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Television automation: Robots and autonomous machines

There was a time when radio broadcasting was beginning, and I suspect to a degree when experimental television was first tried, that decisions were made on the spur of the moment about what the day’s programming would consist of. Disc jockeys to a degree have some autonomy in some settings still today, though the consolidation in the broadcast business has probably made that difficult as well.

As the complexity of an organization rises, and spontaneity calls, the broadcast schedule becomes the ruler of the day. And as the cost of business rises in any industry, the urge to automate and lower the cost of labor takes over some business decisions. In our business, automation has become one of a few recurring themes that management feels compelled to explore in an effort to curb the rise in labor cost.

In the television business, true automation has not been possible for very long. When quad tape needed to be loaded and cued by skilled technicians, automation was at most a way to start devices that were highly manual in nature. No time code existed to permit cueing under computer control, and running a quad tape without a technician to save it when adjustments were needed would have been a recipe for disaster. Until modern microprocessor based systems became available, automation tended to be quite proprietary to manufacturers of robotic videotape playback systems and master control switchers. How things have changed!

For a simple automation requirement, one can purchase what I will call “server automation” for under $20,000. Such software is available from several manufacturers and can process air logs from most traffic systems, ingest material from videotape recorders, and control server playout and a simple cuts-only switcher for output of the assembled program stream. It might even roll program segments from videotape in that class of products. Such a system is a natural replacement for an aging cart machine, but will not get you through the DTV transition without upgrades.

Encoda provides asset management solutions that create integrated workflows for every type of facility, as well as new media operations.

For a more complex requirement you can purchase a system that adds control of a master control switcher, playout VTRs, and other peripheral devices, like branding “boxes” or graphics systems for weather and school closing information. As the number of controlled devices grows, so does the cost, and to a degree, the complexity. When picking an automation system there are a number of issues to be considered. Along with the initial cost, one must decide whether software that is licensed and requires an annual license renewal cost is appropriate, or a product that you pay a one-time fee for and after that only perhaps a maintenance fee for upgrades and manufacturer support. You certainly could also pay for support only when you need it, but late at night is not the time to be trying to issue a purchase order for support costs while the station is off the air.

Device control can be done in a couple of ways. Some manufacturers have the control hardware in the PC running the system. Others have stand-alone device control engines that receive commands to find, cue and play media from the central system, but after that operate autonomously to execute the command, reporting back when they have accomplished the task requested. Some manufacturer’s device engines have storage for a number of events, which allows the system some independence in the event of LAN/WAN difficulty, and provided independence when the central processing engine is too busy to supervise every event.

The language spoken on the control lines is generally based on a protocol developed by either SMPTE or one of a small number of manufacturers who have developed proprietary solutions that have been offered as open standards to the industry. One is Louth’s VDCP, which is almost universally used to control servers. VDCP allows the automation system to send the name of a clip and the time it needs to play to the server, and it allows the server to take it from there. Sony and Panasonic’s machine protocols, and the machine specific variants of them, allow VTRs to be controlled ubiquitously. Other devices, like graphics “branding” systems, do not have general-purpose languages for support, and interfaces are custom to each automation vendor.

Some automation systems use separate computers for individual software-controlled operations. For instance, a separate program and computer may be used for media preparation, including the control of the VTR. Another computer may run the master database of media and events and a third might control the air schedule itself. Such a network of automation-related computers has the ability to create a topsy-turvy mess, so plan on having a network certified technician on staff administer the network.

Ingest of syndicated programs from satellite may not be supported as a standard feature and you should explicitly get information from an automation vendor about a satellite record module and what it interfaces to. In the future, companies like PathFire may well distribute both the program and the metadata containing timing and segment information in a form that can be directly transferred into a server and automation database with a minimum of manual intervention.

Evaluating automation options should be done in concert with the business side of the station. The capabilities of traffic to support output in a form useful to a specific automation system is important, and capabilities like closed loop reconciliation might be high on their list of must-have items. While cost is always important these days, if centralized operations are in your future you should bring in experts from other parts of the company, or outside experts, to ensure that the decision is one that will work for the long haul. Listen carefully to arguments from automation vendors about traffic interface, brand and topology for servers, and archive and asset management strategy. They will have good ideas, but they view life from their own unique vantage point. At the end of the day, broadcasters know their own operations best and should heed their own advice.

Lastly, multichannel operations in DTV will be very difficult to manage without automation. If you anticipate multiplexed operations in DTV, be wary of choosing an automation vendor who cannot demonstration.

John Luff is vice president of business development for AZCAR.