The bottom line on automation

Harris Automation, along with Leitch servers and routers, provides the backbone for HBO’s expansive playout facility. These systems enable HBO to deliver hundreds of services to multiple time zones with associated branding and language elements.

It wasn't so long ago that broadcasters first recognized the value of master control automation. In those early days, the key benefits included more reliable playout of commercials and fewer on-air mistakes. Oh, did I mention needing fewer operators? While the later factor may have been the key “unspoken” driver in the purchase of those early systems, that's no longer the case.

Today, broadcasters are looking for ways to deliver more media over more channels, of course without increasing staff. While the early driver of broadcast automation was primarly lower operating costs, the goal today is often additional revenue.

The harsh reality facing broadcasters is that the marketplace is increasingly fragmented by competing fare not just from the traditional players — cable, satellite and now telco — but also from new entertainment sources. These new competitors for the traditional OTA eyeballs include the Internet, video games, home theater, portable video/audio (MP3) players and other entertainment options. If that's not enough to make you cringe, under the current FCC must-carry rules, the cable and satellite companies, who control the pipeline to more than 70 percent of your viewers, are not required to carry any of your secondary DTV channels. What is a station manager to do?

The HBO Cinemax control room employs a Harris ADC-100 to manage the multichannel Cinemax services.

Show me the money

The key to profitability in this highly competitive environment is for stations to repackage and repurpose digital and heritage content. Stations must fill their DTV channels with such unique, innovative and valuable programming that cable and satellite services will choose to carry those channels — and viewers will watch them.

Enough of the challenges. Let's focus on the opportunities. Broadcasters now have multiple channels in which to deliver content to viewers. To fill these secondary DTV channels, stations must explore and embrace new programming models that can attract today's media-savvy viewers. Here are a few possible new revenue-producing streams.

  • Interactive advertising. These spots enable viewers to request more information using their remote controls.
  • T-Commerce. These programs and spots enable viewers to purchase a product or service via their remote.
  • Advanced EPGs. New guides could be advertiser sponsored.
  • Video on-demand. VOD enables viewers to search a menu of program choices and select a title to watch from that list with their remote.
  • Dynamic pop-up ads. These moving video ads, snipes or promos pop up on the screen during a program to ensure it will be viewed, even if a DVR is used to skip commercial breaks.
  • Streaming video over the station's Internet site (sponsored, of course).
  • Mobile TV. This requires reformatting, new resolutions and post-production. An estimated 125 million mobile handsets will be video-equipped within five years. Who has the hottest content — news and weather? Broadcasters!

Most of these new opportunities will require additional investment. Unfortunately, many broadcasters are still reeling from the money they have already spent on their DTV operations. For that reason alone, many are hesitant to invest again until they see how profitable DTV broadcasting is going to be.

Secret is in the workflow

In order to exploit new DTV programming opportunities, attract new audiences and generate additional revenues, broadcasters will need to make further investments in both automation and digital asset management (DAM) systems. While this capital outlay may be expensive, a solid return on this investment (ROI) can be realized within as little as 12 months.

Workflows that leverage media metadata provide an efficient means for managing encoding and delivery equipment. HBO uses Harris systems to automate the process of converting movies into different formats as part of its distribution operations.

Getting to that ROI comes down to:

  • Automating time-consuming processes such as ingest, which consume huge amounts of manpower.
  • Automating the time-intensive process of finding the media you do have, assuming it resides on servers and other digital storage systems.
  • Automating costly, mundane but necessary tasks, such as dubbing tapes and transcoding media files to different formats and resolutions.
  • Eliminating redundant efforts through centralized storage and media management. Centralized ingest, quality control and edge servers can save enormous amounts of manpower for group stations.
  • Preventing costly broadcast errors, such as missed commercials because of missing assets, improper timing or incorrect metadata.
  • Managing captioning, EBS, video programs description, PSIP and other data services. This will become a huge problem for stations as they begin multichannel operations.

The key is metadata

The enabler of all of these and even more functionality is metadata. Metadata is the hook that enables intelligent broadcast automation and DAM systems to make critical decisions about everything from ingest, to playout, PSIP generation, captioning and EBS — all the way to archive storage and retrieval.

Once the broadcast facility is equipped to define and handle metadata, the next step is to increasingly automate the broadcast workflow. Typical operational tasks include media ingest, video and audio format conversion, media movement, quality control checks, and play-to-air.

The Harris ADC-100 provides dual comprehensive redundancy mangement and failover capability.

When media arrives at the station — whether it is a live satellite feed, a videotape or a digital file — it is typically accompanied by metadata that describes the content. Ideally, both the media and associated metadata are automatically ingested simultaneously, and the two remain associated throughout the content handling workflow process.

Unfortunately, there isn't really a “how to” metadata standard for broadcast automation and asset management. In fact, there isn't even an “official” metadata dictionary. This means that each station needs to carefully consider what metadata is needed, how to define the fields and then map this information to the tasks that need to be completed.

Typically, metadata provides such identifying information as the program title and type, video format, run-time, house number and perhaps usage rights. All of these characteristics must be understood by both the humans and the equipment in your station. Only then can the technology manage the broadcast workflow that must take place in an efficient, automated way.

For example, if the metadata indicates the incoming commercial is 00:00:29:16 long, then an automation system can automatically ingest that media without needing to have an operator manually time it. Considering the amount of programming that pours into the typical station, just having this key piece of information can save tremendous amounts of time and free personnel to perform more important tasks.

A good illustration of how metadata can facilitate a broadcast workflow is shown in Figure 1. The five basic steps show media moving from ingest through file conversion, storage, traffic and delivery to a playout server. Such a workflow is seamless, efficient and operates in the background, leaving the station staff free for other duties.

Figure 1. The key to monitizing broadcast content is an integrated metadata flow. The appropriate data must be captured at ingest or generated as the content is produced. For defined media to be fully monitized, the metadata must be accurately maintained through the entire production and transmission process. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.

In addition to the typical OTA playout, other workflow tasks should be handled by the automation platform. This workflow centers on the creation and post-production of content for new delivery platforms.

The automation system should be able to generate the proper versions and formats for mobile and webcasting operations. These tasks should automatically take place in the background, merely providing reports to the system operators that all the needed versions have been generated and are ready for air or that operator intervention is needed.

FCC requirements

The expansion of DTV means a wealth of new information must be transmitted. These requirements center on generating captions, visual program descriptions, transmitting proper EAS announcements and PSIP.

The FCC has fined several stations this year for failure to provide proper captioning, or permitting excessive commercials in defined children's-programming hours. A properly-implemented automation system could have monitored these operations and either generated the needed captions, prevented the broadcast of too many commercials in kiddy shows or signaled the need for operator intervention.

A station's PSIP signal will increasingly become critical to viewership, and stations will want to be sure their listings are correct and up-to-date. When last-minute changes in programming occur, the automation system should automatically update the PSIP schedule.

With multiple 24-hour channels now the norm, there is no practical way for a station to ensure FCC compliance for all of these requirements without the support of a metadata-equipped automation system.

Rainbow Network Communications uses Invenio, Harris’ media asset management system, to manage the programming and distribution of material for 14 cable network clients.

The need for DAM

To take full advantage of new DTV opportunities, broadcasters will need to make yet another investment in powerful, sophisticated digital asset management capabilities. These new systems will need to be integrated with the station's broadcast automation.

To achieve maximum workflow benefits, it's vital that the asset management system and broadcast automation products be open, integrated, modular, scalable and Web services-enabled. Using open standards ensures that rich media files will move along the workflow pipeline automatically and efficiently.

In addition to being able to keep the day-to-day operation humming along, an effective DAM should perform the indispensable job of maintaining and updating the vital metadata associated with every media file that is created. Even if you don't want to air that particular piece of content today, you may need it later. Will you be able to find it?

For broadcasters with large libraries, searching for a desired media file without a proper asset management system is like looking for a needle in a haystack. In the time-sensitive broadcast business, time spent searching for media assets results in lost opportunities. The faster a sought-after piece of media can be found, the sooner revenue-producing decisions can be made about its use.

Keeping metadata current

Every day a TV station receives perhaps dozens of commercials, ENG news feeds, live and taped network feeds, and special interest programming, such as video news releases or infomercials — all of which have important metadata attached.

As the media arrives, a sophisticated DAM solution should be able to update the media's own metadata records by adding any house numbers or identifiers, all without human intervention. Once the DAM system is able to generate and update metadata to both traffic systems and automation systems automatically, then operators don't need to get involved. The result is fewer errors.

Without this level of integration between a DAM and modern automation system, broadcasters will find it impossible to physically handle all of the tasks related to tracking and managing their ever-growing media archives.

Archives are no longer those dusty, old, barely-labeled tapes in a back room. Today's archive may consist of terabytes of data — all invisibly recorded onto a server. Without a good DAM, there is no way to monetize that investment.

Building an archive

The process of ingesting a station's existing, tape-based media assets to digital media archives, complete with metadata can seem a monumental process. Some stations may choose to not do so.

Broadcasters also may hesitate to commit to a DAM solution for fear that their investment in building a digital media archive with their chosen metadata method will become obsolete. While it's true that some DAM solutions are closed and proprietary, others are open-standards based, allowing broadcasters to configure their metadata in any manner required.

Ideally, the most seamless interface might result from a single-vendor DAM, traffic, and automation solution. In reality, most installations are hybrids, with bridges between the various components.

The bottom line benefit

Initially, the digitization of rich media was seen as simply better quality pictures. Today, savvy broadcasters realize that digital media affords them many new benefits beyond a pristine picture. This includes the ability to develop new products and channels along with revenue options that never existed in analog. Stations can now produce, manage and transmit media to additional OTA broadcast channels, station Internet Web sites, VOD and mobile video applications.

For those stations willing to step to the plate by investing in integrated automation and digital asset management tools will be well poised to provide these new services — and reap the accompanying profits. The time to begin considering these opportunities and how your station will take advantage of them is now.

Chris Lennon is product manager, Automation Solutions, Broadcast Communications Division, Harris.