Automation 2007 year in review

Automation remains a diverse market that caters to a wide range of broadcasters’ demands. At one end is the prime network, with frequent live inserts and a very high standard of presentation. At the other end, are those operating in the long tail of less frequently viewed content: cable, satellite and IPTV channels catering for niche demographic audiences where a low operating cost is mandated.

The automation vendors that supply this market cover this range of needs — from the network with video servers, MC switcher, logo insertion, graphics servers and ancillary equipment for captions and secondary languages through to the station-in-a-box running on a simple PC with a video card.

The station-in-a-box has become a popular way to automate, a consequence of the ever-increasing power of CPUs and graphics processors. These advances in computer technology now make it possible to use software running on a commodity platform to perform the tasks that once needed specialist broadcast video hardware. This means less need for external device control, which drives down costs.

Content distribution and archive
Closely tied to automation is asset management. Spots are distributed by satellite or fiber, and seamless integration of spot delivery with the video servers saves operator time and should reduce errors. File-based playout removes the need for tape carts rolling down the corridors between the library and master control; instead, the automation vendors offer archive management to store content in data tape silos. Most vendors provide interfaces to the middleware that moves data to and from the robots, and some have written their own code. The past year has seen these modules become part of the regular product line, rather than an expensive custom software contract.

Graphics automation
Branding has become very important for channels that want to stand out. The program promotions — the bumpers and stings — have been made at great cost in the edit suite and voice-over booth. This year saw a number of developments to automate the bulk of this work, leading to considerable savings in operating costs. With a feed of the upcoming transmission schedule and plenty of templates, graphics automation can create distinctive and dynamic branding with little operator intervention — truly a benefit of automation.

As stations try to optimize the advertising dollar, interaction between traffic/scheduling and the transmission schedule has become more important. Sending the playlist a day ahead, with the as-run log passed to accounts for monthly billing, seems pedestrian for fast-paced broadcasters. A big advance in 2007 was the introduction of the Broadcast Exchange Format (BXF) standard. This interface enables near real-time data interchange between third-party vendors that support the standard. In the past, these interfaces have always involved expensive custom coding, now it can be part of the product specification. With BXF, a break can be tweaked right up to the line, giving the sales department the utmost flexibility.

BXF is just one part of the general move to preserve and add metadata to content as it traverses the broadcasting processes. Metadata aids automation and media management processes, and it has become a core part of the graphics automation used in master control for the interstitial generation. The big drive again is to lower costs by removing human intervention from more and more of the transmission and playout process.

Playout services
As hardware and software costs fall, and the systems become simpler, there has been a corresponding rise in the use of the playout service provider. These companies provide broadcast services and asset management for a group of clients, and with the economies of scale, can offer the potential broadcasters an easy route to air or for established companies to provide a way to outsource and control costs.

Traditionally, automation and broadcast management software came from different vendors, but many channels are start-ups, with no allegiance to a specific sales/traffic product. Several automation companies now serve this new market with a complete solution that includes content workflow management, planning and device automation. For new entrants, the attraction of a single source provider can offer advantages.

In the coming year
2008 promises more features packed into the station-in-a-box products. Commodity GPUs used for 3-D graphics creation are equally well suited to the rendering of templated graphics in real time in master control. This can only improve the look of program junctions, essential for any creative channel branding.

As the move to video files frees TV broadcasters from the bonds of videotape with all its attendant manual operations, automation vendors can look beyond automating existing processes. In other industries, business process management (BPM) has delivered efficiencies and cost savings through better analysis process tools. Many vendors claim to offer service-oriented architectures (SOAs), which enable much of the data flow necessary for the implementation of BPM in a vendor-agnostic fashion. Will 2008 see developments in this area? Coverage leading up to NAB2008 should deliver some answers.