Broadcast Playout – Where are we going, how will we know when we get there?

Submitted by  Tom Gittins, CEO of Pebble Beach Systems

As I reflect on the conversations coming out of this year’s IBC Show and look forward to NAB in NY and Las Vegas, it’s clear that many media organizations are looking at the future of media distribution and consumption in completely new ways. While they may be able to see their future, they aren’t necessarily sure how to get there. IP and virtualization, although interesting for some channel types, can also represent a sea change and potential disruption that must be carefully managed. Many organizations have legacy automation and master control systems that are end-of-life and no longer supported. These groups are actively looking at ways in which they can evolve, but are also mindful of the impact a forklift upgrade could have to their operations. With industry consolidation and change being so constant, it’s no surprise that businesses are more cautious than ever about which suppliers they get into relationships with. Is the company profitable?  Will they be bought for their technology and will their products be shelved soon after? Is the system completely proprietary or more open? These are all concerns what warrant a thorough vetting by customers.

Broadcasting from the cloud?

At IBC, it came as no surprise that IP and virtualization continued to be a big topic of conversation, particularly with the larger broadcasters.  It was also interesting to speak with a number of telcos who now see broadcast as a potential new market since these IT environments we’re moving towards are very familiar to them. If broadcasting hardware becomes COTS (commercial- off-the-shelf ) with IP and virtualization at its core, then most telcos might consider a “channel” to be just another rack in their facility. Perhaps they don’t yet completely understand everything that goes on in terms of workflows and specialized broadcasting expertise, however, it’s definitely a growing trend.

For Pebble Beach Systems, the transition of certain channels to virtualized playout via public and private cloud is very much on our agenda. It was fantastic being able to take journalists and customers to DMC (Digital Media Center) in Amsterdam to see our Orca virtualized playout systems in use during IBC. DMC is quite a groundbreaking project for us. They’re on the air today, expanding as we speak. What’s great for us is that we are getting expert use case knowledge embedded into the product as it develops. As we near the end of this next phase, we’ll have a great reference to take to the larger market where we can point to a real project running on air.

Migration and Evolution

Many broadcasters are sitting on legacy automation systems that have effectively been discontinued. They often arrive on our tradeshow booth with plans for a radical switch to a completely new environment, but haven’t thought fully about how they’re going to get there. Their systems are at best still working, but no longer evolving. At worst, they are unsupported, with parts becoming increasing difficult to source. Pebble’s evolutionary approach towards getting organizations into newer technologies means they don’t have to abandon everything they’re currently using and jump into a completely experimental world. We provide the reassurance that they can continue to work the way they do while giving them the flexibility to migrate over time, as they perceive less and less risk in doing so, onto fully integrated and virtualized platforms. This resonates extremely well with customers who otherwise perceive such an upgrade with apprehension. We’ll connect into their existing workflows and allow them to continue to use devices that still have a useable life, and we isolate their operational staff from the underlying engineering decisions about what technology would seem to be appropriate for any particular type of channel. It’s a strategy that’s been extremely successful for our company.

Partnerships and Collaboration

There’s much discussion about how open companies are, and how willing they are to work with other organizations in delivering the right solution for the customer. From my conversations, I think the trend is clearly moving towards closer partnerships between specialist companies. Sure, sales people would love to sell an entire “end-to-end” solution, and customers love to have one throat to choke, but it’s increasingly clear that one company can’t do it all, and if it can, it’s probably making significant compromises along the way.

We intend to continue growing through our partnerships with others, such as our partnership with Harmonic and Pixel Power. The Harmonic partnership has worked very well for us, particularly in the USA. Harmonic had a number of different choices for whom to partner with when it came to automation, and it was a huge compliment and endorsement for us. With complex tasks such as automation, the market relies on companies like Pebble Beach Systems and our expertise to do a really specialist job. Automation is complicated and necessary, as are graphics, captions and subtitling, for example. People who see media as just another way to sell bandwidth may be taking over the broadcast market in some respects, but broadcasting still remains a specialist business.

IP Connectivity or “In-the-Box” thinking

Back when broadcasters built playout systems with separate boxes interconnected with coax, it was fairly easy to make multi-vendor solutions, glued together in one way or another, as long as you had a good automation system. As we’ve moved towards purely software-based environments, this has become much more of a challenge. It’s interesting how the market talks about the need for standardization in IP with proposals like 2022-6 and TR-03 in the future, as a way for people to build multi-vendor solutions in an IP environment. However, at Pebble, we ask ourselves “why go out over an IP connection and come back in again just to connect to somebody else’s technology when you could do this all in a pure software environment?” Just look at a PC: the OS may be Microsoft, but how many other companies’ technologies are “plugged in” directly and sharing that same hardware, reading directly from shared memory, to accomplish the task of a given workflow? This is indicative of the relationship we have with Pixel Power. Why go out and carry all the compromises of going through an interface like 2022-6 –which is fundamentally SDI done in packets– when you could exchange pixels in memory between the various applications. In this scenario, out-of-the-box thinking does not always translate to the best idea. So, while IP connectivity between vendors certainly has its place, by the time you are in a playout environment, a lot of the justification for it as an interconnection method akin to SDI starts to go away, because we’re already beyond that with channel-in-a-box type solutions and broadcasters increasingly want to virtualize certain types of channels.

For Pixel Power, our part of that solution is to provide the platform for their render engine to run directly within our own software-defined channel as a software plugin. We have no intention of selling the creative tools or the very complicated workflows that fit around that. We expect Pixel Power still to do that directly with the customer, to train the operators, and give their expert advice. Pixel Power is respected as one of the market leaders in master control graphics so we’ve chosen a very good partner in that respect. This type of partnership is certainly a direction that we will continue to promote, were we can enable those specialist companies to get their workflows working purely around a software-based playout environment which we can host in Dolphin and in Orca, either locally or in the cloud.

New Levels of Engagement

As we evolve towards IP and SaaS based solutions in broadcasting, relationships between customers and suppliers will need to change. The graph below shows the level of engagement over time between a broadcast vendor and a customer as things move from being discrete boxes connected via SDI, through to IP, and ultimately into virtualization. It attempts to show how the relationship and the level of engagement in that relationship are going to shift dramatically as we move towards virtualized solutions. The dependency of the customer on the supplier, when the only thing you can do to fix a problem has to be done at the core software level, is very different than being able to simply plug in a new device with some coax. The level of support and the level of future roadmap engagement clearly needs to change also as investing in the relationship between companies becomes as important as the technology itself.


At Pebble Beach Systems, we’ve got very high levels of expertise on our team, and the respect we’ve garnered in the industry as a result has been a key component of our success to date. Integrity and openness is a claim that customers frequently point as a deciding factor to working with us. We like to think we “keep it real” – we don’t always saying “yes” to every single request in order to win a sale – Our focus is on building a long-term relationship between the companies.

With a strong commercial focus and many years of industry experience, Tom has been instrumental in the growth of the Pebble Beach Systems and its product portfolio, having an excellent track record of accessing new markets and territories. He is well known for his commitment to understanding customer requirements, for his passion for the industry, and for his drive to excel.

Before joining Pebble Beach Systems in 2006, Tom was Head of System Sales at Leitch with responsibility for major project sales across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and he started his career in the broadcasting industry at Ampex Corporation in the Recording Media Division.


About Tom Gillins

Tom has 34000 tracks on his ipod and claims to have listened to them all, and rated them! He was Chairman and principal euphonium player in a silver band for many years, and was recruited into the industry in 1988 by the band’s second baritone player who worked at Ampex.


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