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Remote production how to… Switchers are the beating heart of remote production

By Greg Huttie, vice president, production switchers, Grass Valley

Before COVID-19 hit, remote production was already gaining ground, with many of our customers – such as Star Sports in India and SVT in Sweden – successfully turning their live sports productions to more centralized models. The pandemic has accelerated this trend, and as customers navigate through social distancing measures and prioritize staff safety, remote models come into their own. With live sport increasingly returning to our TV screens, this approach allows customers to keep telling the great stories that fans expect.

Different flavors of remote
There’s no one size fits all approach with remote production. Remote workflows are flexible enough to handle a wide range of needs, so customers get to choose the right flavor for them.

Whatever approach you take – whether it’s SDI or IP, in an outside broadcast (OB) truck or a remote location – the switcher is the hub of the production. It’s key to building a show – from rolling in replays to loading graphics. The only difference in a remote scenario is that the equipment is located away from the live venue. And, sometimes, even separate from other parts of the workflow, like replay.

A centralized model, where the production suite, with a director, producer, TV replay, and all the equipment, are at a fixed centralized facility, is the most common. In this case, the cameras are the only significant piece of equipment at the live location with all camera signals sent back to the main hub. Here, the switcher is operating as normal – there’s no difference to having that piece of equipment in an OB truck on location, in a truck located elsewhere, or in a studio.

The current NASCAR season is a really great example of this. You have two major sports networks handling race coverage and doing their production in very different ways. One of them deploys a truck at the race location with a limited crew, the other has just camera operators and a small technical team at the live venue. The great thing is that for technical directors (TDs), there’s no noticeable difference in the way the equipment is deployed or in the signal flow. In both cases, the operators build their shows and punch them live, just as they would in a regular OB set-up. That's the beauty of our flexible switcher's architecture – you can set the equipment up in almost any way you like.

With COVID-19 restrictions limiting the number of staff allowed at venues, we’re seeing some of our customers turning to more distributed production models – where a large number of critical production functions are happening in multiple, separate locations. Production staff can work from home, or at locations where they can keep travel to a minimum, making it easier to keep them safe.

In a distributed set-up, the production switcher engine (or frame) and the control panel are in different places. You do need some additional technology – like a VPN network, or similar – to ensure smooth communications between the two. The round trip time for the signals to travel to and from the switcher is what determines the success of a production because you need uninterrupted communication between control surfaces and frames.

Keeping it flexible
Whether you’re working remotely or on location, the switcher, like a camera, traditionally lives in the creative space of live production, so the flexibility to have these tools located anywhere, run in a native IP environment, or handle 4K UHD or HDR, is a big advantage. That’s exactly how we’ve designed our switchers to work and it’s one of the reasons they’re the gold standard for live sports production. Our record-breaking switcher sales in 2019 highlight this.

All our switchers easily connect to a remote panel or frame, so customers can position one or more control surfaces exactly where they’re needed. A single panel can also control two frames – one local and one remote – which is great for productions operating with a limited staff.

Our family of switcher panels – from Maverik to Kayenne – are highly modular. Customers can locate them anywhere and configure their equipment exactly how they want. Whether a production is remote or on location, a technical director (TD) or operator needs to see minimal impact on their job while they're punching a show. We’ve built our solutions to make sure that the workflow remains consistent, regardless of where the crew is.

Taking the leap from IP to the cloud
The transition to IP has made a huge impact on the move to remote production. The ability to bring sources in and move signals around purely on an IP network, with minimal delays, is critical in any live set-up. Grass Valley leads the transition to IP, including switcher technology, and our Kula and Kahuna production switchers – both proven in remote production scenarios – have 40 and 50 GbE interfaces for added flexibility and performance.

Helping customers tell great stories is what we do at Grass Valley and IP helps production teams to deliver the huge volumes of content that consumers now demand – and do it more efficiently. IP also handles everything from HD to 4K UHD and HDR and opens up the way for larger formats, such as 8K.

As our customers look for even greater agility, IP opens the doors to more flexible, cloud-based production. A truly distributed model, built around virtualized workflows, means production staff can collaborate from any location – even their homes. Here, the processing equipment is living off-premises and your control surface can float anywhere. Again, fast communication links are vital to accessing those pieces of equipment, wherever they are.

Our GV AMPP (Agile Media Processing Platform) software as a service (SaaS) platform is a real game-changer. It was built with a cloud-native approach from the start, unlocking the power of elastic compute for live sports. Customers can now transition to public, data center, or hybrid infrastructures more easily. We’ve also solved many of the issues that can complicate IP and cloud deployments – such as network connectivity, timing, and ultra-low latency.

GV AMPP brings the agility that customers increasingly need in live productions today. The unique microservices architecture and the flexibility and power of GV AMPP have created a real paradigm shift in live content production. We’re constantly evolving the platform and we’re working on the way GV AMPP interacts with the switchers – in effect acting as an engine to drive the production. There’ll be announcements around this in the coming months.

One-stop from end-to-end
Whatever flavor of remote production our customers choose, getting everything from a single vendor is a good thing. Just in the area of switchers alone, Grass Valley does the whole gamut from single stream on IP, to 12G-SDI for 4K UHD. We also make it easy for customers to transition to full IP 4K UHD and cloud-based production at their own pace. We’ve got a robust product roadmap incorporating cloud-based technology and for our customers, it’s reassuring to see that it lines up with their future needs. Whether production teams are working from a centralized hub or in their own homes, our focus is on providing solutions that help them create and deliver the best stories.