VRT came along to provide this space, this platform, to do it in a real environment. It is also important we have broad support from the industry, based on standards.

“In the past, the sequence of technology development, then standardisation and then we try to see whether it works, is broken – this scenario is broken. The new scenario is we all come together, we test the technology on the one hand, but at the same time we also bring the creatives on board and we pilot test. That in my opinion is the secret to success of this wonderful project. This is innovation, and it is to the merit of public service broadcasters.”

BBC Sport: The role of remote production

Charlie Cope, BBC Sport, technical executive, provided context from the standpoint of a public service broadcaster tasked with providing broadcast and digital media sports content to its audience against a backdrop of ever-increasing pressure on budgets – and even ‘political perception’ of how those budgets are allocated.

“It’s worth pointing out that IP as a term is something we use already in broadcast. We have already implemented quite a few techniques around contribution, 5G radio cams, we have a contribution system called Broadcast Contribution Network within the BBC that is all IP-based now.

“This [IPLive] takes things a whole sea change further, particularly around the live production environment,” said Cope. “We’re undergoing massive changes in the broadcast environment around contribution and distribution networks. What is the future of distribution? Clearly iPlayer has been an enormous success for the BBC and there will be fundamental changes in the way we as broadcasters bring that content to the audience. And that in itself means we have to be much more agile.

“The current environment we’ve worked in to date — where you have a procurement process, black box design, it gets installed, you tick the support box for five years and you leave it – that’s a thing of the past. We’re in constant evolution, and that’s something the world of IP begins to unlock. This is where it fits in with the expectation of our audience.

“Already it is bringing new suppliers into the market — more innovative and disruptive suppliers — which is really challenging us to think about different ways of working,” he said.

“Clearly, cost reduction is an absolute key. London 2012 was an event that was on an exceptional budget: we set an expectation for our audience and now we have to meet those expectations in far more budgetary challenging times now. IP, although not necessarily producing the cost savings at the moment, clearly as we evolve we can leverage more off-the-shelf products and that is an ambition.

“From a sports perspective,” continued Cope, “the impacts are threefold in my mind. The first is around our major events: there is a challenge there to work in a more remote environment. Then in the multiplatform environment, the world of multifeeds – even now we’ve a situation where our contribution is in IP and our distribution is in IP and there’s this chunk in the middle which is a baseband heavy-lift workflow. That just doesn’t make sense anymore.

“And then clearly as rights become more of a challenge we have to think outside the box in terms of that content. We’ve made a big move into women’s sports in the last 12-18 months, and we need to be able to support those events in terms of more cost effective ways of getting the content to the audience. Again, IP has great potential in giving us those tools.”

Regarding how IP can bring tangible benefits in terms of ‘at home’ production, Cope continued, “We’ve been working on remote operations for a while, since 2008 when we started doing all our logging operations remotely. At the last Winter Olympics we did a split operation where all our final mix was back in Salford [BBC Sport headquarters] while we had a switching centre out on site. So that whole ethos has started to be addressed, particularly from the people point of view.

“Perception is a big thing these days. It is not acceptable for public service broadcasters – even if it’s actually more efficient editorially – to be sending large numbers of people overseas during major events. That’s not seen as being acceptable any more.

“The other key thing is the big issue of scalability around our major events. It’s a really big peak-load that we have on our facilities – and that’s back at base as well as on-site. And if we’re able to get the benefits of IP regarding scalability that will really help.

“Editorially, there are big benefits in terms of flexibility. A good example of that at the moment is the Euros ahead this summer. Heaven forbid that one of our home nations actually does well during the Euros; there’s then an aspiration to follow them as they progress through the competition. Now if you’re able to be flexible about moving a studio operation into a given base gallery solution, clearly that gives you flexibility to move at the very last minute and leverage that.

“Major events are our crown jewels,” said Cope. “We have to be very careful about how we manage them, and we have to use the solutions in the right way in order to gain these benefits.”

Hans Hoffmann reminded us that IP for live broadcast production is at an early stage. “We’re really just at the beginning. While many broadcasters have successfully made the transition to file-based operations, non-realtime, we are just at the beginning of utilising IP for hard realtime. That’s the first challenge.

“Second it’s not just about IP. It’s about all of the technologies that enable us to be faster in our productions. This means we have to apply cloud technologies as well, and we have to apply virtualisation and automation. All of that needs to go line in line with each other over the coming years. This is complex and involves a paradigm change and it will take time.

“But while other technology ‘big leaps’ in broadcasting took five, seven, ten years, we don’t have those timeframes anymore — for cost pressure reasons in particular. It will be much shorter and we need to be much more dynamic. We need to work much more closely between the technologists and the creative otherwise we build up silos — and we don’t want these silos,” said Hoffmann.

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