David Austerberry /
12.01.2009 12:00 PM
Playout automation
New developments can lower operating costs.

Master control is where the business systems meet the video and audio content, so it could be considered a focal point for a TV station's revenue. The demands on reliability are much higher than the edit shop or graphics design department. It is the real-time nature, where a lost video frame is not allowed, that has traditionally demanded a master control operator at the desk, even if that person has little to do. The expectation of what can be done with automation increases as software systems get smarter, with a goal for some simpler channels of lights-out operation.

The first generation of broadcast automation cued and played tapes to air. The second generation adapted to play out from video servers and added features like satellite recording.

Now stations are looking to their automation to deliver further savings, especially as they may be running additional subchannels, with mobile around the corner.

Centralcasting

As networks and groups look to take cost out of operations, one approach is to centralcast. This pulls back most operations to a central site, with the remote, or spoke, stations solely responsible for the local news and weather. When the concept was first vaunted, it soon became apparent that the cost of high-bandwidth circuits made the business case marginal.

Much has changed over the last couple of years with long-haul fiber costs falling, so now the economics make more sense. Part of the Recovery Act of 2009 is to provide broadband access to rural communities through the RUS Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) and the NTIA Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

As rural broadband networks roll out over the next few years, smaller communities will be connected to telco backbones with trunk fiber. The network operators will no doubt be looking for other customers for that fiber. Broadcast groups could utilize this new capacity to connect their remote stations to a central hub.

Add recent developments like WAN acceleration, which improves the efficiencies of large file transfers, and centralcasting becomes a sound business concept.

Spoke or hub?

There are many possible ways to design a centralcasting system. The original design delivers all content from the central site to the remote transmitters over high-bandwidth circuits. The local spoke station intercepts the feed for local newcasts and weather. (See Figure 1)

All content is ingested, prepared and quality controlled at the central site. This will deliver staff savings but adds the cost of the interconnecting circuits. An alternative design is to ingest and play out locally, but to control the playout from the central hub. (See Figure 2) The station can switch to local control during the morning and evening newscasts, but can easily save a master control shift by running from the central station outside those periods. This saves on staff and fiber network costs, but still has duplicated tasks, in that each local station must ingest and prepare the same syndicated programming.

For most station groups, the sweet spot will fall somewhere in between. Common programming can be ingested and quality controlled at the central station, but the local station can manage all locally sourced content. Operations like graphics creation can also be centralized, creating a common look and feel across a group.

Separates or channel-in-a-box?

Just like a home audio system, you can buy separates or an integrated solution (channel-in-a-box). Separates comprise the automation controller, a video server, switching, branding, as well as downstream caption and EAS insertion. There are many hybrid systems. For example, the video server may include the branding and switching.

The option you choose depends on many factors. How complex is the channel? Premium channels with live programming and late schedule changes need more facilities than a simple near-video-on-demand (NVOD) movie channel. Some broadcasters may want to break out subchannels at certain times of the day. Reliability is possibly the most important consideration. The cost of make goods must be balanced against the total cost of ownership for the automation system. From this can be derived the required service level. It could be 99 percent right up to 99.9999 percent uptime. The latter figure represents a loss of only 30 seconds per year — just one 30-second spot.

From the service level agreement, the level of redundancy can be derived. Mirrored systems are expensive, and for multichannel operations, the n+1 approach may make better business sense.

For multichannel playout, the operator-to-channel ratio will have a big impact on OPEX, and a suitable choice of automation system can ease the job of the master control operator in managing many channels. In master control, the operator is not just monitoring the playlist, but also must watch for gear failures. For this reason, a good control and monitoring system for the plant is an essential adjunct to the automation. SNMP control systems can monitor by exception, greatly easing the operator's tasks.

The impact of BXF

Many vendors offer BXF support, which does raise the question as to whether you could run a lights-out operation in master control, with late changes to breaks run from the sales office. The traffic and sales department may be set up to maximize ad revenue, and can schedule to the second, but master control ensures that no black gets to air, right down to the frame.

It's balancing the risk of a lost spot against OPEX. Much of this can only be learned from experience, and is difficult to judge when installing a new automation system. Again, it depends on complexity of the channel. Does it run live sports and breaking news?

Automated branding

Stations have long used snipes and end boards to promote upcoming programs as part of their overall channel branding strategy. As stations add subchannels to their primary HD channels, there is another requirement to cross-promote the station's channels. Traditionally, promotions have been assembled in the edit bay and graphics department. If you consider the need for talent to make the voice-overs, the cost of creating promotions adds up.

Most master control graphics systems include add-ons that allow predesigned templates to be populated automatically by external data feeds, in much the same way as a MOS CG can be driven from a newsroom computer system (NRCS).

The creation of promo data — coming next messages, etc. — can be more complex than the feed from an NRCS. Generally, the metadata to create a promo cannot be found in one single system. The playout automation has exact timing information, but program titles will be house names with episode information. What is needed is the same information the viewer will find in a listings guide. This is available from the program scheduling system.

By assembling information from all the back-office systems, and parsing with business rules, suitable data can be generated to feed the branding system. For example, the automation's start time for an event can be rounded to the minute, and the program title from the listing added. All the combinations of times and channels can be prerecorded as voice clips — tomorrow at 10 MDT, etc. — again to play out live as required to accompany the visuals.

The deployment of data-driven graphics to automatically create promo messages can immediately remove operational costs and provide more consistent branding.

Promotions

Promo creation is another labor-intensive operation. Many groups now use media asset management (MAM) to help manage content. Such a system can seamlessly link the program library with the promotions department to aid them to manage the promo editing. Metadata from the program scheduling system can be delivered to the editor, and the finished promo dropped into the playlist, with all the correct metadata for the automation to manage playout.

Ingest

Ingest is becoming predominately file-based. Ads have been delivered as files for some time, but increasingly programs can now be delivered in non-real-time as files. A typical example is the Next Generation Interconnection System (NGIS) project that PBS is implementing to deliver content to its stations. Another example is the new syndicated programming delivery service from Ascent Media, Time Warner and CBS. It delivers HD and SD programs multiplexed in a single ASI stream and heralds the end of videotape delivery. In these systems, metadata arrives with the files, simplifying the QC processes that were essential with tape. Tapeless operation also cuts down manual operations and handling costs. (See Figure 3.)

Some of the newer distribution services are using MPEG-4 AVC to reduce bandwidth requirements, so the station only has to transcode from the format delivered to the cache server into the favored MPEG-2 file format on its playout servers, do a quick check, and then the clip is good to air.

Summary

Broadcast automation has moved on from the original function of rolling tapes or cueing video servers to a prepared schedule. Newer developments offer additional opportunities to cut operational costs. Centralcasting and branding automation both offer cost-saving opportunities. As ad and program distribution become solely file-based, the old costs associated with moving tapes no longer exist.



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