New transcoders will underpin ABC platform expansion

The ABC is planning a massive upgrade of its transcoding facilities

The ABC is planning a massive upgrade of the transcoding facilities it uses to convert a wide range of video formats for use on television, podcasts, Internet publishing and various forms of mobile and social media.

The project is one segment of a total overhaul of the technology used by the broadcaster, being implemented over a two-and-a-half year span and due for completion around the end of 2018.

The assignment is urgent because of the accelerating volume of transcoding to be done, notably with the progressive switch to high definition formats from standard definition.

There is also the ballooning number of audio and video input formats, with the spread of delivery platforms such as Internet, social and mobile engaging ABC content producers.

On top of this, in tender documents for the project the ABC specifies a long list of technical improvements intended to boost reliability, enhance quality control, facilitate load balancing of work volumes around available equipment, and automate even more production and processing work.

The whole exercise is a graphic demonstration of the way in which IT has become an integral part of day-to-day production activities in many specialist fields.

Although the new transcoding facilities are initially for the ABC News division, the corporation specifies that they must be extensible to other applications, so that eventually there is a standard transcoding approach everywhere.

The present installation, with Rhozet Carbon coders from the Harmonic Corporation of Sunnyvale, California, dates from 2008 and has become critical to production processes.

“These transcode systems are nearing end-of-life and need replacement to contend with the rapidly increasing number of sound/video input formats,” an ABC tender summary commented.

“Management and reporting will be a key point of interest in the new systems. ABC is seeking a reduction in the effort involved in setting up, maintaining transcoding workflows, monitoring real-time progress of transcoding jobs and reporting on overall efficiency and throughput.”

Behind the pressure on the ABC IT department is a string of new activities. From 31 October, for example, ABC News has been using Facebook Messenger, employing the automated services called chatbots.

On Australian election night last year, users of the service could ask chatbots for live counting updates on a seat-by-seat basis. After that a broader news app was tested on a small group before a general rollout at the end of October.

“The stats are compelling,” commented Stuart Watt, head of ABC News Digital. “In July, 2016 Messenger boasted 11.4 million users in Australia. With 60 per cent women and a similar proportion aged under 45, it shapes as a key channel through which to access audiences we have always found hard to reach.”

Keeping up the pressure on transcoding capacity, ABC television upgraded its prime channel to high definition from 6 December last year.

TVs capable displaying high-definition MPEG4 streams can now be tuned in to HD on ABC channel 20. The prior standard definition transmissions continue (for the time being) on channel 2 and channel 21.

Everything else stays the same, except that ABC News 24, which was on an older high definition format, had to be dropped back to SD to accommodate the upgrade to the flagship channel.

Aficionados of continuous news miffed by this downgrade can console themselves with the thought that this has made 24-hour news finally available to the people with older TV sets lacking any high-definition capability at all.

ABC iView and ABC Live Stream continue to be streamed in standard definition.

One can expect that once the ABC has completed the current tender process, rejigging and expanding its transcoding capacity, we’ll be seeing more and more ABC output media and reception platforms upgrading to high definition.

The soon-to-be-replaced Carbon Coder systems are installed in the eight Australian capital cities, including Canberra and Darwin, with a spare in Sydney to cover system failures or major maintenance at any centre.

Canberra will get redundant capacity to match the existing redundant capacity already enjoyed in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

The present nine transcoding environments will expand to 10, with the additional one to be used for testing evolving techniques and new systems and standards.

The Sydney transcoder solution currently averages 950 separate individual jobs each day, with multiple input codecs. This is about 40 hours of input content every 24 hours.

Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane average around 630 jobs made up of 30 hours of input content daily. Even the outliers, Hobart, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin, maintain a brisk pace averaging 425 jobs and 20 hours of input content per day.

The new system must be scalable, to allow these pretty respectable process rates to expand further.There are also 24 key scripted workflow sets that will need to be migrated to the new systems.

A lengthy questionnaire on functionality included in the tender documents clearly lists the high performance expectations of the ABC IT planners. Included should be the ability to add text elements, watermarks and ABC branding during processing.

The processors will be able to accept multiple input files with a common format and stitch them together into one larger file.

ABC is looking at a three-year contract, with scope for two one-year extensions, for a maximum of five years.