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Rebuild a TV Station on the cheap

My ooVoo Day With... John Wall

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I’ve been having some hallway discussions with our CEO Chuck Peters (or as I affectionalty refer to him as “Chucky P”).  I think it started after I was talking too much about how cheap I thought I could rebuild a TV station.  I was tossing around a number which was close to 10% of the cost the consultants were estimating.

So this morning, Chucky P called me to the table about the conversation.  He’s asys – OK, mr. 90% reduction in cost…HOW?  It was a much nicer was that he asked – but seriously, he said – “tell me more – how would you do it?”

The Methodology
You first have to agree – it’s not going to be the “TV Station” it is today.  It’s a digital distribution station, a DDS.  This DDS will do many of the things a traditional station does, but it must look and adopt some of the best practices of the web.

It will be hard – and I know I don’t understand some of the TV concepts and I can hear the old school media guys saying – this is all good, but what about…   the point is to try and think about what TV will be in 3,4 and 7 years.  I’m not sure TV as we know it will exist in 7 years, so why rebuild it now to currect specs.

Slashdot ran a post Oct 05, 2006 called “Could I Run a TV Station on Linux?

  • I’m working with a low-power television station to update their playback system. Currently they’re using tape and I’ve been tasked to move them to computerized playback (MPEG-2, etc.) There are proprietary solutions (very expensive) and there are companies that bundle software with Windows and standard x86 hardware. Overall, they are generally unimpressive and won’t sell the software without bundling it with their own hardware. Tom’s Comment:  Wow does this sound familiar – this is exactly what I hear from my co-works at the tv station still today…but the interesting part is the other comments, I found some interesting one – but I’m sure I missed a couple of gems.
  • Actually, you can address a lot of those types of problems (like playlist management, etc.) with one of the many mplayer frontends on their related projects page [mplayerhq.hu]. All you need to do is choose whichever one you prefer and mplayer is your best friend for video playback.

  • The things you need are a scheduler (to determine which commercials air when), a program format spec file (to tell where in a program file the actual video begins and ends so you don’t end up unnecessarily airing several seconds of black as you might if you just paused the playback of a TV show), and a mechanism for crossfading the audio between spots to handle the case where people run it right up to the wire. You need a switcher for the video—the ability to quickly change from one foreground full-screen video window to another without any glitching. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Finally, you need a player that can start pretty much instantaneously and without glitch in the middle of a program. I haven’t found that to be true of VLC at all in my experience, but maybe it has improved a lot in the last few months….

  • For a possible controller UI, you might check out SongCue on SourceForge. I designed it for radio automation, but combine that UI with a preview pane above each controller and show a still frame from 5 seconds into a segment, and you have a UI that would work pretty well for what you’re doing, too. Maybe even show live video in the preview panes during playback. (I wouldn’t recommend the code from SongCue, though, as it’s pretty much raw Xlib, not for the faint of heart.)

  • If I were writing such a thing, I’d start with a Mac OS X (10.4 Server) box. Xsan provides a supported mechanism for handling your storage needs. QTKit can do your playback, and Quartz Composer should make switching the foreground full screen movie pretty easy. The only potential snag I can think of would be that if you aren’t careful, you could mouse over onto the live output signal, but all things considered, it’s probably the easiest way to build an app that does what you want, IMHO.

You see – this is a two year old post with ideas we have not seen people look at or try.  This is all good stuff.  I have not even begun to speak about user content – there are two projects like this going on – one for sure is based on Drupal…an open source contnet management system.  Don’t even get me started on my favorite CMS WordPress – I’m SURE it could do it with one processor tied behind it’s back.

Here is also a pre-bult server from NetTVWorld (posted from CNet) which is calling it self a TV Station in a box and also – clains the idea of a reporter taking it with them to a story and broadcasting from there.  See link in comments to here.


So I’m not saying I can do it – but I think if you get a TV outsider who gets the web (someone like me) and a few TV people who really have a mindset to change the scene – it could be done…for 10% ok 20% of what they think!

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4 Responses to “Rebuild a TV Station on the cheap”

  1. Here’s the thing: you’re not paying for the hardware and software; those are both easy to reproduce with cheap or free alternatives (i.e., Dell or open-source). You’re paying for the human side of things… the service and the accountability.

    If the traffic system was to break and you bought it from a major commercial supplier, they have a herd of tech support staff to fix it if your internal staff can’t figure it out. You can purchase guaranteed support from them to fix it in an emergency. If all else fails, you can sue the pants off them if they can’t support their system. You could probably put together a system on Linux that does the exact same thing using open source software and save a bundle in the process, but you’re solely responsible if it goes down in the middle of a critical broadcast, and you can’t hold a forum to a time schedule for responding to your problem. If you decide to leave the company, no one else is going to know how everything was put together. If the lead programmer on an open source project suddenly disappears, the project often disappears with him, leaving the company in a bad spot. And ultimately, there’s no one to blame if things really go badly.

    It sounds petty and cynical, but that’s a big part of the way corporations think – in terms of accountability in a worst-case scenario. It’s one reason that companies still debate “build vs. buy” when talking about software (you build what can be a differentiator; you buy what requires accountability). It’s also why companies like IBM can charge a premium and still thrive in today’s economy.


    Posted by Ed L | November 25, 2008, 10:36 pm
  2. Great point Ed – sincerely…these are the responses I wanted to stir up with the post.

    Of course you’re not going to “test” the system when you’re in the middle of a broadcast. Part of the point of the system is to save money. When you save 80% of the cost…there is definitely some give and take.

    And realistically, to your point of “You can purchase guaranteed support from them to fix it in an emergency.” – we know how tat kind of support works…we see it currently in the support contract we have with our “industry tested” software/host for Gazette Online. We have hosting problems, we call, they acknowledge and they are still slow and suck and make excuses.

    The point is to get get some outside of the industry thinkers who can provide new and innovative solutions and open minded insiders – who will take a risk and move to a model of Digital Distribution Station.

    (Thanks for the comments Ed!)

    Posted by tomaltman | November 26, 2008, 7:47 am
  3. If you build as system that cost 20 percent of a commercial system, you can build two redundant ones and still save money.

    At work I use a digital playback system that runs on a pretty low-end system with essentially the features you’re talking about, Tom. We don’t put the same stress on a system that a station like KCRG might, but it runs reliably. (And my understanding is that the ad playback system some times crashes mid-newscast.)

    Posted by Nick Bergus | November 26, 2008, 3:23 pm
  4. Thank you for the comments Nick. As far as your comment: “And my understanding is that the ad playback system some times crashes mid-newscast.”

    Note to self – beefy ad system.

    Posted by tomaltman | November 26, 2008, 4:00 pm

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