Automation trends: Key developments for today and tomorrow

Though file-based transmission playout has been fundamental to the majority of broadcast platforms for years now, content aggregators that run such platforms are looking to achieve even greater efficiency in consolidating and operating multichannel playout operations. The demand for process improvement has been pushing automation technologies to new limits as broadcasters seek to leverage technology in more complex ways to meet their changing business, commercial and program-related needs. Automation vendors have responded through continual product enhancement and developments targeting broadcasters' increasingly complicated operational requirements as they take on multiregion, multichannel broadcasting; preparation for 3-D broadcasting; and implementation of centralcasting models with hub-and-spoke sites.

Content providers worldwide are finding that their operational flexibility is being stretched daily, leading to a demand for more clever solutions that provide needed versatility in playout. This is particularly true when automated playout is combined with playout of live content. Commercial playout during live broadcasts is one key area in which broadcasters and their viewers are asking more of the automation system.

Optimizing manual intervention

As a rule, an automation system should be able to operate on its own 100 percent of the time. When manual operation is required, a good automation system supports rather than fights the operator. Broadcasters providing a significant amount of live programming should look for expanded automation feature sets that include commercial hot lists, which in turn give operators the ability to run select ad spots depending on the progress of a live broadcast event. In other words, an easily accessed GUI allows the operator to match ads to content on the fly. In the case of a football game or soccer match, this feature allows, for example, the operator to run the ad of a team sponsor in the break immediately following a touchdown or goal by that team.

Improvements to automation are also helping to simplify join-in-progress transitions from a live event that has overrun its time slot into a program already in progress. If a live game is running long and a film is set to start as part of a network feed, the broadcaster needs a way to preserve timing for all scheduled ad breaks. When broadcasts are spread across different regions and time zones, the management of this information becomes quite complicated. Understanding that broadcasters need a means of handling issues such as on-the-fly ad playout and management of program overruns in a multichannel, multiregion broadcast mode, automation vendors have focused on providing maximum flexibility and the optimal use of automation with the fewest operators.

Simplifying and saving with virtualization

Select up-to-date automation systems that are relevant with the latest IT technology can be hosted and operated in a virtualized environment in which the execution of applications is performed by virtual host servers using fewer machines. A traditionally architected automation solution can become quite hungry for server resources, requiring racks and racks of servers running just one application per machine. The virtualization model offers broadcasters significant benefits including much simpler updating and less costly maintenance; lower real estate, cooling and power requirements; and less hardware and fewer connections to manage. In addition to increasing efficiency across the board, virtualization supports the broadcaster's “green” credentials, which are of growing importance in today's business climate.

Virtualization software is engineered to provide a fully resilient architecture, with automated processes allowing the redundant part of the system to take over when and as needed. This characteristic ensures that there is no single point of failure and, in turn, no downtime that can lead to loss of revenue. As a software-based solution that is commercially available off the shelf, virtualization software is less expensive and easier to configure than hardware-hungry systems. Furthermore, virtualization is a technique that is not unique to the broadcast environment; it's a proven IT concept that the latest automation systems are now applying to simplify operations and reduce operational costs.

Improving interoperability

Taking advantage of newer open standards, including the Broadcast Exchange Format (BXF), advanced automation systems now enable smoother interoperability across playout operations. (See Figure 1 on page 46.) The BXF open standard allows devices to exchange messages about media and metadata. With this capability, content management, traffic, scheduling, MAM databases and other critical workflow components use a shared standard for communications rather than a number of proprietary formats that must be translated, often in ways that limit system interoperability. Use of a native format gives broadcasters the ability to make changes in one system and see those changes reflected in an upstream or downstream system.

In the case of automation with BXF support, the system can dynamically accept changes to the schedule as they are made in the traffic system. Likewise, changes made in playout can be reflected back to traffic. While these areas traditionally have operated separately, simpler communication with BXF messages brings key processes together and gives the broadcaster the agility to make better commercial and business decisions about content closer to air time and even to sell ad content right up until air time.

Preparing for 3-D

Automation also has grown to address broadcasters' interest in being ready to distribute 3-D content. A hot topic at this year's CES and NAB shows, 3-D presents broadcasters with a host of new challenges. While 3-D production remains cumbersome, the automation system's ability to offer tools for managing 3-D transmission with relative ease is key for future development.

For broadcasters that choose to deliver 3-D in single-multiplexed files, which include data for both the left and right eye, there are no special implications for the automation system, which simply treats the file as a file. (The media asset management system, however, does need to be aware that it is a file that includes 3-D content.) For those broadcasters that work with discreet files, one for each eye, the automation system must be able to link these files and ensure that for any operation — move, play, delete, etc. — the two files maintain their relationship and get treated in the same way. With one file serving as a reference and the other treated accordingly, operators can still manage playout as if they were managing a single file.

All of these functional advances in automation solutions are helping broadcasters to meet challenges presented by a changing marketplace. The architecture of automation implementations also makes it easier for broadcasters to conserve costs and improve efficiency, largely through consolidation and centralization of key elements of their operations. Implementation of a hub-and-spoke broadcast architecture supports centralized acquisition, distribution and delivery of assets, as well as flexible playout of local news, commercials and programming.

Centralizing with a hub-and-spoke model

A hub-and-spoke infrastructure reduces operational costs by eliminating duplication of ingest processes and storage; lowering operational and staffing costs; and offering an appropriate degree of resilience without the need for added or redundant investment at the spoke sites. (See Figure 2.) In most implementations, the hub site houses the bulk of required servers, storage systems and other large hardware systems, and performs the majority of the operations that require manual operation. As large media organizations, broadcasters with distributed sites naturally work with enormous volumes of content. Both tape- and file-based ingest, as well as metadata markup, are typically performed centrally through a combination of manual operation and automated processes such as file transport, technical QC, subtitling, and even confirmation of rights and licensing.

Once content is ingested, the hub-and-spoke model provides for file-based distribution of content to spoke sites. A rather large volume of channels, in the neighborhood of 10 to 60, are delivered to geographically distributed stations and often in a number of different time zones. The main long-form material is distributed from the hub to the spoke sites two to three days in advance and stored on local playout servers based on the scheduled playlist. This transfer requires significant infrastructure, including playout servers, graphics engines, subtitling systems, routing matrixes and master control devices — all operating under automation control — as well as interfaces with external traffic systems with schedule load/edit capabilities and back-office functions such as as-run logs, billing and rights payments.

The size and complexity of this model requires an enterprise-level playout automation system equipped with tools that minimize media movement and the overall burden on operations staff while making the most of hardware at both the hub and spoke sites. External traffic systems provide the automation system with the central and local programming schedules, and single operators typically can manage several channels from one workstation. When live programming is distributed across the network, the automation system should be able to ensure frame-accurate regional content insertion across select sites, triggered from a single central system.

File-based content is delivered from the hub, where centralized storage of high-value assets and the processing or repurposing of content for multiple sites both reduce redundancy and add to cost savings. The content transfer capabilities, archive and management systems, and alternate playout platforms built into the hub can be leveraged by local spoke sites. Often equipped with a complete but lean stand-alone automation and media management system including local ingest, individual stations can assume control over their own broadcasts and local content, or even manage playout for another station in the event of a disaster. With this flexibility, the hub can hand over control for those programming hours featuring local news and content, and then take back control for nonpeak or overnight control and scheduling. At less busy times, this model allows a handful of operators to control dozens of sites from the hub facility.

Deployed in centralized hub-and-spoke architectures or at single stations, advanced automation systems today give broadcasters the powerful tools and expansive functionality they need to manage intricate playout workflows with maximum efficiency and flexibility. With a versatile and reliable automation system in place, broadcasters can focus on providing viewers with the type and quality of content they demand.

Phil Wilton is product manager, automation and media management, for Snell.