Disaster Recovery for Playout Environments: Six Key Considerations for Implementing or Improving
Robust disaster recovery (DR) strategies are essential for broadcasters and media organizations, and DR solutions today need to be considerably more sophisticated than past approaches to meet the changing nature of the business. Disruption-causing risks continue to grow in both type and frequency, while the financial, viewership and brand reputation stakes are higher than ever. This paper explores six important factors media companies must consider when choosing a new DR solution (or re-evaluating their existing systems) to keep their ad spots and programs playing out if their primary location is disrupted.
Most people associate the word “disaster” with natural events such as floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes. However, the disaster recovery (DR) plans of broadcasters, programmers and MVPDs must encompass a much broader array of disruptive threats to their operations, both from external forces and within their own facilities. Power outages, equipment failure, data corruption and criminal acts – from physical sabotage to cyber-hacks – are among the growing risks to on-air and online continuity. Meanwhile, today’s heavy dependence on sophisticated software and IP networks creates new vulnerabilities while adding more layers of complexity to trouble-shooting interruptions.
There are many reasons for media organizations to implement robust DR plans and solutions. At the most basic level, an active DR initiative and overarching Business Continuity plan may be a requirement for obtaining Business Interruption insurance – or at the very least, may afford the company reduced insurance costs. In some countries, broadcasters may need to implement a DR strategy to meet regulatory requirements. But while rudimentary DR approaches may be sufficient to meet these obligations, there are strong motivations for companies to go beyond the basics with a comprehensive solution that minimizes financial impact and maximizes long-term viewer retention, as the consequences of outages can be deeper than ever before.
The value of offsite DR solutions also isn’t limited to handling unpredictable outages. Media companies performing primary system upgrades can temporarily switch to their offsite DR playout environment before starting such maintenance, preventatively eliminating the risk of any service disruptions.
Key Considerations in Implementing DR for Playout
If you don’t already have a disaster recovery system in place to keep both ad spots and programs playing out from a backup location, there are a number of factors you should take into account when choosing a strategy and solution. Having the equipment to playout content and transmit your signal is just part of the equation; an efficient workflow to manage the file-based media assets you need to keep you on-air and meet your obligations is also crucial to maximizing your DR effectiveness.
But even if you do have a DR solution in place, is it sophisticated enough to meet the demands of today’s file-based operations, limited viewer loyalty and hyper-connected media landscape? DR approaches that seemed perfectly reasonable a decade ago may no longer be adequate, and you should reevaluate your existing solution against the same considerations as a fresh DR deployment.
1. Keep Content Current
Some older or rudimentary disaster recovery plans relied completely on ‘evergreen’ content – previously recorded shows that can be safely transmitted at any time from a rights/ownership perspective. While this strategy will keep your channel from going black, it fails to meet your obligations to your advertisers and content license holders, as the committed spots and programs aren’t being seen. It also fails to meet the expectations of your viewers, who tuned in to watch specific shows.
With the exception of a few programs that have become engrained as cultural touchpoints, today’s audiences have far less loyalty to particular shows or channels, and more ways to entertain or inform themselves than ever before. Evergreen content won’t hold their attention, and once viewers turn away they may be slow to return, if at all.
The impact of interrupted or unaired shows can extend indirectly to subsequent programs even after on-air operation successfully resumes. Many shows’ viewership numbers benefit from high-value, lead-in programming before it. A disruption to that lead-in will inevitably hurt the number of people watching the subsequent show.
Similarly, while the immediate lost revenues from missed ad placements are the most direct financial consequence, the advertising effects could be much more expansive and lasting. Television channels compete amongst themselves – as well as with websites and pure-play OTT offerings – for shares of advertisers’ budgets. Ad spots lost to an extended outage may damage the broadcasters’ advertising relationships, hindering future ad sales.
In short, evergreen content should be used only as a last resort. Your DR strategy should allow you to stay close to your planned programming and spot schedule, thus keeping your viewers and advertisers happy. The optimal DR solution will continually and automatically synchronize your program content, ad spots and playlists with your primary playout system, ensuring that your DR environment is always as up-to-date as possible and enabling a seamless, transparent switchover when needed.
That said, evergreen content should still play a part in disaster recovery. Your DR solution should maintain a collection of ready-to-use evergreen material and automatically insert it into your DR playlists to replace any current content that wasn’t fully replicated before the primary outage started. Ideally, the DR solution should update its pool of such content whenever fresh evergreen material is available at the primary site – the more recent it is, the longer it will likely keep viewers watching.
2. Automate, Automate, Automate
Legacy, manual disaster recovery processes could take hours to get a channel back on the air or online. In today’s media landscape, such downtime is no longer acceptable or affordable. In addition to potential financial penalties, the loss of viewership and reputation can have long-term effects. Ideally, service disruptions should last just seconds, rather than minutes or hours. The longer recovery takes, the greater the subsequent impact.
At a minimum, the switchover from your primary playout operation to your DR solution should be able to be triggered remotely from anywhere you have a network connection. Even better, that switchover should happen automatically, as soon an interruption of primary playout is detected. Ideally, you want a solution in which the DR system is always playing, even when your primary signal is fine. That makes it immediately ready to go to air with no startup time required, minimizing channel downtime.
Besides the automated switchover process, a good DR system should be constantly updated with the latest programs, advertisements and playlists. Upcoming content should be automatically replicated to the backup site as it is brought into the primary playout system, and playlist changes automatically synchronized. Solutions with flexible workflow rules also make it easy to flag and replicate fresh content from the main playout system for evergreen use, even if it has not been used in a program schedule.
Fully automating the content transfer process ensures your DR solution is ready to spring quickly into action with your latest programs and spots, without burdening your limited staff resources.
3. Avoid the Bandwidth Bottleneck
Keeping the content of a DR system up-to-date means continuously transferring media files between primary and backup locations, and the speed at which those transfers occur is limited by the network connectivity between the sites. Provision as much bandwidth as you can, enabling your programs and ad spots to be transferred as quickly as possible so they’re ready when needed.
If the bandwidth to your DR site is limited by technical challenges or high costs, reducing file sizes by transcoding media files to a lower bit rate can help. While lowering the bit rate may have an impact on the content’s visual quality, that’s a worthwhile tradeoff for making sure it’s seen at all. High bit rate content that’s still stuck being transferred on a slow connection has no value when an outage occurs. Shrinking the file sizes also reduces storage costs at the secondary site.
A DR solution with built-in transcoding that can automatically reduce the bit rates of media files without manual intervention will move them faster and more efficiently, even on bandwidth-constrained links.
4. The Equipment Duplication Myth
A common myth about disaster recovery is that it requires the same playout, automation and supporting equipment at both the primary and secondary sites, making it prohibitively expensive. This is false. The truth is that duplicating your primary playout environment is unnecessary.
In fact, beyond the initial cost implications, replicating the architecture of the primary playout site at the backup site can create additional maintenance overhead by requiring that both systems be upgraded and maintained on the same schedule to keep interoperating properly.
A DR solution does not need to be built on the same platform or components as your primary system. A flexible media management and workflow system for content synchronization, paired with a cost-effective integrated playout solution (i.e. Channel-in-a-Box), is fully capable of maintaining playout at a fraction of the cost of the primary site’s equipment. Auxiliary equipment such as graphics and branding systems also don’t need to be as sophisticated in the DR environment – while snipes and overlaid promo animations are nice, you really just need elements like logo bugs to meet identification requirements while you get your primary systems back up.
5. Format Flexibility for the Future
Not only can your primary and backup systems be different today, but a flexible DR solution that’s compatible with a variety of different products enables you to upgrade your main operations – not just maintenance updates, but even switching vendors – in the future without the cost or headache of replacing your DR platform too.
One of the most important elements of future compatibility is file format support, both in terms of compression standards (such as MPEG-2 and H.264) and containers (such as MXF and LXF). If the format you use in your primary operations changes, a flexible DR solution should easily accommodate the new files. Even if the playout or Channel-in-a-Box system at the secondary site doesn’t directly support the new standard, the DR solution should be able to automatically transcode the files to a playout-compatible format.
6. Keep Sharing the News
For local television stations, your newscasts have the most unique value of all of the content you offer your viewers. If a disaster prevents your live newscast – or any other live programming – from being transmitted, the ideal DR solution will automatically play evergreen content in its place to keep your channel on the air. However, if your viewers are tuning in expecting to see a newscast, that’s exactly what you should give them. Even if you can’t deliver an up-to-the-minute live show, a replay of the most recent news program – which may have been just an hour earlier – is far preferable to viewers than generic programming.
Most stations record their complete live newscasts onto their servers, whether for subsequent online publication or simply for their archives. An optimal DR solution should automatically pick up that content and transfer it to the secondary site, then automatically play it as a replacement if an outage occurs during a scheduled live newscast.
A Comprehensive Disaster Recovery Solution is Key
It’s clear that having a well-defined disaster recovery plan supported by robust solutions is essential for media organizations, and that those solutions now need to be considerably more sophisticated than past approaches. The financial, viewership and brand reputation stakes are higher than ever. Viewers expect to see the content they want to watch, when they want to watch it – and will turn elsewhere if they don’t get it almost immediately. Even if you have an existing DR system for your playout infrastructure in place, it’s worth reevaluating it to see if it can meet today’s demands.
Masstech’s DR solution addresses all of the considerations outlined in this paper, combining the MassStore media management and workflow platform with a reliable playout suite and dedicated nearline storage to help keep you on the air. The tightly integrated solution automatically synchronizes playlists, ads and programs between the primary and secondary playout facilities, while native transcoding adapts content to bandwidth limitations and ensures future compatibility. Last but not least, optional news support plays your previous newscast if the current live one is disrupted, keeping your viewers engaged.
A cost-effective DR system may effectively pay for itself with just a single outage, by keeping programming and ad spots on the air or through reduced insurance deductibles. Combined with the long-term implications of disruptions to your signal, it’s time to ask yourself – if you haven’t already implemented DR for your playout environment, can you really afford not to do so? And even if you have a solution in place, is it really good enough?