Scheduling and automation of interactive television

With advertising revenues down, reducing operational costs has moved to center stage for broadcasters and network operators. For those involved in broadcasting interactive television services, this article provides some useful tips on how these cost savings can be achieved through scheduling and automation.

When giving broadcasters the ability to manage their own interactive serv- ices, the solution needs to support a distributed work environment. The In|Orbit system from itv|world resolves this with two products working in tandem: the In|Orbit Control server, which is installed by the network operator next to its playout carousel system as the control center for all interactive services, and In|Orbit Remote, which allows broadcasters to directly schedule the interactive services on their own channel, from their own premises.

Reducing operational cost

For most broadcasters and network operators, the question of going digital is a given. Benefits are both commercial and technical, and digitization of the worldwide broadcast industry is thus inevitable. The additional step to go interactive, however, seems to trigger hesitation, with one of the deterring factors being the operational cost of actually running the interactive services.

Globally, interactive broadcast networks now number almost 100, so the pioneering days are clearly over. Networks are now looking for more cost-effective solutions because they want to avoid the expensive mistakes of the pioneers. There are many ways to generate new revenue streams via interactivity, but we will concentrate here on what can be done on the cost side of the equation when operating interactive services.

Streamlining day-to-day operations

When looking more closely at the day-to-day activities of a broadcast network operator’s interactive platform operations team, we find that many tasks are performed manually and are time-consuming. A few of these tasks might be automated using scripts and cron-jobs (scheduled jobs within a dedicated system), but such solutions are hard to maintain and simply not sustainable from a long-term perspective.

Just as with broadcast management of audio and video, the introduction of a scheduling and automation system can effectively revolutionize the productivity of the operations team. Tasks such as introducing, scheduling, starting, stopping, updating, removing and archiving services and content can now be done easily through a graphical user interface rather than from a command line prompt that is prone to human error.

The major benefits of introducing an automation system for interactive television are:

  • Saving time when performing frequent tasks.
  • Not being required to have detailed technical expertise.
  • Reducing the risk of human errors.

Many broadcasters using interac-tivity are expressing frustration over mistakes made by the interactive platform operational teams. These mistakes include issues such as playing out an interactive service on the wrong TV channel, putting the wrong version of an interactive service to air, or starting playout of an interactive service too late or too early. These problems can be dramatically reduced by using an automation system to make sure the right elements of an interactive service are going to air at the right time, on the right channel. A clear authorization process will also reduce operational mistakes and cause less stress for network operators and broadcasters.

Freedom through scheduling

Because broadcasting television has become a 24/7 activity for most networks, the need for scheduling is pressing. It is also simply a question of allowing a greater level of flexibility for the operations team in its working environment.

A good scheduling system for interactivity should enable an interactive enhancement to be linked to a certain TV program or to be scheduled as an independent playout event. It should also facilitate the creation of playlists that allow day-parting — an absolute requirement for running interactive games in a dedicated games channel. After all, what is the point of offering children’s games at midnight when the bandwidth could have been used to offer poker and roulette instead?

Another item for consideration is whether interactive services require content within them to be updated frequently. Examples of such services are electronic program guides (EPGs), TV portals, information services and advertising. Services such as these will turn the viewer off if they do not display fresh and compelling content that is updated regularly. If your network provides such services, a scheduling system will prevent your operations team from losing time by churning content manually through the night.

Integration with existing systems

With the number of interactive enhancements related to programming and advertising growing, there is a strong need to have complete integration of the audio and video side with the interactive side. With these systems working in tandem, one single unified interface to manage all elements of a service could be created. While this isn’t exactly rocket science, it has yet to be implemented in many interactive platforms today.

Broadcasters in control of their own services

Most broadcast networks have a number of broadcasters feeding audio and video, as well as interactive services, into their broadcast center/headend. For the network’s operations team, this means a lot of extra work. That is especially so if the broadcasters show an appetite for dynamic services with a high level of content churn. This is not only tedious for the network operator, but also it is expensive. At the same time, broadcasters using interactivity are increasingly interested in achieving direct control of their interactive scheduling and content updates.

The problem is one of trust. Many network operators express concerns over the idea of granting even limited control of their interactive platform to the broadcasters. However, there is a growing consensus that this is exactly what is required to achieve true scalability in the process. After all, it makes a lot of sense to let the broadcasters take care of the programming, including the interactive side.

What is next?

Looking into the future of operational challenges faced by interactive television, an area still to be explored is the archiving of interactive services. Although saving files to disk is not difficult, fast and efficient retrieval can be a problem. How do you easily bring back last month’s interactive episode of “Temptation Island”? Where is the application stored? Does it still have all the associated content intact? What were the optimal bandwidth settings? The list of questions goes on, but an archiving system integrated with the scheduling and automation system could readily solve these problems.

Interactive television may well turn out to be one of the major innovations in broadcasting history. But if we fail to establish a lean cost structure, turning interactivity into a profitable business will be an uphill battle.

Sven Wolf is director of product development for software development company itv|world. To reach him, visit

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