File-based workflows

Displacing cost is a relentless pursuit in today's business world, and the broadcast industry is no exception. Broadcasters have been at the forefront of exacting maximum efficiencies from the technology available to them, thereby driving down operating and maintenance costs, as well as reducing required head count.

Having squeezed out all the available costs savings at the micro facility level, broadcast executives began examining processes and functionality from a macro view. About 15 years ago, the concept of centralcasting was introduced. It involves operating multiple facilities in a hub-and-spoke configuration with duplicative functions performed at the hub and distributed to the spokes. Originally, centralcasting ran the gamut from centralized master control to running spoke stations in a virtually unmanned lights-out configuration. It not only affects technical staff but on-air talent as well. One major broadcast group I met in the mid-1990s was already looking at centralizing news, weather and sports such that the “local” nightly news segment for each of its stations would emanate from one or two sets of on-air talent broadcasting from a single central studio.

Centralcasting continues to engender support today. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), long an advocate of centralizing operations, put teeth into its push earlier this year by adopting a rule to no longer fund master control centers unless they were shared facilities.

File-based challenges

While centralcasting continues to run its course, the latest in technology at the facility level has prompted a renewed focus on examining cost savings at the micro level. Enter file-based workflow. File-based workflow has become an umbrella term applied to any process involving the use of video in the form of a digital file as opposed to video in a real-time or streaming form. In the film industry and in long-form video for television, digital processes have been adopted from capture through editing and effects to final output. The capture of content as files that can be quickly reviewed, ingested and edited has greatly reduced the timeline from shoot to release. The combination of shortening the interval to revenue generation along with the costs saved by eliminating practices dictated by analog processes make file-based workflow increasingly appealing.

Movies and long-form video involve a predictable beginning to end process; broadcast, on the other hand, involves the two quite different areas of transmission and production. And, within transmission and production, there are various activities whose workflows interconnect but can exist independently as islands. Examples are local production, ENG, newsroom, traffic and play-to-air. The sheer variety of applications that exist within a broadcast facility for file-based technology poses interesting challenges with how to best adopt this new technology for maximum benefit. There is a danger in the conceptual nature and imprecise definition of what constitutes a file-based workflow. This lack of clarity can result in the double-edged sword of suppliers who over commit and then fail to live up to customer expectations that have been set unrealistically high. Often the challenges in implementing file-based workflow systems fall back to the customer.

But, the use of video files in broadcast is ever increasing, so these are challenges that must be dealt with. In news, the typical broadcaster's primary revenue generator, image capture, runs the gamut all the way from camera phones to the high-end RED camera. The common denominator: output of video as a file. In local production, file-based capture provides the opportunity for immediate ingest and virtually real-time editing of ingested content. Spots, many of which still come in on tape, can be encoded as files, stored on a server and then compiled with program material for play-to-air serving. Incoming program material, particularly network content, arrives as a file, becomes an asset to be managed and is readied for play to air compiling with spot inserts. The play-to-air server essentially takes on the form of a “comp reel,” playing out program material interspersed with the commercials as dictated by the traffic department. This exemplifies file-based workflow throughout a broadcast facility.

From a practical standpoint, file-based processes are introduced incrementally and not as a function of technology refresh. Rather, introductions to these processes are driven by highly convincing cost displacement benefits or equipment amortization schedules and replacement cycles.

But be careful. File-based workflow systems for broadcasters mean infrastructure investment, the creation of new backroom processes and new skill set requirements that entail staff retraining and/or replacement. Adopting file-based workflow processes will lead to efficiencies, but manage your expectations. There are cost savings to be realized but perhaps not quite as much as you anticipate.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

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