Over the past five years or so, the emergence of fully integrated systems that automate the production of local newscasts and other programs has been met with both excitement and skepticism. People usually get excited when they hear that a single operator can run an entire newscast, but they are more than a bit apprehensive when replacing a workflow they clearly understand.
The real question is whether these IT-centric systems are powerful and stable enough to replace the traditional video hardware and software devices that have been a staple of local newscast, sports, entertainment and even Web-based production.
“Your newscast is your most important asset at a TV station, so you don't want to trust the production to an unproven technology; it would be suicide” said Walt Nichol, director of technology at KMOV-DT, the CBS affiliate in St. Louis, MO. “That being said, we’re always looking for ways to improve operating costs and streamline production. We have to in order to stay competitive in a very challenging economic time.”
The general consensus is that the technology has become more robust and reliable; although, implementation and training can be tricky if not done with a carefully planned migration path.
Crewless HD news production
At the end of last September, KMOV went live with a Grass Valley Ignite HD automated production system, which uses transition macro elements (TMEs), graphical icons that represent full production functions, to allow one person to call up stories and graphic elements and play them to air. The station’s Ignite system is used with an existing Vinten Radamec HD robotic camera system, Avid HD servers, a Bitcentral HD editing platform and Chyron HyperX HD graphics. KMOV also purchased a Klotz Digital audio mixing console for the Ignite system to handle stereo audio feeds. The latest version of the Ignite HD system also controls Calrec audio boards.
“We’re very attracted to the cost savings we anticipate enjoying as a result of installing the Ignite system,” Nichol said. “We’re the first station to go with control room automation within the (Belo) group, and based on our success so far, I’m sure we won't be the last.”
The Grass Valley Ignite HD system, which has been sold to nearly 200 stations across the country, can be ordered with one to four M/Es, up to 32 control ports, and is scalable from 24 to 96 video inputs and 24 to 96 audio inputs. The control room system offers a Grass Valley Kayak HD video switcher, audio mixer and teleprompter, all integrated under the control of a single software interface that allows a single operator to run an entire newscast. Optional video and audio panels are available for broadcasters who want to operate the system manually. The key for customers is that they are not compromising functionality or adding unnecessary complexity when using these integrated systems, and redundant power and other features are now included to ensure performance and stability.
When Broadcast Pix, another vendor of such all-in-one systems that borrows heavily from both the computer and video production worlds, moved its platform from a native 480p processing engine, Slate, to full HD (1080p30) last summer in its new Granite switcher, it began to see increased business from customers wanting to produce their shows in HD.
Turner Broadcasting, in Atlanta, is one customer that was waiting for the upgrade to add HD resolution to its online sports programs (NBA, NASCAR and collegiate sports). Turner had purchased several Slate systems for SD production, and then migrated to the Granite when it began shipping. Other customers include CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, ESPN, PBS, Microsoft, HP, Cisco, many local broadcast stations, Internet broadcasters, production trucks, stadiums, staging companies, corporations, universities, houses of worship and government agencies.
“It’s been challenging for us to get the product to where it is today, but it was worth the R&D effort because the Granite platform can do so much more and still provides a good value for the customer,” said Ken Swanton, president of Broadcast Pix. “Customers like a file-based workflow, even when doing webcasting, and they want full-HD capability. We live in a world where HD is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity.”
Each Broadcast Pix system includes a one- or two-M/E HD video production switcher, multiview software, CG, clip and graphic stores, and aspect and format conversion features. The company has also developed an app for the Apple iPad, iPixPanel, which allows the ubiquitous tablet device to control any Slate or Granite video production system wirelessly.
Integrated and fully featured
Indeed, while these systems might be less expensive than a collection of production technology boxes, customers expect them to be just as full of features and capable of producing all types of digital video programs as a control room with a separate switcher, CG, clip store and audio mixing console. Broadcast Pix’s systems support file-based production and add Fluent macros to make it easy for the operator to find and include prebuilt audio and video clips and graphic elements into a production.
The company recently developed larger control panels, which will be shown at the 2011 NAB Show, for its new 2000 (one-M/E panel) and existing 5000 series (two-M/E panel, with dual device control and a connected Granite clip server) systems.
“There is an ever-increasing need within our industry to implement a production system that can be operated by a single operator,” Swanton said. “It goes beyond just trying to save money or reduce staff. Some media companies want to launch new channels quickly. Systems like ours allow you to experiment and do more traditional things in the quickest and most efficient way.”
Webcasting the action
Local government agencies, colleges and other institutions with limited budgets, as well as productions done exclusively for the Web (with their scaled-down production teams and facilities), seem to be a good fit for integrated production systems.
NewTek, with its TriCaster TCXD850 HD production system, has also seen steadily improving business among professionals producing content for the Web. The TriCaster was recently used to stream pregame coverage of Super Bowl XLV from Dallas live via Yahoosportslive.com and for the ESPN Winter X Games 15 in Aspen, CO, Jan. 27-30, at Facebook.com/xgames.
TriCaster users can simultaneously produce, live stream, broadcast, project and record HD and SD productions. A single operator can switch between multiple cameras, virtual inputs and live virtual sets while inserting clips, titles and motion graphics with multichannel effects.
“When it comes to live events, especially action sports, producers, directors and content editors are always looking for ways to offer their fans more,” said Philip Nelson, senior vice president of strategic development at NewTek.
The company recently introduced a hardware control surface to replace the TriCaster’s computer keyboard. It provides a physical connection to the 24-channel system’s functions and effects, including illuminated push buttons, twist knobs, a premium T-bar and three-axis joystick.
The idea is to make the operator that might be well-versed in running a traditional production switcher comfortable with a system that is controlled with a keyboard and mouse. With a series of virtual input rows on the new control panel, users can create complex switcher effects and assign them as switcher channels, including live virtual sets and picture-in-picture elements. In addition, a new utility row offers a simple way to assign video streams to TriCaster’s auxiliary video output and downstream key elements.
Perhaps the biggest development with any of these integrated production systems is that broadcasters, at both the local and national level, appear more willing than ever to trust the technology and the benefits that they can bring to their production workflow.
“Basically, we’re doing everything we did manually before we got the Ignite, and the newscasts are now running a lot smoother,” said KMOV’s Nichol. “We do very complex newscasts, so we’re pushing the system to its limits and it is responding well.”
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