An On-Air Graphics System

Graphics are becoming increasingly important in every aspect of on-air programming, especially in the competitive local news area, where more capabilities are required without adding additional staff.

In the past, graphics at a television station was simply a character generator (CG). The CG was used for news, local programming, promotions and whatever other requirements arose. For news, a journalist editing a story using a newsroom computer system (NRCS) could add a graphic to the story, but the journalist could not actually see the graphic, nor could he/she browse for lower thirds or over-the-shoulder (OTS) graphics.

Now that graphics have become such an important identifier and branding tool, the “simple” CG has turned into a much more comprehensive device. Users now want the CG to interface to automation systems and the Media Object Server (MOS) protocol that is used by the NRCS. Automation interface enables station automation software to access pages or even individual graphics within a screen region, and then change and play them for a given duration. These graphics could be station or news promos, bumpers, snipes or even commercial (graphics with audio) messages.

Another important feature being used today is 3D playout. This brings up an important point—there are systems and software packages that have excellent 3D object creation, and some of those systems will enable 3D playout as well. Other, more traditional CG systems enable excellent 3D object import, but are not generally 3D creation tools.

Which type of device to use is generally a workflow issue; most TV stations have an art department with a number of graphic creation packages. Elements are created and then exported to the CG system, where they are incorporated into an on-air graphics package. Generally, the benefit to this type of workflow is that the CG is a playout-oriented device, so getting things to air quickly, or making last-minute changes is fast and straightforward. With a content creation package, while playout is possible, last-minute changes are more difficult, and multi-channel playout devices may require more hardware. Also, the skill set required to operate a 3D content creation package is generally quite different than what is required to operate a CG.

There are many choices when looking at on-air graphics products—here are some of the criteria upon which a long-term solution should be based:

Scalability: Most local affiliates are still originating news graphics in SD. The time will come, probably sooner rather than later, when graphics will be created in HD, then center-cut downconverted to 4:3 SD. This enables the highest quality graphics origination. Make sure that an on-air graphics system may be easily upgraded to HD, or is HD/SD selectable, and that capabilities like animation and clip playback will not be compromised in the HD version.

Physical packaging: An on-air graphics system should be a rugged, industrial-grade, Windows-based, rack mounted system. It should have redundant power supplies, by-pass relay, and front-mounted, hot-swappable, RAID-capable drives. This ensures maximum flexibility and upgradeability. The packaging also needs adequate cooling; on-air systems are rarely turned off, and the heat generated by the newer generation processors is considerable.

Configuration: While every CG manufacturer configures systems differently (some use traditional multi-channel devices, some “virtual” channel systems), the configuration must allow the user to do multiple functions simultaneously. This means that a graphic can contain various elements, such as backgrounds, text, clips and animations, and can then transition to another graphic with the same number of elements. The ability to transition between, or add additional graphics to, an existing page is especially important in news.

Realtime operation: A live-to-air CG system must be realtime. That means whatever function is selected, from an animation to a clip playout, must occur in realtime with no on-screen rendering. Rendering may be fine in a post environment, but is simply not acceptable in a live-to-air situation. This includes both HD and SD. The CG manufacturer should be able to clearly explain what and how many simultaneous functions may be accomplished in realtime.

Importing graphics: The CG should be able to import many types of native file formats so that no file conversion is necessary. This means that specialized graphics and graphic objects can be created in content creation programs specifically designed with unique creation tools, and then easily imported into the CG program.

Animations: One of the most widely used features in a CG is animation. This enables a graphic element—whether it is text, a lower third, an OTS, a clip or an object—to be programmed to fly in and out of a scene. Setting up an animation should be simply a matter of using key frames to determine the movement on the screen, plus adding duration or start/end times. Changing the parameters should also be simple. Many systems also allow the user to quickly program character-by-character animation, which may be very tedious without special functionality.

Persistent objects: This is simply an object that stays on the screen while messages or pages are changed, without having to use a separate or additional channel. An example of a persistent object might be a time and temperature “bug,” a news crawl or a station logo. While the lower third banners and OTS elements are being changed with the news stories, the persistent object should remain stationary and should not have to use an additional channel.

Clip playout: Clips, either as video clips or moving backgrounds, are very important elements of most CG graphics. The ability to play out multiple clip formats adds enormous flexibility in making graphics visually exciting. If clip playout requires a hardware clip player, any clip not already encoded in the format of the hardware clip player must be re-encoded. Having software codec technology means that almost any clip format may be used in the creation of a CG clip or moving background.

Custom applications: In almost every TV station, custom applications like news crawls, school closing packages, local election returns and even SMS-based polling are being used in addition to the CG software. In many cases, these custom applications require additional hardware systems. In selecting the CG, look for a system that will allow a custom or third-party specialized application to run in conjunction with the standard CG software. This will save time, money, rack space, and operational and personnel cost.

MOS news interface: In today’s broadcast environment, news is almost always the most important priority of a station. There has always been a CG to NRCS interface, but using MOS protocol gives the user additional capabilities to browse and select various graphic elements including banners, templates and stills. The MOS interface should be simple to use and to set up. For most newsrooms, a general purpose MOS gateway is required, so the CG MOS interface should not require an additional unique server. The MOS interface should enable many journalists to view graphics simultaneously, and when selected, the graphic is automatically added to the MOS rundown. A unique graphic playlist containing all CG graphic elements is then generated for playout within the newscast.

Off-line creation: The CG system should enable CG messages and pages to be created off-line so the online CG is not tied up with content creation. Moving the created content should then be through standard networking protocol.

Interface with branding tools: Interestingly enough, the CG is no longer the only piece of on-air graphics product that you may use. Branding, separate from the live-to-air CG functionality, is now a major component of the “look and feel” of most stations. It is certainly easier for everyone if the CG can create content for the branding device, and if graphic elements created on one system can be used on the other, without file conversion or cumbersome transfer methods.

Software upgrades: While no one likes to pay for software upgrades, the best way to ensure that upgrades come in a timely manner is to select a supplier that has an upgrade or software maintenance program. Although there will normally be a charge for this, the cost is worthwhile. CG suppliers spend most of their development budget on software, so if a supplier does not charge something for annual major releases, plus bug fixes, you can pretty well be assured that not much new software is being written. Unfortunately, there are no “free lunches!”

Of course, in some respects, buying a CG is no different than buying any piece of on-air equipment. Proper questions to ask include the stability of the company, service and support policies, training and commitment to the broadcast market.

Just remember that the CG you buy must be flexible, expandable and easy to operate. After all, the CG should let you visually “put your best foot forward.” Because your image is everything—it’s what the viewer sees!

Rich Hajdu is the VP, Inscriber Graphics & Leitch Post Production Sales, Americas for Harris Corporation.