Technology in Transition: Newsroom automation systems

When college students attend classes in broadcast journalism today they are pretty unlikely to be exposed to manual typewriters, paper roll teleprompters and news distributed on teletype machines. The tools of every trade change and broadcast news has been truly transformed by technology in the last two decades. Film cameras have been replaced with camcorders of palm size, film processing has been replaced by non-linear editing and satellite links to live events worldwide, and the blizzard of paper created in a newsroom has transformed into a complex interconnected network of computers which acquire, store, collate, manage and publish the content which makes news so immediate and compelling for the public.

In this second in a series on station automation and asset management we explore the changes technology has brought to the process of writing, editing and approving the content of newscasts. Television is much more than just images, for the content is the message of television. Our highly technical industry forgets that the purpose is programs too often. Broadcast newsroom automation systems demonstrate the best in technology, where complex tools have evolved to allow the journalists to concentrate on the content instead of the process. A well-implemented newsroom automation system can speed the creation and editing of the content and manage the flow of the broadcast in the control room and studio during the few minutes when the work of the journalist is featured live, hopefully without warts.

Production and management strategies which would have been simply impossible are facilitated. For instance, it is now possible to browse content on the journalist’s laptop while in a moving vehicle on the way back to the station from a location. The script can be transmitted directly to the news director and editor to begin cutting a story before the crew has returned, and it can literally be on the air while the tail of the same story is still being cut. Without new tools for new approaches to content, the immediacy of television news would be diminished.

Newsroom automation systems are a complex database and communication system at their root. They provide links between video, audio, graphics and text, and allow the sorting of the media objects into a sequence for eventual play to air. The first (widely available) such system, devoid of many of the features of the current crop of products, was developed by a British company in the 80’s and 90’s (BASYS, which was absorbed into AVID in the 90’s). BASYS was a character mode application, as were most applications in that era. It ran on a DEC platform (now part of Compaq), and used ASCII terminals for users. It provided the ability to pull wire copy (AP, UPI, Reuters) into a database, sort the stories into directories, and allow the journalist to create scripts for stories and send them to an editor for insertion in a running order. Control over peripheral devices was not initially provided (character generators, playlists for control of cart machines and VTRs, etc.). As with any new market, once a product class is defined by one innovator, other inventors look for ways to improve it and extend its capabilities.

The result of the cycles of competition is a rich set of tools and capabilities available from several major players and a few smaller companies as well. One of the innovators was in fact one of the providers of news wire services, AP, who clearly saw integrating their service offering completely into a newsroom automation system as facilitating their long-term service business.

These products are all about features. Some things you should look for are the ability to keep accurate timings in the assembled program and facilitate changes in show rundown at any point up to and even during an event on air. You should be able to use drag and drop tools to re-order stories, add stories or kill stories. You should be able to create a template for your normal running order and reuse it daily with new content. Commonly available word processing tools like spelling and grammar checking should be part of the package. The system should be able to keep story assignments and allow users to see easily what they have been assigned to. Some systems keep contact phone books and even equipment inventories and maintenance records within their comprehensive set of tools inside the newsroom (though that may overlap with other station management solutions). As was the case with the first BASYS system, current systems allow messaging, e-mail and other paradigms.

Control over hardware is an important function in modern systems. The ability to call up stillstore pages, set running order on video servers playing back finished stories, load and call up character generator pages, and provide teleprompter outputs (or interface to third party teleprompting systems) are very important. In the last few years the ability to browse the content on newsroom video server systems, and even do simple cuts-only editing on projects, has risen to the top of the must have feature lists. This, however, raises the specter of new issues that are complex to understand and manage during implementation.

Interfacing complex software products developed with proprietary feature sets is not for the faint of heart. A common software interface specification, Media Object Server Communication Protocol, or MOS for short, has been developed by a consortium of companies concerned about finding effective ways to manage the interfaces. More than two-dozen companies are participating in the development, which originated with The Associated Press in the late 90’s. By implementing MOS, manufacturers facilitate the extension of the hardware and software solutions in the newsroom. Ingest, storage, archive, browse and editing software and hardware need to communicate effectively with each other and MOS is one standardized element of the landscape of communication necessary to harmonize the entire electronic newsroom. MOS can exchange messages about the status of devices and requests as well as just issuing unidirectional requests in a standardized environment.

Browsing and editing have moved from the very large station to a much more affordable price range. In a nutshell, a low bit rate “proxy” of the full bandwidth video is stored on a server and it can be the same server as where the full bit rate resides. Clients to the browse server application gain access to a shared library of media and metadata and provide low bandwidth usually less than full screen copies of the content on conventional unmodified workstations running Windows. These files may be MPEG1, RealVideo or Windows Media Player copies. Some manufacturers allow the desktop user to do simple edit point marks and save them to an edit decision list which can be sent to an editing room where the full bandwidth is conformed in a session which can add audio and video effects and titles. The linkage between the original content and the edited version is (hopefully) updated to indicate that an edited version of the content is available. Once the cut story is conformed it is made available to the playout server system, which the newsroom computer system can then sequence into the playlist.

Though these systems are becoming quite mature, you should be aware of the need to pay for full service maintenance agreements to keep it working to peak efficiency. Most systems can be purchased with a reduced feature set and expanded later to include advanced options, though you should ask what impact future feature implementation would have on the initial hardware purchased. Next month this series concludes with a review of MAM, Media Asset Management systems.

John Luff is vice president of business development for AZCAR.