Applied Technology: Centralized graphics workflow

The continued proliferation and integration of wide area server-based technologies is providing broadcast station groups with the tools necessary to help ensure higher levels of quality, control and consistency with their affiliates, partners and distribution facilities.
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Centralized graphics workflow

By William Byrne

The continued proliferation and integration of wide area server-based technologies is providing broadcast station groups with the tools necessary to help ensure higher levels of quality, control and consistency with their affiliates, partners and distribution facilities. Solutions and practices once almost exclusive to information technology are finally establishing a healthy footprint in the world of broadcast. The concept of centralized graphics creation and distribution is just one example of the many benefits of this change.

Figure 1. Advanced models for graphics creation and distribution systems utilize a cooperative design and decision process between the hub and spoke.

In a centralized graphics model, station groups can produce standardized branding and templates for their programming and distribute the assets to other facilities for localization and customization tailored to suit individual station and/or regional preferences. Housing content creation talent and equipment in a single location less encumbers the production processes in remote facilities with the requirements of branding and programming uniformity. Similar types of hub-and-spoke implementations (i.e., centralized component production and distribution to assembly operations) have proven their effectiveness in many other industries.

Factors such as the continuing marketplace convergence among station groups, both network-owned and independent, have driven the trend of centralized control. Given the economic constraints and high costs related to graphics creation, the concept of centralized graphics creation and distribution can be beneficial to the broadcast community at large.

Graphics creation and distribution

The principles of centralized graphics creation and distribution can extend into various levels of complexity based on implementation requirements. Simple models would be for the most part unidirectional; the hub is the sole authority on the types of assets that will be produced and made available for distribution to the spokes.

Advanced models utilize a cooperative design and decision process between the hub and spoke and incorporate feedback and event mechanisms at multiple levels in the production process. Local feeds for high interest stories can be channeled back to the hub for redistribution to peer facilities. Replication, redundancy and distribution balancing should also be considered in advanced models (Figure 1).

Simple implementation

A simple implementation for centralized graphics would include a team of artists and operators located at the hub who produce media assets using any combination of general to high-end graphics production equipment. The facility would also maintain a repository of images, clips, audio, templates and other components from which distributed assets would be created. Templates, composite assets, clips, macros and discrete metadata are then distributed to the spoke locations for update and playback. The spoke operators in this scenario need only apply local configuration and data bindings. Sample content would be time and temperature bugs, news tickers, lower thirds, squeeze & tease templates and promos.

Extended implementation

The extended implementation builds on the simple implementation with added control and design decisions made at the spoke. Skilled operators at the spoke location produce the local content from the distributed assets created at the hub. Assets are accumulated into a local repository maintained at the spoke location. This type of workflow provides minimal support for news and sports reporting. In the case of news production systems, spoke operators and reporters can view and select assets from the distributed repository and construct localized media objects for upcoming programs. For example, this type of workflow is well suited for the news production systems implementing the MOS protocol. Live broadcasts of sporting events often require up-to-the-second design decisions and a mix of readily available graphics components and composites. This fast-paced workflow requires expert operators capable of recalling and updating assets previously created at the hub. The operator in this case can focus on the sporting event free from the burden of creating, collecting, sorting and organizing graphics needed during game time.

For its NASCAR coverage, FOX Sports created a network attachment between their mobile television trucks and the FOX Sports graphic studios in Los Angeles. A team of artists located in the hub provided the field operators with new graphics up to and during airtime. Network-attached graphics repositories accessible over high-speed data links provided the push component of the hub-and-spoke distribution model. The operators and software update processes had immediate access to the assets created at the hub for display to air. (The FOX distribution model is an example implementation and is not limited to the constraints of the extended implementation.)

Advanced implementation

The advanced implementation inherits the core characteristics of both the simple and extended implementations. The defining characteristic of the advanced model is a closed communication loop. The simple and extended models relied on centralized graphics content with virtually no capabilities to predefine what the content should look like. Both models were not restricted from modifying their local repositories. However, no mechanisms existed that would provide the spoke with the ability to specify custom asset requirements and types of content it would ultimately receive from the hub.

The advanced model is preferred over the simple and extended models when cost and technical limitations do not prohibit its implementation. In general, its feedback mechanisms provide essential information and media vital to highly interactive broadcast groups. In addition to a media requisition pipeline, the model provides for off-site replication and archiving, distributed repositories, distributed asset version management, data distribution balancing, and local-to-national media paths.

Centralized graphics creation and distribution is a natural outgrowth of the private and public network technologies in use today. The solutions and opportunities it provides make sense. Practical levels of its deployment are technically and financially feasible; however, the greatest challenges facing its implementation rest in the thorough understanding of what it is designed to accomplish. The strict push model provided by the simple implementation demands the lowest level of integration and has the least impact on existing forms of production. Broadcast groups can start small by implementing the simple model and migrate to an advanced model at a rate that coalesces with the workflow of current production.

William Byrne is a software engineer and manager of interactive software for Chyron.

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