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Newsroom automation

KIRO-TV in Seattle directs its evening news with Sundance’s NewsLink automation system.

Production automation

It sometimes appears that this is the age of automation. It might better be looked at in our industry as the age of workflow automation, specialization and integration of tools, all of which were not possible in previous generations. Three classes of newsroom tools have developed that might all be considered automation of one sort or another: production automation, newsroom workflow automation and a hybrid in-between, which controls the production hardware using the workflow automation of a second product.

In the past several years, production automation became possible due to the advent of products that allowed importing news rundowns from newsroom automation and adding powerful scripting tools that permitted camera shots, microphone selection, switcher control and playback control for VTR servers and other sources. The advent also included control over remote-control camera pedestals and lens zoom and focus.

To the extent that a production can work from a scripted environment, it is a powerful concept and can potentially save the labor of at least one or more employees in the control room and more in the studio. It is, in effect, workflow automation for the production process. The rundown is marked up offline, and then a single person can effectively run the entire production. Of course, there is a downside: No matter how good machines are at consistent and complex behaviors, it's hard to get the kind of problem-solving and instantaneous response that humans can give.

Many of the first systems were not intended for installation in mainstream broadcast control rooms. They used industrial cameras and integrated much of the video and audio system into computer hardware. This strategy might have produced a lower-cost system, but it left many mainstream broadcasters less than enamored with hardware that wasn't ready for prime time.

However, the latest generation of products support conventional hardware, including cameras, lenses, remote pedestals, production switchers and audio consoles. A system like this is not for every newscast, but it is ready for prime time in most markets. In addition, it is well-suited for fringe programs in the early-morning or late-night windows, where the length of the program is limited and the production is less prone to changes during airtime. As broadcasters become more comfortable with the concept of production, automation newscasts will increasingly be done this way.

Newsroom workflow automation

A slight twist on the full production automation approach is to use software that is not intended as a standalone production automation system, but rather the device interface between traditional workflow automation software and the controlled devices. Two manufacturers have systems with varying degrees of tight integration with newsroom software. By moving some portions of the process onto the screens in the newsroom computer system, it is possible to achieve the same effect that production automation software intends.

It is important to note that this approach works only when there is a newsroom workflow product that builds the script and provides the framework for the production. The more generalized production automation is extensible to any type of production, at least in theory. The rational assumption is that this is true when the production style is format-driven, as is the case with news of all kinds.

The most important application in the newsroom is the workflow automation tool, or newsroom computer system. Most newsroom computer systems sprang from one product developed in the United Kingdom: BASYS. That product was certainly a long way from where systems are today, but it is the predecessor of Avid's current offering. (Avid acquired BASYS in 1994 from Digital Equipment.) By moving the product to a company with broadcast ambitions, new synergies were created. And though at the time Avid had no experience in newsroom workflow, it certainly had experience in production workflow innovation and likely saw the possibilities that broadcast news offered. In any event, by focusing on the complete production workflow, the company radically altered the future of the newsroom in broadcast environments.

Hybrid approach to automation

The linkage Avid created, tying the creation of scripts and the communication of them to the control room and the studio floor (prompter control) to the editing and production of the content itself, was a leap of faith and innovation. Over the last two decades, the progress to an integrated newsroom has been inexorable. The key is the complete integration, from acquisition and writing to editing and presentation, of the completed content.

The complete newsroom computer system is a complex assemblage of software. It encompasses the ingest of wire copy, the logging and sorting of media elements and writing, the editing and approval of stories, and the management of the rundown and its progress through the production process. Keeping all of the elements synchronized is much more than a database issue, though relational databases are obviously part of the technology. The system touches many pieces of the chain, thus including communications technology in many ways.

At the heart of automation is communication to the outside world. The industry has collaborated to develop media object server (MOS) technology. MOS allows the system to communicate to an abstract device interface without having to develop device-specific interfaces to each model available.

For instance, if each manufacturer of character generators uses MOS as its standard interface, then the newsroom system need only speak in one language and the controlled device interprets the commands in a standard way. A manufacturer's method of selecting a new page is reduced to a simple command.

One of the most important aspects of MOS is that it is based on XML, making it a convenient and standardized method of sending and decoding commands. This approach is so clean, and the interface is so predictable, that there is a SMPTE committee working on using MOS as a method of communication for master control automation.

Now newsroom systems routinely include either integrated editing applications or tight integration with separate applications. Some have taken the approach of integrating widely available editing products such as Final Cut Pro, making fully-integrated systems even less expensive and more scalable.

As acquisition systems without videotape become a fact of life in news, we will see the process move to even tighter integration with the newsroom system, due to the nature of file-based processes instead of streaming products like videotape.

One word of caution: Evaluating competing concepts has become extremely difficult, as has staff training. Know when it's time to seek outside expertise. This might be your first experience with the technology. It's important to find someone who has done this before.

John Luff is the senior vice president of business development for AZCAR.

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