Cloud-Based TV Broadcasting
The Choices, Changes & Capabilities of Broadcasting TV from the Cloud
For TV broadcasters, achieving broadcast-quality video through any but traditional means has been a tricky problem to solve, despite the technology advances and business benefits cloud broadcasting can enable. For many TV broadcasters, cloud broadcast video technologies are regarded with a mixture of curiosity and reluctance, and are often unexplored.
Viewpoints and engagements can vary between types of video providers. Established TV broadcasters with well-oiled processes, deployed infrastructure, and the seasoned expertise to maintain them all may be disinclined to alter the status quo.
In contrast, newer video providers running other cloud-based technologies may be more likely to perceive the value of new tools and techniques as worthy of close examination and adoption.
What Do TV Broadcasters Do?
TV broadcasters aggregate live content such as sports, news, live shows, studio productions, and advertising, and put them together in a linear sequence called a channel.
Channels get distributed through broadcast affiliates such as local TV stations, cable headends/multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) such as Comcast, and newer digital MVPDs such as Hulu. These are divided into the following:
• Live TV: sports, news, events
• Channel playout: shows, documentaries
• Delivery to MVPDs: linear distribution
• Delivery over internet: OTT/TVE (Over The Top/TV Everywhere) distribution
What Do TV Broadcasters Care Most About?
For many years, these were the fundamental technological challenges anyone working with TV broadcasters had to meet—until the pace of TV technology innovation sped up and a new, fifth priority joined the list: flexibility, meaning, the ability to experiment with new business models and make changes quickly, at low cost, and at low risk.
The flexibility of the cloud combined with new media services gave TV broadcasters new choices and opportunities they hadn’t had before.
As new video codecs, container formats, and other improvements emerged, TV broadcasters had the flexibility to take advantage of them and, most important, to scale resource use up and down as needed. Purpose-built media services available in the cloud began providing an alternative to long and locked hardware refresh cycles.
Today, cloud broadcasters are finding AWS Media & Entertainment solutions useful for the following purposes:
• More focus on terrestrial distribution
• Increased viewer and fan engagement
• Containment of content piracy
• Optimized costs
• Operational efficiency through automation
• Flexibility to change anything at any time
• Consolidation or deprecation of facilities
A Quick Look at Three Versions of the TV Delivery Pipeline
How the TV delivery pipeline works: Content (live sports, live news, studio files, promos, ads, etc.) is delivered to the TV broadcaster (in the middle), which processes the content (QC, formatting, scheduling/traffic, playout) and assembles a linear stream that’s distributed via the three methods (on the right) to consumers. How this looks from a visual perspective is below.
Broadcast TV Technology vs. OTT TV Technology: What’s the Difference?
Considered as separate TV technology stacks, traditional broadcast TV technology is the godfather, having been around for many decades handling live production and channel playout via racked hardware datacenters. Over-the-top (OTT) TV technology is the relatively new upstart, emerging within the last couple of decades.
When OTT TV technology came along, traditional hardware evolved into new encoders that sent video to the internet for consumption. The result: a convergence of new and traditional processes running in parallel.
When TV broadcasters talk with AWS about cloud broadcasting, merging traditional broadcast with OTT is typically what they are looking for, the aim being to have a single TV broadcast technology stack for distribution to simplify operations and reduce costs.
Exploring the AWS Cloud Broadcast Distribution Chain
The TV broadcast distribution chain in the cloud comprises four discrete parts: Content storage, transport, playout, and distribution.
Storage: Bringing TV broadcast content to audiences starts with storage. Media content in cloud storage is available for transport and/or playout. Content needed for a playout server in the short term can be stored on Amazon S3 for its high reliability and speed. Content that is less frequently accessed can live in longer-term storage including Amazon S3 Glacier and Amazon S3 Deep Archive. Storage is used for many things in a TV broadcast architecture. It may be a part of a fully integrated workload that includes Media Asset Management (MAM), editing, and a Content Management System (CMS).
Transport: The AWS global network consists of regions around the world, and allows for fast, easy, and cost-efficient transportation of files. In addition to files, AWS allows for media transport via AWS Elemental MediaConnect, which is used for moving live video. Cloud broadcasters use it to ingest, move, and retrieve TV content within AWS.
Linear Playout: A cloud broadcaster with a channel and content rights needs to assemble the content into a sequential schedule of events, or a playlist, called linear playout. Linear playout includes various files ordered in a way to govern the TV viewing experience. The playlist of files includes the TV program, ads submitted by advertisers, and internal promotions (other shows or events on the network, often shown just prior to returning to programming).
Linear Playout vs. Live Stream: Where a linear playout is a file, a live program is a stream. Just as cloud broadcasters can move files around, they can also move live streams around. The major difference between live streams and file playout is that live streams are delivered in real time and the pacing of the streams is critical for TV viewing, meaning that the playout has to decode the stream and present it to the linear system on time—a more technically complex process.
Distribution: Ultimately, support for all broadcast TV workflows from a single location in the cloud is the ideal, with the key element being AWS Elemental MediaLive, a live video processing service that lets cloud broadcasters create high-quality, broadcast-grade video streams for delivery to broadcast televisions and internet-connected devices. The service works by encoding live video streams in real-time, taking a larger-sized live video source and compressing it into smaller versions for distribution to viewers.
Cloud Broadcast Linear Processing & Playout Using Statistical Multiplexing (Statmux)
In a traditional TV broadcast process, a statmux provides real-time bandwidth adjustments for multiple live video channels and devotes more resources to complex video like sports, and fewer resources to more simple programs like talking heads.
Like most critical functions in the TV production chain, a statmux can be accessed in a cloud-based broadcast workflow; for example, cloud broadcasters using Statmux for AWS Elemental MediaLive can originate live TV content and simultaneously share that TV content with their distribution partners.
How Statmux for MediaLive works: The statmux controller "talks" to each of the encoders in a statmux pool, and instructs them to encode at different bitrates, on a frame-by-frame basis, and in real time—meaning, that the statmux controller and encoders operate in a closed loop to determine the complexity of the content and adjust it so that very compute- and bit-intensive fast-action pictures—like NASCAR races or NFL matches—get the bits that a comparatively motionless talking head doesn't require.
Statmux for MediaLive allows satellite distribution workloads to be built in minutes from the cloud. Automatic redundancy is native to the service, and multiple availability zones enable identical configuration across regions, securing high service availability. The flexible nature of Statmux for MediaLive also makes it easy for cloud broadcasters to create, edit, and remove channels as audience and business demands change.
And with reserved pricing for a multi-year commitment, cost is no longer a barrier to adoption for TV broadcasters.
Cloud broadcasters can simplify point-to-point distribution with a high-quality transport service for live video such as AWS Elemental MediaConnect. MediaConnect can also play an important role in the cloud broadcast workflow, as it allows broadcasters to move streams in, out, and around AWS, spanning multiple global regions if desired, all from within their AWS accounts.
A Statmux Backstory: How FOX Made Cloud Broadcast History
FOX Corporation produces and distributes TV content through some of the world’s leading and most valued brands, including FOX Television Stations, the FOX Network, FOX News, and FOX Sports; the latter holds broadcast rights with the NFL, MLB, and other professional and college sports organizations including FOX Sports Racing, FOX Soccer, the company's Big Ten Network interests, and many others.
FOX runs a major TV content machine for a highly engaged audience, and FOX got to this point through a groundbreaking initiative: to use the cloud for encoding with HEVC and statistical multiplexing (statmux)—an industry first.
In 2019, FOX became the first major TV network to originate live TV from the cloud with Statmux for MediaLive.
With its two-part HEVC and statmux initiative, FOX demonstrated that the TV broadcast industry had a choice: maintain the CapEx-heavy overhead of traditional broadcast operations, or take advantage of new cloud broadcasting technologies and cost efficiencies.
Demo: How to Build an Eight-Channel Statmux with HEVC Inputs in 10 Minutes
In the following re:Invent recap, Evan Statton, AWS Media & Entertainment Principle Architect, performs a walkthrough to show the steps TV broadcasters can follow to build a live eight-channel statmux for cloud broadcasting. (Note: Many of these steps would normally be templated to save even more time.)
As Evan builds the statmux, Alastair Hamilton, FOX Corp. SVP of Distribution Architecture for Media & Broadcast, talks through the outline, steps, timing, and considerations of FOX's phase-one cloud broadcast migration plan. When the live statmux demo is ready, Evan walks through the cloud broadcast workflow used in the demo.
Webcast: We Interrupt this Broadcast… to Move to the Cloud
Watch the webcast: From playout to primary distribution, statistical multiplexing to monitoring, discover how reliable distribution of 24x7 live video originating in AWS is in production today, and see how you can take advantage of the flexibility, agility, and scale of AWS for cloud broadcasting.