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18 April 2019

BBC dishes dirt on IP transition; Canal+ adding AI “pixie dust”

A BBC representative took a bit of a grilling from fellow panelists at an exclusive Cisco event during last week’s NAB event, something of a rare sighting at a heavily US-centric event. To us this implies rising interest in technical activities on the other side of the pond – particularly with the British broadcaster’s increasing North American presence.

The Cisco Insider Insights on the IP Transition in Media panel featured an honest account from BBC Wales’ Head of Technology Roger Crothers. “The biggest challenge for us is that most people don’t want to learn about IP. Most engineers have been there for 30 years and don’t care, but we have proved IP works,” he said, referring to the major IP technology overhaul project first conceived by the BBC back in 2011 across six major broadcast centers.

“At the moment we (referring specifically to the BBC’s Cardiff site) take file-based content from memory cards, turn them into IP, send them over an encoder where they come out as baseband video and then it gets ingested into a media asset management system – so this is a horribly difficult workflow.” Baseband video, unlike its close cousin broadband video, is defined as a signal containing data required to reproduce a picture but it is not modulated onto a radio frequency carrier, for example composite, component, VGA and HDMI video.

Despite the major technical refurb, Crothers highlighted how the BBC still spends more on content than on technology, unsurprising really for a broadcaster, although he cited a shortage of network engineers and their higher salaries compared to broadcast engineers as another big challenge in IP transition. He cited how MAM systems have taken some of the costs out and new technologies have meant the long-term investment plan to switch from SDI to IP does not require ripping out full infrastructures, and ultimately the BBC is trying to gain as much efficiency in operational activities as possible via its IP migration.

Just over two years ago, the BBC outlined an ambitious reinvention of its online video portal BBC iPlayer, involving the introduction of AI, voice recognition and personalization technologies. Unfortunately, these advanced technologies were ignored during the panel, instead discussing trivialities like how accidentally kicking an IP cable at a broadcaster center would cause havoc in comparison to kicking an SDI cable.

But leave it to Broadcast Imagineer at French pay TV operator Canal+, Pierre Maillat, to fill that void. He profoundly described how IP should not be perceived as a simple replacement for SDI but a journey whereby IP opens the door to a world of opportunities where workflows are reimagined. One thing in particular Canal+ is working on involves bringing components of the distribution and production processes closer together, using all assets of each to develop technologies such as personalization, while adding “some pixie dust of AI”. Maillat also mentioned that Canal+ is looking into producing interactive titles like those currently being pioneered by Netflix, at great expense.

Cisco’s SVP, Chief Architect and CTO David Ward echoed the importance and shortage of IP engineers, although we’d be interested to know how many Cisco sacrificed after spinning off the IP video business last year to form Synamedia. Given everything spoken about in the panel, could Cisco rue this decision considering how well-positioned Synamedia is when we weigh it up against its nearest rivals? (See last week’s coverage of Synamedia and MediaKind for a deeper dive).

One panelist posed the question to Ward whether Cisco now sells more server technology to AWS than it does to every other traditional broadcaster on the planet combined? Ward masterfully dodged this bullet, suggesting the claim is somewhere close to the mark and therefore we learned that Cisco’s AWS contract is substantially larger than we previously thought so losing this would naturally be catastrophic. That said, the entire premise of the evening was discussing the broadcaster transition to IP and clearly this represents a wealth of new opportunities for Cisco as broadcasters the world over look to the likes of the BBC for guidance.