Measat Broadcast Network Systems Sdn. Bhd. is one of Asia’s most successful pay-tv platforms.
Launching in 1996 under the brand name ASTRO it now commands a subscriber base approaching 3 million homes and, at the time of writing, broadcasts a total of 133 multilingual TV channels in both standard and high definition and 19 radio services.
“The third-party legacy vendors have been enthusiastic about ForeTV, describing it as a “painless birth” and MSA Focus as “a flexible and receptive industry partner”.
It was one of the first Direct to Home satellite broadcasters in the region to adopt a fully-digital approach from launch, using a fleet of high-powered Ku-band satellites designed specifically for the challenging climatic conditions.
Of the 133 TV channels, 50 are fully scheduled and played out from two broadcast and uplinking facilities sited about 25 km apart to the south of Kuala Lumpur. This dual centre operation allows ASTRO to switch its entire uplink capacity from one centre to another within a couple of seconds in order to continue broadcasting uninterrupted even if one of the facilities is unable to uplink due to heavy rain.
This dual-centre approach brings other advantages in that it provides 50% broadcast resilience in the event of failure of either site and allows for the dual archiving of all programming material. However dual-site operations also brings additional technical challenges, particularly in respect of systems that cannot be run in duplex, such as the channel management and broadcast business system which is the “glue” that binds the contributions from the two KL uplink sites together into a single homogeneous DTH service.
Prior to selecting ForeTV from MSA-Focus, ASTRO had around 10 years of experience with alternative systems and suppliers with varying degrees of success. The first system adopted was completely bespoke and designed to run on an object-oriented database that did not scale particularly well, lacked stability and was extremely expensive to support.
As the business grew it was decided to migrate to an industry-standard platform that was designed specifically for multi-channel scheduling and Electronic Programme Guide management. This was more successful while ASTRO broadcasting remained principally a tape-based operation, but was not designed to handle the complex workflows demanded of a full file-based, multi-platform, media management operation – in particular one that operated across a distributed environment with ingest, conformance, archiving, de-archiving and playout having no physical relationship to each other. ASTRO was looking for a system that could deal with ingest at one site, archiving at multiple sites and playout/uplinking from multiple sites, with some sites located even in different countries.
“Many had not worked with MSA Focus before ……….. That will change with the increasing success of ForeTV in the wider world of multi-channel, multi-platform broadcast workflow management and content delivery.”
About 4 years ago ASTRO started to look at the various stand-alone media management systems that were available at the time and concluded that they were primarily targeted at the archiving and retrieval of programme material for resale or repurposing. Although capable of rich metadata extensions, the linkage to programme scheduling was fairly loose and late schedule changes often required dual entry to trigger the staging of replacement material to reflect the new schedule. In addition, the systems that were good at channel scheduling usually had deficiencies in airtime sales integration, with no concept of skeleton schedules and a fully separated airtime sales process. Over-selling or under-selling resulted in traffic issues in the final TX schedule that required heavy manual intervention prior to transmission.
Once migrated to a fully tapeless transmission environment ASTRO also needed its complex pre-transmission workflow to be automated. Everything that is broadcast in Malaysia requires conformance editing to government guidelines. Likewise different guidelines may be required for pre-transmission conformance in other countries. Once this conformance process is completed the material may require the addition or removal of commercial break junctions followed by a low-resolution copy being struck on DVD or sent over the Internet to a freelance subtitler. In other instances a frame-accurate lower resolution version but with a full bandwidth audio M&E track may be required in an ADR suite for an additional language track to be added. Programme transmission rights had to be adhered to, across multiple platforms and for varying rights definition windows.
ASTRO therefore came to the conclusion that the primary technical attributes it required from its Broadcast Management System were as follows
- Scalability to many hundreds of linear channels across multiple distribution platforms
- Capability to manage VoD content across multiple servers
- Tight integration of channel and VoD scheduling with airtime sales
- Full airtime sales functionality, including as-aired reconciliation, billing and contract management rather than just spot placement.
- Tight integration of pre-transmission workflows, archive management and contract rights management with programme scheduling
- Flexibility to adjust workflows and change system parameters by super-users without recourse to supplier re-engineering
- The Broadcast Management System application able to run resiliently on standard PC-based client-server hardware and an industry standard operating system and database with low network loads and low sensitivity to network bandwidth or latency problems.
- Tight integration with the legacy Omnibus Colossus automation system, Omnibus Opus clip management system, Omnibus iTX (future) HD transmission system, NDS MediaHighway EPG transmission system, HWW EPG data system, SAP financial ledger system and Amdocs Subscriber Management system.
In addition ASTRO needed a business model with its supplier that did not inhibit it from adding users and channels by back-loading the system supply cost. They were prepared to pay for any bespoke developments from the start and any future functionality enhancements as reasonably necessary, but in return wanted any further system scaling to be at minimal additional licencing cost.
Having seen the ForeTV development in its early days ASTRO decided that the MSA Focus development strategy of using Microsoft .NET products as the core building blocks was a flexible and future-proof approach. In addition a considerable number of the 8 core technical requirements were already in place and the total cost of ownership for the system envisioned would allow them to swap out their legacy system for ForeTV at roughly the same cost as upgrading their legacy system.
The decision was made easier by the legacy system suppliers’ unwillingness (at that time) to develop any “custom software”.
Unlike MSA Focus, the legacy supplier did not view ASTRO as a principal customer for its products and did not want to develop anything that it believed may not have a market elsewhere. MSA Focus however had the early vision to integrate a flexible workflow module into its core Broadcast Management System product thus avoiding pitfalls associated with trying to integrate a third-party workflow management system.
Over and above the multi-site broadcast and media handling operation Fore TV was required to operate across multiple scheduling locations via the ASTRO in-house IT network. ASTRO produces a substantial proportion of its own content from a number of remote production centres. At the time these included a financial channel at the Bursa Malaysia (KL Stock Exchange) building, entertainment channels from a suburban office location, Indonesian content from studios in Jakarta, Chinese channels from TV City in Hong Kong and, most recently, a local sports channel from a studio and OB complex on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. All of these sites needed to be linked robustly to the broadcast and uplink centres and in due course all content generated by these remote sites, including ASTRO’s content partners in China and India, would be managed as one homogeneous archive with media files transferred between them as a background task according to bandwidth availability. The media transfers will be initiated by workflow commands generated by ForeTV avoiding the physical shipment of videotapes and customs clearance issues entirely.
“MSA Focus……….had the early vision to integrate a flexible workflow module into its core Broadcast Management System product thus avoiding pitfalls associated with trying to integrate a third-party workflow management system.”
The project was conceived as a 3-year process with two phases. Phase 1 was the data and channel migration from the legacy system. This kicked off formally on August 1st 2008. A data migration from the legacy system using external data mining expertise was undertaken in May-June 09. This was completed satisfactorily and on time. The total Phase 1 development by MSA-Focus was completed by June 09 as scheduled.
The channels migration took rather longer than expected – from July 09 to May 10. This was because of ASTRO’s reluctance to migrate channels during holiday peak viewing periods and the introduction of its HD service ‘ASTRO B.yond” prior to the World Cup in June 10.
Because user training had been undertaken early on in the migration, with the expectation that the migration would be completed in 3 months the channel schedulers who were migrated last needed some refresher training – this slowed things down even further.
During the migration process additional requirements were incorporated, such as the playout of repurposed channels to PC and mobile platforms.
“ASTRO decided that the MSA Focus development strategy of using Microsoft .NET products as the core building blocks was a flexible and future-proof approach.”
The project has now moved into Phase 2 where the full benefit of automating the workflow process can be realized. Because of the implementation delay the original 15 core workflows will need to be revalidated and extensive testing of these undertaken prior to going live with this part of the system. This is predicted to take a further 12 months and will be largely dependent upon ASTRO’s appetite for the significant upheaval in its 15 year-old working practices.
The success of Phase 2 will therefore be more dependant on gaining user buy-in for new working methods than on any software development as most of the Phase 2 functionality already exists in ForeTV. ASTRO will need to replicate the strong project team it assembled for Phase 1 if it is to move forwards successfully into Phase 2. Many of the original team have since moved on to other things and are no longer available.
- A strong ASTRO project stakeholder who developed the initial vision and concepts.
- A strong ASTRO implementation team who defined the detailed requirements clearly
- Buy-in from all the users who liked the user interface and flexibility of the system. They were tired of augmenting the legacy system with excel spreadsheets because of its lack of functionality.
A flexible and accommodating vendor committed to the success of the project.
- A stable and reliable product.
- Extended channel migration and thus a long period of dual data entry because of operational timidity.
- Need for additional operator training due to the long migration lead time
- No formal user acceptance testing by ASTRO for post-migration software releases within the ASTRO environment. There have been some instances of a bug fix creating unforeseen operational inconsistencies because of this.
- Some system slowness due to hardware deficiencies at those remote sites with less-than-expected bandwidth availability
- Phase 2 kick-off delayed due to absence of project leads.
Despite the foregoing hiccups the users have overall rated Phase 1 of the project a great success. For the first time they are able to provide consolidated programme and airtime schedules without heavy manual intervention and the use of external spreadsheets. Airtime Sales is more flexible and this should allow greater efficiency in the management of inventory than was previously possible. Integration with the external legacy systems is working well and there have been no significant system problems to date.
The third-party legacy vendors have been enthusiastic about ForeTV, describing it as a “painless birth” and MSA Focus as “a flexible and receptive industry partner”. Many had not worked with MSA Focus before, because of MSA Focus’ previous concentration on the terrestrial broadcast market. That will change with the increasing success of ForeTV in the wider world of multi-channel, multi-platform broadcast workflow management and content delivery.