There was no letup this year in the rate of change occurring in the broadcast industry. In automation, nontraditional technological and business trends are shaping the products and services. In the end, automation, as one prominent vendor put it, has to enhance performance, not just command it. Until recently, automation vendors were heavily involved with the implementation of high-end broadcasts such as HD, but now it's about content management and repurposing media from HD down to cell phones.
The usual concerns confront broadcasters as they continue to fight for revenue and find ways to operate as efficiently as possible. This means removing as many hands from the process as possible. VCI Solutions says this means no more “manual” automation as stations over the next 24 months begin to adopt the Broadcast Exchange Format (BXF) enabling technology. The company claims that this will allow customers to reexamine their operations and push traffic and automation systems to do more than they have previously been able to accomplish.
Vendors say that many stations are finding that their online appearance is directly tied to their on-air success. Florical says Gray Stations attributed its Q1 earning increase in part to increased Web site traffic and Internet sales. The concept that online is competing with on-air is giving way to online and on-air being partners. Florical thinks automation will start expanding to not only help on-air, but to also help move product to the online process.
Other themes that have continued to flourish in this area of the business are more activity in the channel-in-a-box segment and more emphasis on automation tools such as rules engines. Some claim this approach improves on the functionality of a traditional broadcast automation and playout chain and brings added efficiency through feature consolidation in a single set of hardware. Other vendors believe that there is an ongoing and future need for distributed control systems that enable customers to choose best-of-breed servers, graphics and other transmission chain devices. Some go as far as to say the industry must be able to separate the latest fad from the requirements desired by the industry.
Harris points out that another trend in the industry is to consolidate more types of content distribution (i.e., traditional linear, mobile, Web, VOD) under a single system with single operator control. Alan DeVaney of Crispin sees the integration of production NLEs used for creation of promotional material that air into the automation system. He stated that using automatic promo recognition — the movement to the play-to-air server — followed by removal from the play-to-air server can be accomplished without the need for human intervention.
Other challenges include standards-based interoperability, expanded archiving opportunities, even larger channel counts and a growing need for MPEG-4/H.264 to MPEG-2 transcoding. Some worry about the increased complexity and manageability of continual software upgrades. The looming FCC mandate for the dynamic EPG had the automation and EPG industry scrambling to offer a solution before the end of May deadline. Stations with existing automation weren't as hard hit as those running without automation. Some were looking for ways to gracefully expand existing content for live mobile TV. Then there's the challenge from the outside. As one vendor put it, “lots of worry about Google and others eating our lunch.”
So what's new this year?
Florical Systems demonstrated six new products at NAB this year. FanChat, a Pick Hit winner, is a social-networking, revenue-generating chat agent that ties online banner ads to on-air spots, while reminding viewers to tune-in. AirGuide is a dynamic PSIP interface for EPGs. The LiveLog BXF traffic interface with two-way communication is automatically notified if a spot is missed and can make an adjustment to the on-air schedule immediately rather than waiting for the next day's as-run log.
For three new applications in its S.M.A.R.T. Central suite of products, Florical changed the workflow related to TV stations in two ways. First, reports and notices are automatically e-mailed to appropriate personnel. Second, the S.M.A.R.T. Client applications are securely accessible from any PC that uses a VPN to connect the stations' system. The new applications include Remote AirBoss, which monitors or controls the on-air schedule. The Web Editor edits on-air and future schedules. Remote Supervisory Monitor allows users to view and control multiple channels from one monitor.
Harris introduced several enhancements and interoperability advances across its automation portfolio. One example is the use of SMPTE 2021 BXF to integrate live logs across the company's traffic and automation systems using OSi-Traffic to ADC-1000 automation and Vision Program Management to D-Series DSX automation.
ADC-1000 and D-Series DSX automation use common content management and media movement workflow tools integrated with Harris automation systems, allowing both automation and digital asset management tools to share ingest and the resulting content. D-Series DSX automation uses a modular device architecture to support the addition of devices and new distribution channels without downtime and minimal operational disruption. The company also introduced a new interface for ADC-1000 automation to enhance ease of use and to support staff training.
Pro-Bel introduced its Pick Hit-winning station in a box, Morpheus ICE, an integrated content engine, which combines automation, master control and media storage in one 3RU box. It can be used standalone or in various configurations for playout, backup or regional opt-out channels.
VCI Solutions' latest automation release, autoXe MC, can manage one, 15, 50, or more channels on one workstation in one screen. It has a number of different views available through its GUI, such as icon view and timeline view. In icon view, you can quickly glance at the system and know what is running smooth and what needs your attention instantly.
Sundance Digital introduced FastBreak NXT Entry Level Edition, the Digital Delivery Management Engine, a 13TB expanded Sundance Archive Engine, and Publish to Sundance.
Pebble Beach continues to add features into its Neptune. The company has also launched a new small automation package called DeckChair. This year Pebble Beach opened a support office in the United States.
Crispin launched its latest product, media management software, called MediaNav. The software is a standalone package that provides professional control to manage a client's Omneon video server. MediaNav allows broadcasters to browse the contents of the server for clips, as well as view key server statistics, such as free space, used space and number of clips. Users can search, sort, rename, delete and copy clips from one folder to another or even to another Omneon server. MediaNav features an intuitive graphical user interface, as well as easy click, drag-and-drop functions and simple configuration.
Aveco introduced Astra Orbiter architecture for large or distributed (even geographically) automation systems. Astra SHS feature for dynamic assignment of playlists, broadcast chains, automation systems and control workplaces to TV channels. It allows one operator to control all TV channels during the graveyard shift, and during prime time each channel can have its own operator.
OmniBus is offering iTX Business Continuity Planning (BCP), a cost-effective disaster recovery solution to ensure business continuity based on the iTX transmission system, along with iTX On Demand, a iTX-based production system for VOD file delivery. The company also showed its SmartClient, which is a platform-independent Web 2.0-based browse and content selection tool.
Digital Broadcast introduced MediaFire Dub HD, which provides the ability to dub both HD and SD syndicated programming off the Pathfire DMG server. Designed in collaboration with Pathfire, the MediaFire Dub HD is integrated into Pathfire's dub service architecture. The MediaFire Dub HD expands to the fully automated MediaFire HD, which quickly transfers HD syndicated programming from the Pathfire server ready for playout without requiring format flipping and without degradation of the HD material.
Fission continued to add new features to its open architecture HDCore system, which uses off-the-shelf hardware.
The general consensus among the automation vendors this year is that although attendance was definitely down, the quality of the attendees as it relates to potential business was up. Most said business was not down and in some cases record setting, suggesting that broadcasters must still be trying to set the proper business course for survival.
Jim Boston is a West Coast consultant.