Why Do I Need to Change What I'm Doing?

In this, and future bimonthly columns, I hope to share some of my experiences, report on what's new in the industry and talk about trends in an effort to foster innovation and change.
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Many of you may have seen my face in testimonials as you walked by vendor booths at previous NAB shows. Over the past 12 years, I was the principal technical architect of the Time Warner Cable's 24-hour local news channels. I was one of the four founders of NY1 News, TWC's largest news channel, and was responsible for the launch of nine additional channels. During that time, I had the opportunity to push technology to its limits and to develop and install a truly integrated news production and automation system.

I learned a lot about workflow, software development, operations, software revisions, field acquisition, building facilities, pushing vendors and technologies, and launching six channels in 22 months. My favorite thing was going in the other direction when deciding whether to do something the way it was done in the past.

In this, and future bimonthly columns, I hope to share some of my experiences, report on what's new in the industry and talk about trends in an effort to foster innovation and change.

I'm not talking about change for the sake of change, but change to stimulate growth and improvement of the production process. Some topics might include commodity technology and whether it can work in the broadcast world; field acquisition with P2, XDCAM, Editcam and JVC Firestorm; direct-to-edit and getting the most out of automation.

Over the past 10 years, we have seen a shift from tape-based linear production to fully integrated tapeless production where most tasks can be done on a desktop, and ingested material can be simultaneously used by journalists, producers and promotions producers.

While many stations and networks have invested in servers, automation and nonlinear technology, several have not. This is partly due to capital constraints, and to management's perception of the benefits of automatingthe large number of options that leave many people scratching their heads.

As the number of programming outlets increase, having an efficient production plant will allow you to more easily create additional programming with minimal additional resources.

You need to have a good foundation and the basics to start--server-based recording, nonlinear editing, automation-assisted production and templated-graphic production. If you have these systems as a foundation, when you want to add more channels or programming, you can do it easily.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive analysis of all current technology available. Rather, I would like to highlight several success stories and discuss workflow impact. Hopefully, in the process, I will clarify the benefits of adopting new technology and suggest some ideas on how to start making the transition. Change in any organization is difficult, but if properly planned, it can be done with minimal impact.

Having been someone who always pushed technology to its limits and was the first to say "we can automate this by...," one of the greatest lessons I learned was the importance--no, necessity--of looking at the current workflow. If you don't know how a story makes its way from the field to the control room or how many people are involved in creating a CG, how can you automate the process if you don't know how it's done?

When I examine a process, I look for tasks that involve too much user interaction, especially involving the manipulation of data. If you look at the process, there may be hidden benefits.

Slug naming--how many times have we seen someone retype a story name and get it wrong. In the ENPS newsgathering grid, there's a function that allows you to make an MOS placeholder for a record clip for an incoming feed. Using an Active X window, an operator can call up that placeholder and when a feed is ready to be recorded, an operator can call up the clip name. This accomplishes two things. First, recordings are labeled with information that matches what the news department is tracking. Second, the name of the data contained in the assignment grid that describes the story and what's on the recording is attached to the clip. This provides a lot of metadata that can be mined for later use.

Templated graphics have been around for a few years, but it is surprising to see that many stations don't use them. I've heard many of the arguments--it takes creativity away from graphics; what will I do with my graphics operators, etc. A number of vendors, including Chyron, Vizrt and Pinnacle all have plug-ins for ENPS and iNews that will allow a user to create and insert a graphic into a story. This graphic can be called up in the control room at production time.

Many complex graphics can be built as templates for journalists to input the necessary data. What do you gain?

You free up your graphics people from doing the routine graphics and give them time to do more creative work for specials and promos. You also get a consistent look and accurate data. The journalist or producer should know the correct spelling of someone's name. Why duplicate efforts by having a reporter write it down for a graphic artist? But if you look deeper, templated graphics offer another benefit--the ability to pre-load fact-checked data, i.e., the names of the mayor, fire chief, sheriff, counties, government buildings, popular locations, etc. All it takes is a simple database that can be managed by producers and the assignment desk. If you automate graphics play-out in the control room, you have the ability to have the graphics rundown follow your production rundown and pre-load the graphics for the TD to insert.

In my next column, I will explore the benefits and risks of installing servers and editing systems in the newsroom. There are many choices available that may cause many to pause. But thanks to transcoding and MXF (Media Exchange Format), you can invest in technology now and pop in a different codec or compression engine later.

It's a little more complicated than that, but if you start treating the video as data files and not video, you'll have a lot more flexibility.