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The bold and the bountiful: Graphics for multiple media

Hungary’s EchoTV airs 24 hours of local and international financial news in Central Europe. It uses VertigoXmedia’s Xmedia Suite for graphics creation and management, as well as the VertigoXG graphics system for playout of two tickers and on-air graphics.

Today's media consumers are demanding: They want their news and programs on their terms, not yours. Thanks to advances in a variety of digital and mobile technologies, viewers will soon watch what they want, when they want and wherever they want at any particular time. This seismic shift in viewer behavior will silently wreak havoc on production facilities throughout the world.

As TV ceases to be a true “mass medium,” it will no longer be enough to simply produce news programs that are interesting, informative and timely. The news will also have to be available on a number of different media. Broadcasters who fail to display their content over many sources may simply cease to exist as viewers, and revenues, dwindle. But with new tools, workflows and processes that streamline graphics production for different media, broadcasters can easily reach viewers through the Internet, mobile phones and interactive Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) channels. Adopting these new, cost-effective approaches ensures that broadcast facilities will prosper even as viewers adopt new consumption habits.

New drivers

Several technological advances in broadcasting and other technology sectors will have a significant impact on broadcasters' business. In broadcasting, the arrival of digital television, or DTV, has resulted in the introduction of additional broadcast channels that are either complementary or completely new from the initial channel.

EchoTV considers on-air graphics to be a critical component of programming. Graphics are essential to demonstrating financial trends, such as the price of stock over a six-month period, and they are less expensive to produce than video.

This means more content needs to be created and managed with as little additional resources as possible. Broadcasters now need graphics that reflect the branding of each individual channel. In addition, cross-promotion across the different channels also has introduced additional bumper graphics that need to be scheduled and played out at appropriate times. This significant increase in authoring, scheduling and management of content can quickly overwhelm existing staff.

HDTV adoption hasn't been as aggressive in Europe as in North America, but it is slowly starting to appear. It's only a matter of time before it's adopted on a wider scale. The impact of the addition of the HD format is felt in the newsroom as broadcasters must now create and convert graphics and video in the appropriate formats. For example, a news program with lower thirds and over-the-shoulder graphics in SD also needs to create those same graphics in HD for simultaneous playout. This represents yet another complication and increase in volume in the graphics creation and management process.

TV to go

Changes in other technologies unrelated to television will be equally disruptive. Mobile phones are a good example. Though not yet a rival to television, the availability of real-time video on video-enabled phones will further change viewers' consumption habits. Though it remains to be seen exactly how much mobile phone users will pay for such services, their availability will make them unavoidable as an alternate channel, much like the Internet.

So what does this mean for graphics? More of them will be required, of course. Video content, either repurposed or completely new, will require yet another format and frequency of graphics. A video news segment, for example, may be enhanced with a lower-third graphic, created to fit a mobile phone screen, along with a full-screen graphic to illustrate or support the news story on television.

Telcos do TV

Another advance set to change the television landscape is IPTV. This offers a variety of channels similar to cable or satellite TV, delivered to your TV, using a phone line.

Telecom operators are eager to offer IPTV as part of a triple play — phone service, Internet and TV — in an effort to retain customers and revenues. Telecom operators are introducing IPTV services that will offer a number of channels as well as interactivity via a set-top box.

Though interactive television has had a few false starts, especially in North America, there is a real opportunity to augment programming, to order VOD programs and chat via your TV screen. It's obvious that once again, this will entail repurposing video content and creating more graphics to support this additional interactivity.

Hyper local content

Another trend driving an increase of content is the viewers' seemingly insatiable appetite for timely local, or hyper local, news such as breaking news stories, weather information, financial stock data, local sports results, traffic reports and school closing information. The hyper in this case refers to specific neighborhoods, not just cities or counties. Without a heavily automated approach to news production, it becomes almost impossible to report the volume and frequency required to remain relevant as a media outlet.

So many graphics, so little time

One of the biggest challenges facing broadcasters is overcoming the inertia associated with current workflow processes. This reluctance to change what already works combined with the technical hurdles that must be overcome provide a daunting challenge to any broadcaster interested in pursuing the promise of automated graphics production in this multiformat era.

Broadcasters who successfully solve the issues associated with producing content in a digital environment for multiple output channels stand to make enormous gains in efficiency and quality of programming, not to mention revenues.

The most common approach in the industry to addressing this need has been to create multiple parallel production processes, each involving its own resources, for each individual delivery medium. Duplication of effort, increased capital and human resource requirements, as well as the increased risk of errors, all have contributed to the slow rate of adoption of many exciting new technologies that will enable true cross-media productions.

In order to fully realize the benefits of an integrated approach to graphics management, it is necessary to adopt a system architecture that facilitates collaboration, while at the same time minimizing overall production effort. Experience suggests that this can best be achieved through a distributed process that allows content producers to share centrally managed resources across an entire facility, or across multiple facilities in a distributed network.

Template-based content

Underlying an efficient graphics production workflow for multiple output channels is the concept of templated graphics. In this context, templates are smart components that not only define the look of the final graphics output, but also what assets are required for the final output and where they are located on the network.

By employing a templated graphics approach, EchoTV has significantly reduced the number of production staff required in the newsroom.

Assets can include animated video clips, audio clips, graphics images and even data. Templates define the production logic behind the final graphic output, including behaviors of animated elements, data sources for dynamic text and image elements, and information describing how the graphic element is to be used in the broadcast production.

Templates are created, edited and played to air by multiple users in a distributed environment. Applications are provided for performing tasks such as developing templates or creating new versions of graphics based on existing templates. Templates can be shared between users via a centralized asset server, which makes template information available to all applications.

A new approach

Using a templated approach to graphics, content can be created once and seamlessly shared between media channels, allowing the same team of content producers to create and manage the content for all channels. Productions can be designed to combine different media channels into a single production, such as voting applications, where viewers submit feedback or vote on issues via SMS, with the results displayed as broadcast graphics updated in real-time. Journalists working in their newsroom system can create stories for the live news production, with graphics elements that will be displayed in conjunction with a particular story during the broadcast, as well as graphics that will be used on the Web site, on mobile TV and on IPTV by choosing from a library of pre-created templates.

Frequent updates to on-air graphics for any output channel also become more manageable with the templated graphics approach. Smart templates with built-in links to live data sources allow new content to be automatically inserted, repurposed and controlled on-air with a minimum amount of human intervention.

The bold

A few bold broadcasters are already working toward the goal of having a single newsroom generating content for both their TV broadcast and other media channels. On 15 September 2005, EchoTV, the first channel in Central Europe dedicated to reporting local and international financial news, was launched. Based in Hungary, EchoTV airs 24 hours of financial, weather and other news to viewers in the region. The facility was created with a budget of less than E1 million and is totally IP-based from cameras to playout. The production is so efficient it can even operate with no camera personnel.

For EchoTV, on-air graphics are considered a critical component of programming. Its programming features two live tickers, as well as numerous full-screen, lower third and over-the-shoulder graphics.

Not only are graphics essential to demonstrating financial trends such the price of a stock over a six-month period, but also they are much less expensive to produce than video. The broadcaster's producers felt that graphics could easily augment the on-air programming when expensive video was impossible to obtain with short notice. For example, an image of a reporter overlayed on a map with a voice-over would be sufficient in a breaking news situation when live video is not yet available.

The broadcaster uses an integrated media suite for graphics creation and management, as well as a similar system for the playout of two tickers and on-air graphics. Though the tasks are currently split between the two systems, each of the systems can handle all the graphics, if required. EchoTV has programmers who pre-create a number of templates that include extensive production logic, with links to real-time data. Text in templates is obtained from drop-down menus, icons are automatically generated depending on the text, and live data is automatically updated. That has significantly reduced the number of production staff required in the newsroom.

The broadcaster has plans to broadcast to new media channels in the coming year, hoping to take advantage of the new 3.5G High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) mobile networks that have a data transmission rate of up to 10Mb/s. Given the investment it has already made in its graphics system, adding a new media channel will not be disruptive to its existing workflow. It will simply add new template formats that its journalists can download into their stories for each medium, allowing them to add new delivery channels with few additional resources. That's a smart approach.

Darin Crosby is president, broadcast solutions, at VertigoXmedia.