The elephant in the room is clearly the ailing economy and how the inevitable chain reaction has now affected the broadcast industry. It's no secret that the economy has indirectly affected a broadcaster's capital purchase plans. Every day we hear of more and more layoffs in the broadcast industry. The low attendance at the 2009 NAB Show is yet another indicator of the economy's effect on our industry.
The broadcaster's focus has shifted to outright survival tactics and tried and proven ROI projects. As we march through one of the darkest times in our history, let's look at how critical automation is to broadcasting during these tough times. Several industry analysts and leaders have said automating processes, lowering staff count, smartening efficiencies and doing more with less are all critical for survival. This article examines the automation changes broadcasters can make to survive and succeed during these hard times.
Master control automation
Master control automation is critical in today's broadcasting world. Automation systems are now advanced and proven to the point of normal everyday usage, regardless of the level of broadcaster. Whether you're a network broadcaster, a KXYZ or WXYZ, a public, educational and governmental (PEG) market broadcaster, or an audio/video corporate broadcaster, there are proven solid-state automation solutions available today.
There are three different types of automation systems. In standard systems, a PC- and software-based unit controls primarily third-party devices. A combo system consists of an internal video server and automation system combined in one box. The hybrid system is a channel-in-a-box solution in which the video server, automation applications, routers, switchers, graphics, character generators, etc., are included within one box or system. The combo and hybrid systems are growing in popularity. One of the principal reasons is because of costs, savings, simplicity of integration and low maintenance costs.
News automation is increasing in popularity, and it's a good way to cut costs in struggling news departments. There are two types of news automation systems: hardware and software. The hardware news automation system is usually a news production switcher with advanced software for the automation of various processes. The upside of these systems is that they do well in late-breaking live news or live production events. The downside is that they primarily only control proprietary devices and only limited external devices.
The software news automation systems are PC-based and are external to switchers, routers and video servers. Software-based systems control a variety of third-party devices via IP/API or Serial Control. The upside of these systems is that they can control a variety of third-party devices, regardless of the manufacturer. The downside is that they are not as flexible in late-breaking live news events.
Production automation can also be effective in reducing headcount and increasing efficiencies. Regardless of the task, such as studio production or sports, there is most likely a production automation solution to fit the need. Like news automation, there are upsides and downsides to production automation systems, and they're usually based on on-the-fly live productions or late-breaking live events versus a predefined and scripted production. The more a production can be predefined, the better a production automation system will function.
Syndicated programming and commercial interstitial
Syndicated programming and commercial interstitial delivery systems are another way to automate and advance your workflow. Several companies have applications in which rich media, along with metadata, is automatically pulled or pushed to play out video servers and automation databases. Several master control automation manufacturers have partnered with these companies to streamline the workflow and automate the delivery process. Features and options include real-time messaging, hot folders, auto distribution and transcoding, QA notifications, and auto database importing. These are all common functions with automated media content delivery systems.
The new trend with station groups is HD content distribution using their own networks. Because of the high cost of distributing HD programming commercially, station groups are installing distribution solutions that will work using their own networks or the public Internet. At the 2009 NAB Show, several new distribution companies moved into the broadcast industry from the IT, IPTV and Internet world. With more competition in place, the price of HD distribution should normalize and be more cost-effective for uplink facilities, stations and station groups.
Automated rich media distribution
Automated rich media distribution systems are now critical to an operation in which all the rich media assets are centralized. Several companies specialize in automated rich media distribution, nearline storage and archive management, and transcoding.
Most master control automation systems have limited to advanced forms of automated distribution applications. Some are more sophisticated than others. With master control automation systems, their primary purpose is to get rich media from any storage point to the playout server with minimal human intervention.
Master control automation systems are increasingly becoming more sophisticated in the area of rich media ingest, transcoding and distribution. Several master control automation companies can ingest rich media into the playout servers, nearline servers and archive servers, and in various formats for outlets such as IPTV, the Internet and mobile.
They can also simultaneously transcode rich media for use in other areas such as proxy low-resolution copies for desktop viewing and EDL editing. Master control automation's ingest process can also auto transcode in a variety of formats such as Windows Media Player for Web VOD or Web streaming. In addition, master control can distribute content to where it's needed and wanted such as a local or remote playout video server, nearline system, archive system, or even a directory on a Web site.
Nearline and archive
Automated nearline and archive systems are available for smaller operations. Some master control automation companies have bypassed third-party traditional nearline and archive management systems. Several master control manufacturers can control and manage the storage and archiving within their systems using low-level API control. Master control automation companies now provide direct control automated solutions for nearline and archive storage.
Automated ingest systems have been around for many years. Master control automation systems include these as a standard application with their systems. The difference is how new formats are prepared and transcoded for new business model audience delivery systems such as mobile, Internet, IPTV, etc. Master control and asset management companies now offer built-in transcoding options for the automated transcoding of rich media. Several master control automation companies include built-in transcoders as a built-in or external option with their systems.
Some third-party ingest systems are becoming more and more visible since the explosion in new media outlets. These systems were designed as ingest systems with an advanced level of transcoding, databasing, distribution and management.
Monitoring and control
Monitoring and control systems are now a must as multiple channels are a norm in any given broadcast facility. When stations combine channel facilities, they use less broadcast engineers and operators to manage more channels and facilities. Monitoring and control systems help an engineer do more with less. An engineer can be more efficient if he or she has tools to help monitor broadcast equipment and report on specific problems and/or errors. A good monitoring and control system can automate emergency backup signal scenarios and pin-point problem areas without having to spend wasteful time searching for the problem.
Workflow automation systems are growing in popularity. Several new companies have exploded into the broadcast world with an array of workflow automation systems that control a multitude of subsystems via Serial, API and other forms of communication. Some are SNMP-compatible and can also report systems errors. These companies are IT-based and manage and monitor file distribution regardless if it is high-resolution or low-resolution. The companies are especially strong in new business models such as mobile, IPTV and iTV because they manage transcoding, distribution, storage and archiving.
All the while, they report continual status of operations. These are usually enterprise- or facility-wide systems that manage and monitor other systems from a high level. They are important in the sense that they will help identify workflow holes across the broadcast facility and work to resolve gaps and brick walls.
SMTPE standard MXF is the best proven audio/video standard for the interconnectivity and transporting of rich media. Since manufacturing companies are slow to build systems with more interoperability, the SMPTE standard MXF can act as the common ground between production, news, master control and other external groups.
The new SMPTE BXF standard is one of the biggest advances in master control automation in this decade. Creating a standard simplifies and automates metadata between traffic systems and master control systems. The holy grail of automation has always been to provide a system that uses a central database for metadata between traffic and master control. Of all the systems in a broadcast facility, there is more interaction between traffic and master control. Because a central database system is easier said than done, the next best thing is to standardize on a format. SMPTE took the standard one step further by establishing an HTML messaging protocol for the delivery of messages in real time or near real time. Traffic and master control can make or react to programming and interstitial changes or missing material throughout the broadcast day.
This year SMPTE is working on expanding BXF by creating a standard for extracting metadata from MXF files and using them in a normal metadata fashion. For example, if a station or network receives a file from a distributor, SMPTE is working on allowing BXF applications to extract the metadata from the BXF file without having to wait for a separate timing sheet. Combining metadata with rich media is a common operation in Europe. In fact, Europe extracts metadata that is automatically entered into the master control automation system for playout. Databases in master control and traffic for spot or programming metadata are not very common like it is in the United States.
Branding and graphics
Branding and graphics automation systems have been around for a while and are now advanced to the point in which they can literally fully automate a broadcast channel like a combo or hybrid automation system can. Although graphic systems companies don't advertise themselves as master control automation, they essentially are branding versions of master control automation systems. The major difference between graphic systems and master control combo or hybrid systems is usually the quality and sophistication of the graphics themselves. Some companies output stunningly good-looking graphics that are hard to match with a typical combo or hybrid automation system. If channel branding is important to your channel's success, consider a graphic automation system. There has been an increase in branding automation systems in secondary DTV channels from coast to coast.
Centralization or centralcasting is once again a focus for station groups. Many have already installed solutions to control multiple remote broadcast stations. Centralized and centralcasting systems are quickly advancing as Internet and internal networks are increasing bandwidth, transcoders are lowering bit rates, and Internet applications are becoming more sophisticated. At this year's NAB Show, one company's executives noted centralization and centralcasting installations as one of its biggest revenue generators. BEC (Broadcast Engineering Conference) hosted a session during NAB featuring centralization systems installed at one of the major U.S. broadcast groups.
There are a multitude of master control automation companies that have advanced systems to control a hub and spoke operation. A few of the standard automation manufacturers have centralized systems that use internal peer-to-peer networks for master control operations, ingest and databasing operations in which programming is ingested and timed once, and the metadata and rich media is distributed to all stations that need it on the network.
At the end of the day, review the areas of your broadcast facility and determine how they interconnect with each other. Identify the workflow holes. Ask yourself, “What are the workflow processes, and how many people do we have doing these tasks?” Also, determine what applications are running in these areas and how they really provide an automated workflow.
Upgrading or changing applications may prove to be a quick return on your investment. There are automation solutions for each area of a broadcast facility. Solutions are available for large and small station groups. Look for smarter systems that can interconnect and interact better than others. If you're not pleased with the interconnectivity of varying systems, the industry has many glue companies with sophisticated applications designed to tie varying systems together. There are several long-standing companies that specialize in gluing systems together. Look for companies that have OEM partnerships. These companies tend to be more responsive with less finger-pointing when a situation arises. Find the right applications to streamline your operation.
Broadcasters are demanding more interconnectivity with variable systems, but it seems the broadcast manufacturing industry is moving slowly in bringing interconnectivity solutions forward. Beware: Many manufacturing companies talk a good story, but open interconnectivity appears to be slow in developing.
Sid Guel is the president and founder of Broadcast Automation Consulting.