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Streamlining interstitial promo generation and playout

Building and retaining audiences has always been at the heart of TV operations. However, this task has become much tougher with the proliferation of TV and Internet viewing options, which have tended to reduce program audience levels. The natural response by broadcasters has been to increase channel counts to counteract the declines in viewership per channel, while also beefing up program promotional activities, using interstitial and in-show promos to improve audience retention.

Interstitial promos have become the mainstay for heavyweight TV marketing campaigns, because they are ideal for building awareness and teasing the audience. They can also be readily supported by in-show promo graphics, which have also grown enormously in popularity among broadcasters. Typically, interstitial promos are played out ahead of each new episode in a series, and they comprise a clip from the upcoming episode along with schedule-specific graphics and voice-overs.

However, the reliance on nonlinear editors (NLEs) for creating each version of a promo has made scaling up the generation of promos for more programs and more channels costly as well as slow and difficult to manage. Fortunately, new developments in graphics and voice-over automation are transforming the way broadcasters can create these promos and are enabling them to vastly increase their promo output without a corresponding increase in graphics resources. Before looking at these new software tools and workflows, it’s worth first reviewing the problem areas with traditional promo production to help highlight the benefits of automation.

Problems with traditional promo rendering

The use of NLEs for crafting interstitial promos represents a highly labor-intensive process because each show episode aired on a single channel will typically need four date-specific promos, each rendered with different schedule graphics and voice-overs. For example, promos may be required to highlight “Coming up Tuesday at 9 p.m.,” “Tomorrow at 9,” “Tonight at 9” and “Coming up next.” Naturally, as more shows and channels are promoted, the number of interstitial promos to be rendered increases very quickly. For a multichannel facility, this leads to a requirement for large graphics teams and lots of edit bays to deliver all of these promos. Obviously, this is less than ideal when there is a pressing demand to keep the cost per channel low.

In the traditional promo generation model, the show schedule information required for creating each version of a promo will come from the traffic department. Often, the promo editor will create graphics with the associated schedule information using a simple schedule printout from the traffic department. This makes the production process slow and prone to data entry errors, and this situation tends to be exacerbated by the fact that manual promo versioning all week long can get repetitive and dull, even for the most dedicated operator. Obviously, all this repetitiveness can lead to job dissatisfaction and undermine quality control. A heavy promo versioning workload throughout the week also is not a great recipe for encouraging creativity and strengthening a station’s branding.

Another problem with this traditional NLE approach is that it does not lend itself to late changes in the schedule. If there is a requirement to move a program to a different time slot, then the supporting promos will have to be rerendered to reflect any date and time changes. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough time to rerender promos to address these types of changes, and the prepared promos just can’t be aired.

Automated interstitial promo generation

In essence, it can be seen that interstitial promo production is a process crying out for automation to allow stations to scale up their promo output and eliminate highly repetitive working, while also improving promo flexibility to allow effective response to last-minute schedule changes.

Fortunately, this has happened with an automatic promo generation package recently launched by Miranda Technologies. The company’s Auto-Promo package (an optional module of the Xmedia Suite graphics system) enables interstitial promos to be created using predefined templates with full timeline control to manage all the clip and graphics elements within a promo. This template-based approach allows rapid, automated versioning of promos, with schedule- and channel-specific data generated directly from traffic data. With this process, timelines are automatically adjusted to take account of different voice-over durations, and graphics are instantly adapted for different text lengths to ensure consistently professional looking promos.

This process starts with the preparation of the promo templates, which offer easy generation of dynamic data fields for schedule and channel-specific information. These templates simplify promo creation without inhibiting creativity in any sense. Next, using the timeline control module, a promo playout sequence is created. This uses an interface that is similar to an NLE system and allows all the promo components to be imported, including the clips, graphics and voice-overs. Then, using program and channel data imported directly from the traffic department, the software allows previewing of multiple versions of a promo with the correct graphics and voice-overs for the different playout dates and channels. The promo versions can be quickly edited and trimmed as required, and logic built into the templates ensures that the promos will play back correctly every time. These completed promos can be played out live without prerendering upon automation recall or, alternatively, they can be prerendered and played out as a clip at a later stage by station automation.

With the live playout process, the promos are not created as finished clips. Instead, the templates, clips, voice-overs and graphics are all stored on a Miranda Vertigo XG, an advanced graphics processor with real-time clip and multilevel character generation/animation playout capabilities. The promos are generated upon an automation call with traffic data used to populate the graphics templates as they air with the other clip and voice-over elements needed for the full promo. This real-time playout process offers the highest level of automation, and it delivers the maximum level of flexibility with respect to scheduling, because it allows last-minute changes to the rundown due to the absence of prerendering. Importantly, the process also affords a preview capability ahead of playout.

In contrast, the prerendering approach involves the promo versions being stored as finished, single clips after they are assembled using templates and traffic data. They are then ready for final checking ahead of playout under station automation in a traditional manner from an existing server. This process does not have quite the same level of flexibility as the live playout option, but it represents a less dramatic change to traditional workflows and still yields enormous time-savings in comparison to traditional approaches to promo generation.

Both the live and the offline/prerendered approaches offer substantial benefits aside from faster interstitial promo production. By eliminating repetitive processes associated with promo versioning, graphics operators are able to focus on the creative aspects of promo production, and this can result in significant improvements in staff morale. Quality control is also improved significantly due to the absence of manual errors associated with entering schedule data from traffic.

Another key advantage in this automated approach is the high level of integration with other important TV graphics activities, including in-show promos, channel branding and news graphics. By creating a common workflow across all these types of graphics, broadcasters can benefit from a higher level of integration across and between facilities. Naturally, this also reduces training and maintenance requirements and makes it much easier to repurpose graphics for different applications.

In summation, the recent advances in automated interstitial promo generation systems have come at a very timely point for broadcasters, because they offer much easier and more affordable scaling of promo generation to improve audience retention at multichannel facilities.

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