Evolving network graphics systems

Broadcasters are rethinking how they do business. In an effort to respond to ongoing industry trends such as increased competition, declining traditional
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Broadcasters are rethinking how they do business. In an effort to respond to ongoing industry trends such as increased competition, declining traditional viewership, new channel opportunities and the re-emergence of HD, broadcasters are developing new business models. As a result, increasing emphasis is placed on workflows and processes. Streamlining efforts must yield greater efficiencies to reduce expenses or provide asset leverage through channel extensions.

Branding efforts must become more than just a station-ID logo. The look of a channel needs to be integrated; production and branding graphics need to be consistent. Within this context, broadcast graphics systems must not only integrate tightly with other devices, but also deliver enhanced workflow benefits to support these new business approaches.

Expectations are rising. No longer is it acceptable to view the benefits of workflow in terms of simply using a suite of software applications to automate a few tedious tasks. The goal is to streamline the workflow process itself or, rather, to re-invent it. This comes as the industry moves towards an IT-centric approach that emphasizes connectivity and managing content in a transparent manner.

Multichannels

Stations broadcasting multichannels continue to increase. The challenge relates to providing the necessary operational support without increasing human capital. New solutions are required that permit the sharing of labor across multiple channels.

Increase span

The road of streamlined workflow is often lined with legacy systems that still hold valuable graphics resources — and are supported by trained operators. It may not be possible to replace all devices immediately due to budget constraints.

Therefore, it is imperative that graphics resources can still be accessed. In addition, professional desktop applications such as Adobe Photo-shop, After Effects and Maya are widely used and highly cost-effective. Creative talent may lie outside the broadcaster and require exchange and conversion of resources. As a result, there is a need to manage these graphics in an open environment.

Towards a solution

The drive for improved workflow necessitates changes in what defines a graphics system: the tools they provide, the richness of presentation and how they work together with a broad-caster's setup today and into the future. We need to think of graphics as being any adornment on the live video. As we head towards an ideal workable solution, one thing is clear: Using up a traditional character generator (CG) system solely for rudimentary branding or automation controls is operationally expensive and fundamentally inflexible.

Broadcast environments need more sophisticated network graphics solutions with less operator involvement and a broader call to action. What is required is a low-cost player platform to be integrated in the signal path for easy playout of template-intensive programming like news or special events. The fundamental change is that the creation and playout of the graphics are separated for greater flexibility and workflow improvements.

The graphics system as we know it still has an important role in the creation of compelling television graphics. In fact, it is central in creating a coherent on-air brand look. The branding is reinforced through the creation of templates that are simply modified with appropriate data. Once the template has been created, it can be passed to a playout platform for on-air use and last-minute editing. An effective playout platform must not only support basic rolls, stills, crawls and clocks, but also provide advanced support for cutting-edge graphics that integrate rich animations, clips, effects and live video in a dynamic, multi-layered presentation. All elements need to be reference tagged for database driven update. Using this model, templates can be created centrally and pushed across multiple channels quickly using inexpensive playout platforms.

The proposed network graphics solution provides a simple playout and editing capability that combine to allow users to manage, browse and control template graphics remotely via a serial cable or over TCP-IP networks. While data and control is expected to be provided via a serial cable from any legacy news computer, support for TCP-IP connectivity is important. This connectivity is useful when configuring multiple channels for remote control.

An application independent from the player for remote direct control is imperative to maximize responsiveness to the working environment and increase workflow. While the use of automation systems is growing, there will always be a need for direct operator intervention under various circumstances. In a perfect and predictable world, the output files are always correct and up-to-date, and there are no last-minute alterations. In the less than perfect “real” world, it is necessary to accommodate the unexpected. The majority of time, the remote direct control application would be used to verify spelling or graphics composition. Less often, it will be used for editing content. Rarely, though nonetheless important, it could be used to take control of the graphics system from the automation system if there were breaking news or the automation system itself was experiencing difficulties.

The central role of the playout platform is to give the user the ability to fill “tagged data fields” of CG template layouts with live data from a news automation service provider. This necessitates that the playout platform is compatible with the CII message protocol. The player must, therefore, work with strict CII numeric identifiers or also work where the news system permits numeric identifiers to be replaced with more meaningful names. In this way, specific control of the process may be built in at the local administrator level of the news system. After rendering, the graphics pages may be displayed directly under the control of the scheduling component of the news service or, alternatively, those graphics pages may also be managed by the direct control application.

Configuration advantage

An intelligent direct control application can also provide a powerful workflow advantage through the set-up and use of configuration files. The configuration file identifies the specific playout platform it is connected to and which specific sets of template and output file resources it can access. This could even include the ability to connect to resources located on a legacy still store. Reloading these configurations automatically reconnects the user to the chosen configuration instantly. In this way, any configuration that is repeated can instantly be made available. By loading a different configuration file, the whole network of player platforms can be instantly repurposed.

Unexpected benefit

Such a model for network graphics can be a benefit even for smaller broadcasters that may not use an automation system. By using the combined playout platform and remote direct control application, broadcasters gain the ability to control, schedule and customize graphics resources.

As broadcasters rethink their business and how to respond to new challenges with greater efficiency, new processes must be explored. Deploying an inexpensive playout platform combined with a remote direct control application that provides last-minute review and editing can significantly streamline workflow while distributing graphics easily across multichannels. It also decreases the reliance on highly skilled graphics operators while driving more customized full screens, shoulder graphics and banners. It's clear that “the way it's always been done” won't be good enough as the industry moves forward.

Douglas Grant is the creative director of Barefoot Creative.